The reawakening of European democracy

The French people's rejection of the EU Constitution represents a positive political event.

Anybody who genuinely feels bound to Europe should be pleased that the French people have said ‘Non’ to the EU Constitution, and to those who arrogantly asserted that they had no alternative but to vote ‘Oui’ in the referendum on Sunday.

Advocates of the proposed EU Constitution, in France and elsewhere, didn’t so much argue for it as present it as a fait accompli. Time and again, Europeans have been warned that there is no Plan B, no alternative to the Constitution. This message - that there is no real choice - threatened to deprive the French referendum of any political meaning. Historically, democratic politics has represented the possibility of choice and the denial of fate, and has been underpinned by the idea that the democratic imagination can envisage a Plan B, and even a Plan C.

By contrast, the statement ‘There is only one proposal on the table’ and only one right answer to give in a referendum on the EU Constitution is a diktat that runs counter to democracy. Fortunately, this attempt to blackmail the French electorate into accepting Plan A failed to intimidate the majority. And the outcome represents a major setback for the politics of technocratic managerialism.

EU technocrats need the Constitution to pursue their agenda of endless institution-building. From their perspective, consulting the people is a distraction; its sole purpose is to use referenda to endow their decisions with a measure of legitimacy. Many EU operatives believe that the public are too stupid to comprehend complex things like the EU Constitution and therefore do not take our views very seriously. Back in 2003, Chris Bryant of the British-based Labour Movement for Europe explained his ambivalence about holding a referendum:

‘I confess that I am not a big supporter of referendums. I believe that they are especially inappropriate when trying to deal with the intricacies of creating a treaty. Let us examine the facts. The draft constitutional treaty has 565 clauses, five protocols and two declarations. The vast majority are almost identical to those in previous treaties, but it is important to scrutinise the document line by line, clause by clause, not simply subject it to a question of “yes” or “no”. Although a referendum might be appropriate for Pop Idol, when deciding whether Gareth Gates or Will Young should win, it is unsuitable for examining a treaty. That needs to be done with due diligence and only Parliament can do that.’

According to this logic, the people should never be asked to give their assent to a legal instrument; that is a matter only for the clever chaps and chappettes in Brussels.

The French rejection of the Constitution is all the more striking because voters in France faced a formidable alliance of interests demanding a ‘Yes’ vote (as do voters in Holland, where there will be a referendum on the Constitution tomorrow). Most of the French political class supported the ‘Yes’ campaign, as did the media and the cultural elite, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with big business on the need to push the Constitution through. Powerful institutions bandied together and said there was no alternative to the Constitution, effectively arguing that voters had no choice but to accept what their betters had deemed to be in everyone’s best interests.

This idea that There Is No Alternative - or TINA for short - has been conveyed by politicians from Thatcher through to Blair. The fatalistic politics of TINA has also been adopted by advocacy groups and lobbyists. For example, we are often told that unless we act in a certain way the environment will be destroyed - so we have no alternative but to do what green lobbyists suggest.

In recent decades, the claim that there is no alternative has succeeded, most of the time, in shutting down debate and forcing people to reconcile to the decisions of the technocrat. In the case of the EU, however, it was easier to rumble the TINA merchants. Europe has been around for much longer than the EU. The idea that somehow everything will come unstuck unless a project cobbled together by a bunch of technocrats is accepted as Europe’s Constitution seemed a bit far-fetched. Consequently, the myth of no alternative has been challenged by a questioning European public. And in this sense, the outcome of the French referendum represents a positive political event.

The referendum debate can also be seen as part of the silent culture war being fought across Europe. Politicians and commentators tell us that the debate is between forward-looking cosmopolitan Europeans and backward-oriented, politically illiterate provincial hicks. Voters are caricatured as being out-of-touch, afraid of change, unrealistic and confused, with their heads stuck in the sand. Denis MacShane, Britain’s former minister for Europe, characterised opponents of the Constitution in France as the ‘reactionary forces of the left and right’. Ex-European commissioner Neil Kinnock said he was ‘utterly disgusted’ with sections of the French left, for joining ‘fundamentally reactionary and disgusting elements’ to form the ‘No’ campaign.

Supporters of the EU Constitution also castigate their opponents as racists, reactionaries and xenophobes. The use of anti-racist rhetoric is curious, since some of those using it seem to consider their opponents to be inferior. So Constitution-supporting EU politicians are critical of the chauvinist language of Le Pen and the French far right in one breath, yet in the next they patronise and look down upon voters, who apparently lack the mental capacity even to recognise their own self-interest when it’s staring them in the face.

This arrogance on the part of EU technocrats means that some of them have simply discounted the significance of the French result. For example, former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene claims that the ‘Non’ vote does not represent a rejection of the EU Constitution since French voters were more concerned with rejecting their own president, Jacques Chirac, than making a statement on the Constitution (see No means no, by Bruno Waterfield). Dehaene’s argument is plausible only if people are deemed incapable of properly behaving as democratic citizens.

For genuine democrats, the outcome of the French referendum suggests that there is a potential to renew civic engagement. The referendum revealed that the process of political disengagement afflicting Western societies is not a natural phenomenon; nor is it the inevitable outcome of a new postmodern era of globalisation that has unleashed a technocratic imperative. We can now see that, at least in part, people have been discouraged from engagement with public life by a political elite that feels more comfortable talking to itself or holding consultations with fellow-travellers in NGOs and other outfits that make up what they call ‘civil society’.

From time to time, EU operatives express concern about voter apathy and a decline in electoral participation. But they are worried about it more out of embarrassment than anything else, concerned that it undermines their authority and the legitimacy of institutions that claim to represent the interests of all.

The French showed that they would like to re-engage with political life, and that they have had enough of being patronised and taken for granted. That is an encouraging development. A section of the European public has stirred - will it wake up? The next step is to develop a political language and a democratic imagination for confronting the issues of twenty-first century Europe. That might provide the public with greater clarity about who they are, and a conviction that Europe is their home too.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, and author most recently of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Visit his website here.

Read on:

For Europe, but not the EU, by Mick Hume

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