Euro-elites desperately seeking demos

The EU constitution expresses the will of a phantom European public.

Chris Bickerton

Topics Politics

According to exit polls, on 20 February around 79 per cent of Spaniards voted yes on the treaty establishing a European Union (EU) Constitution. But the estimated voter turnout was low, at only 41.5 per cent.

This was the first of a number of referendums scheduled to run throughout 2005 and 2006, which will decide the fate of the draft constitution that was presented with much fanfare to EU member states by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in Thessaloniki in June 2003, and finally agreed upon by EU heads of state in Italy in October 2004.

When the idea of the European Convention as a constitution-drafting forum was launched at the Laeken Summit in 2001, it was intended as a solution to the much-publicised problem of the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’. In the words of the Laeken declaration, ‘the Union needs to become more democratic, more transparent and more efficient’ since citizens ‘feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny’ (1). Pragmatically, it was recognised that the EU’s institutions had to be reformed in order to manage the enlargement from 15 to 25 member states. But more important was the need to bring the EU closer to its citizens, to constitute a ‘Europe of Peoples’. In short, to make Europe ‘popular’.

The Economist has declared that ‘2005 will be Europe’s year of the people’ (2). But by all accounts, the EU has failed to meet the goals set in Laeken. A poll taken a few weeks before the Spanish vote found that one in three voters had never heard of the constitution. An even larger proportion had heard of it, but were unaware of its contents.

Elsewhere, the lack of public interest is even more pronounced (3). The BBC commented that ‘outlining the debate in the Czech Republic over the EU Constitution is straightforward: there is no debate’ (4). The principal danger for the EU in the constitution referendums is not a ‘no’ vote, though this may be a problem in the UK. It is that too few people vote. For a constitution intended to forge a sense of common identity and belonging, disinterest would be even worse than rejection.

Criticisms of the EU constitution have been wide of the mark. The right has attacked the constitution as eviscerating national parliaments, and paving the way towards a Brussels-based super-state – we’ve heard this from the UK Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and the souverainistes in France. But the strength of this argument comes less from the public’s passionate euro-scepticism, than from a more generalised disenchantment with politics. In the UK, disgust with Westminster politicians is being channelled by a few populists like Robert Kilroy-Silk on to Brussels institutions. The response from prime minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary Jack Straw has been to use what remains of ‘little Englander’ sentiment themselves, by arguing that the negotiations on the constitutions were a victory for British interests (5).

Meanwhile the left argues that the constitution goes too far in consolidating the neo-liberal economic model underpinning the EU’s Single Market (6). From followers of former French Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius to the Izquierda Unida (United Left) in Spain, the constitution has been attacked as a Trojan horse for neo-liberalism.

Both critiques serve only to deepen public cynicism. The idea of a Brussels super-state panders to people’s sense of disempowerment – the invocation of a Trojan horse can only lead to a ‘don’t be duped!’ rallying cry. This is conspiracy theory masking as critique, with the same effect on public cynicism as the ‘no war for oil’ claim made over Iraq. Perpetuating this grubby vision of politics driven by private interests can only encourage a further withdrawal from politics.

The EU Constitution should instead be understood for what it is: an attempt to infuse the EU, and the whole project of European integration, with a degree of popular support. The EU really has sought to construct a sense of citizenship. A lack of purpose and sense of direction is debilitating for any large bureaucracy, especially one with pretensions that go beyond regulating milk quotas. Since European integration lost the geopolitical rationale provided for it by the framework of the Cold War, and as the notion of ‘unification’ loses its purchase for new generations who never experienced the ‘total wars’ of Europe’s twentieth century, the EU has been forced to justify itself on its own terms. At the same time, growing disillusionment with domestic political institutions has suffused the EU with a kind of surrogate political purpose that it has struggled to meet.

The difficulty lies in the fact that, regardless of the wishes of Eurocrats and the fears of euro-sceptics, the EU is not a state. The state today must be democratic, and democracy is only possible with popular sovereignty (7). Yet there is no European demos, no European constituent political power. The EU parliament is no substitute for national parliaments, as is obvious from the turnout figures for European parliamentary elections. In 2004, for two thirds of the 15 member states of the old EU, the turnout was below 50 per cent; in the new member states of eastern Europe, turnout was even lower, down to 17 per cent in Slovakia and 20 per cent in Poland (8).

The European Council of Ministers is in theory accountable to national populations, in so far as ministers are elected representatives. But the meetings are behind closed doors, and there is no public disclosure of the votes in the council. And as for the European Convention itself – behind the fanfare of inclusiveness and diversity of opinion, the public and political vacuum was filled by the will of an aging French aristocrat.

The European Constitution, pushed through by European elites in search of a demos, will remain an expression of the will of a phantom European public. In the words of the French philosopher Étienne Balibar, the constitution ‘presumes to be resolved what is in fact in question: the nature and existence of the constituent power on the European level’ (9).

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student in international politics, at St John’s College, Oxford.

(1) EU Council, Presidency Conclusion. SN 300/1/01 Rev 1. See annexe for Summit Declaration

(2) Gideon Rachman, ‘Yes or No?’, The World in 2005, The
, p41

(3) ‘One-Third of EU Citizens Have Not Heard of EU Constitution’,

(4) Czechs delay constitution vote, BBC News, 28 October 2004

(5) Jack Straw, Radio 4 morning program, 9 February 2005

(6) Bernard Cassen, ‘Europe: Débat Truqué Sur la Constitution’, Monde Diplomatique, February 2005

(7) Balibar, E. 2004. ‘Difficult Europe: Democracy Under Construction’, in We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. 2004, Oxford: Princeton University Press, p157

(8) European Parliament Elections 2004 : results

(9) Balibar, E. 2004. ‘Difficult Europe: Democracy Under Construction’, in We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, 2004, Oxford: Princeton University Press, p161

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Topics Politics


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