If you believe in Europe, then reject this Treaty
Those of us committed to true European ideals should challenge the EU oligarchy's disdain for democracy and demand a referendum.
It is not surprising that Gordon Brown’s government has decided not to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, which now masquerades as the Lisbon Treaty.
Although in the aftermath of the Dutch and French electorates’ rejection of the proposed Constitution New Labour did promise to hold a referendum, it has always been reluctant to test the public on this issue. The pretence that the Lisbon Treaty does not represent a fundamental change to the make-up of the EU allows New Labour ministers to wriggle out of their earlier commitment to a referendum. Through representing the Lisbon Treaty as a relatively minor technical amendment, various European governments hope to depoliticise this important change to the way that the continent is managed. Distancing the EU from public debate, and elevating it over the people’s say-so… that appears to be the main tactic of EU supporters these days.
Many observers have commented on the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ that afflicts the European Union and its institutions. Even some of the EU’s most ardent advocates are frequently embarrassed by its bureaucratic, top-down approach. Nevertheless, these advocates have little inhibition about doing whatever it takes to insulate the institutions of the EU from popular pressure.
I am constantly struck by the way that numerous ‘democratic’ thinkers focus their emotional and intellectual energies on denouncing the allegedly ‘anti-democratic’ impulse of those who rejected the Constitution in 2005. At least Jurgen Habermas, the pro-EU German political theorist, had the good grace to praise the French for their ‘bravery’ in holding the 2005 referendum. Others have dismissed the gesture of consulting public opinion with open contempt. With a deeply patronising tone, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarked that ‘if you don’t believe that the mood of the people is something akin to the mouth of truth, then a referendum is a mistake, not only for formal reasons but also in terms of political reality’.
According to Sloterdijk, the French plebiscite opened ‘the way for xenophobia to articulate itself’. It seems that when people are left to themselves, to express their views as they see fit, what tends to come out of their mouth is not ‘truth’ but ‘xenophobia’. In the same vein, the French critic and philosopher, Paul Virilio, claimed that ‘under the appearance of democratic openness, the French referendum on the European Constitution increasingly appears as a denial of democracy’. From this perspective, it seems that ‘democracy’ is something that should be left to those who know better than the public; the ‘democratic’ ideal can apparently only be realised by the highly educated wing of the EU political oligarchy.
The most striking thing about the elites’ current promotion of the Lisbon Treaty (or the Not-The-Constitution) is not simply the cynical and disdainful way in which the case for a referendum is dismissed; even more significant is the fact that there cannot really be a substantive debate on the Constitution, for the simple reason that there is no coherent pro-European outlook to motivate the people of Europe.
Observers often confuse the pro-EU sensibility of the oligarchy with a pro-European outlook. In truth, support for the EU is driven predominantly by pragmatic and instrumental concerns rather than by a fundamental adherence to any European ideal. For example, in the UK, there is a notable absence of any expression of a mature pro-European standpoint. ‘One of the problems for the Blair government has been that in opposition Labour never worked out what being pro-European meant’, writes a former economic advisor to Downing Street (1).
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Even in Germany, where the political class has embraced the ideal of European unification to compensate for its loss of authority after the Second World War, the EU is regarded instrumentally - as an institution that’s ‘good’ because it works rather than because it has a profound meaning to the people. Rhetorical commitment to the ‘European ideal’ notwithstanding, there is little content to the cosmopolitan discourse on Europe. Indeed, every time the term ‘European ideal’ is used, the oligarchy risks being exposed as an emperor without clothes.
Despite appearances, the political oligarchy is not passionately pro-European. It lacks a political language or any ideals that might give Europe some meaning. That is why those who celebrate and uphold the EU are not necessarily pro-European. National governments are happy to participate in the EU because it relieves them of the need to take direct responsibility for many policy initiatives and measures. Frequently, they can shrug their shoulders and say: well, these policies emanate from a technocratic, supra-national body, the EU. In earlier times, national governments jealously guarded their policymaking processes and prerogatives. Today, they are eager to subordinate themselves to EU protocols, and to ‘share’ authority with others.
The voluntary relinquishing of sovereignty by European elites does not show that they are high-minded, forward-looking, enlightened internationalists. Or even that they are fervently pro-European. It merely shows that an insecure oligarchy is happy to work through institutions that allow it to disavow full responsibility for its actions.
The real challenge facing those of us who are genuinely devoted to European culture and civilisation is not right-wing populism, xenophobia or small-minded parochial nationalism. In so far as those sentiments exist, they are often a response to the contemptuous manner in which popular aspirations are dismissed by an oligarchy that passionately believes it knows what is best for the people. Those who are devoted to European ideals must take a more critical stance on the EU. It is not good enough to point up the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ or its bureaucratic practices. We need to put forward a compelling case for holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and for its rejection by the people.
Even more importantly, we need to engage our publics in a mature discussion about the European Union. In the end, the biggest threat to democracy is not the EU itself but the mood of apathy and disengagement that it fosters throughout the continent.
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(1) Derek Scott quoted in The Triumph Of The Political Class, Peter Oborne, Simon & Schuster, 2007 p99