For Europe, but not the EU
The French and the Dutch have voted No to the EU Constitution - now the British should be given the chance to do the same, to kick-start a debate on the European supra-state.
The results of the French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution revealed the isolation and impotence of the European political class in the starkest fashion. Europe’s complacent leaders seriously believed that people would simply do as they were told and vote through the new Euro-bureaucrats’ charter on the nod. Since the resounding “No” votes in France and the Netherlands showed the shocked elite how out-of-touch they truly are, they have been running around like headless chickens trying to find a way out of the crisis.
Whatever the mixed motives behind the votes might have been, it was a welcome sight to see Europe’s arrogant rulers humbled in such dramatic fashion, and a positive political development to see disengaged voters refusing to be railroaded into endorsing the EU bureaucrats’ plans (see The reawakening of European democracy, by Frank Furedi).
Everybody now assumes that the results mean there will not be a similar referendum in the UK. But Britain should have its own referendum on Europe. We need an honest public debate about an issue that is too often swept under the carpet. In that debate, spiked will be arguing for an attitude that has been noticeably absent to date: pro-Europe, but anti-EU.
President Jacques Chirac’s desperate last-minute plea for French voters to fulfil their ‘historic responsibility’ to vote ‘Oui’ revealed the rising sense of panic in the French political class. France has traditionally seemed the most pro-EU of nations, a state that has benefited greatly from its alliance with Germany at the heart of Europe. Yet even the French can no longer be relied upon to support closer EU integration.
The longstanding pro-EU consensus has been undermined by two new factors. First, there is a growing crisis of national identity in France, an uncertainty about France’s place in the world which, far more than in Britain, has given rise to a pained intellectual debate. Secondly, and most importantly, there is an increasingly bitter backlash against the political class, of a sort that can be seen in every developed nation today. The fact that almost the entire political establishment supported the ‘Oui’ campaign made voting ‘Non’ a way for people to demonstrate their disdain for all of the major parties. The ‘Non’ vote was not, as some critics have tried to imply, an endorsement of the far-right Front National or the far-left parties that opposed the Constitution. It was a vote against the EU-phile political class. The experience has been a chastening one for President Chirac and his court. As one senior member of Chirac’s party, the UMP, put it even before the vote: ‘The king is naked.’
Over in Britain, Tony Blair and the New Labour government have been watching events in France and the Netherlands, where a Euro-referendum took place on 1 June, with bated breath. Implanting Britain more firmly within the EU, and adopting the euro currency, was supposed to be one of the history-making ambitions of the Blair years. His supporters in the media insisted that the prime minister really wanted the French to vote ‘Yes’ and to hold a UK referendum, in order to give him a chance of fulfilling that Euro-dream. However, back in the real world, it appears far more likely that New Labour leaders, while shocked at the scale of the popular No vote, will also have breathed a sigh of relief. The results in France and the Netherlands have let them off the hook, avoiding the need for a divisive and potentially damaging referendum campaign.
But we should insist on the need for a referendum in any case, to open up the opportunity for a critical debate on what is going on with the EU.
Let’s be clear that we are not talking about another round of old-fashioned Europe-bashing. In Britain, openly criticising the EU has often been the preserve of right-wing oddballs from the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party, who bang on endlessly about preserving the pound or the Queen. At spiked, we don’t much care what the currency is called, and we are all for abolishing the monarchy. We are adamantly pro-European as a matter of both principle and practice, and all in favour of closer cooperation in Europe.
However, being pro-European is not the same thing as supporting the EU or the European Commission and courts. There is a world of difference between Europe the place, the civilised continent and its people, and Official Europe the political entity. Even without the new Constitution, the bureaucratic machinery of official Europe is acting as a major barrier to real democracy and a brake on any progressive or liberal advance. This is a world of power without accountability, where unelected and largely unnoticed bodies make major decisions affecting us all behind the backs of the people of Europe.
It is not so much the ‘European super state’ that right wingers warn of; more of a ‘supra-state’ that operates above and beyond the normal world of national democratic politics. Moreover, the Euro-elites are now using the power of that supra-state to restrain and distort Europe’s development on everything from the economy to civil liberties. Official Europe has become perhaps the world’s strongest bastion of the politics of fear, risk-aversion and authoritarian intervention. It promotes the ‘precautionary principle’ both at home and in the developing world, with disastrous consequences both for scientific research and for everyday life (see Taking the debate to Europe, by Helene Guldberg). Everywhere it seeks to regulate, to restrict or to ban, to the point where even Blair now feels it necessary to make some mild criticisms of EU rules for being overcautious.
In short, the European supra-state is a dead weight upon the civilised world, the modern embodiment of everything that is opposed to the spirit of the European Enlightenment. It has become a citadel of un-democracy, symbolising the distance between Europe’s political class and its peoples today. They look down upon us with contempt, and when any of us dare to vote contrary to the Euro-elite’s instructions, they complain that the people have disappointed their rulers. Remember how, when Ireland voted ‘No’ to the Nice Treaty on EU expansion in 2002, the Irish were rebuked for their ‘betrayal’ of Brussels and told to hold repeat referendums until they came up with the ‘right’ result? There has been plenty more in the same anti-democratic spirit since the French voted ‘Non’.
As discussed elsewhere on spiked, many among the Euro-elite have been trying to pretend that Non didn’t really mean no, and insisting that the process of ratifying the constitution should continue despite its popular rejection (see No means no, by Bruno Waterfield). Many have said that, rather than ditching the EU scheme, what is needed now is a period of ‘calm reflection’ on the Constitution – no doubt in the hope that the heat will die down and they can quietly get on with ruling by diktat. They should not be allowed to get away with this. The trouble is that, since the No votes do not in themselves constitute a political alternative or a challenge to cynicism, our rulers will be able to sneak back to doing business as usual unless the opposition takes more coherent shape. That is one reason why we need to encourage the Euro-debate in the UK.
Over recent decades, the rise to prominence of official Europe has paralleled the decline of active politics in the nations of Europe. In Britain it was those on the left who started the political retreat from democracy to behind the Euro-barricades, when they gave up trying to win public arguments over racism or discrimination in open debate, in favour of appealing to human rights judges in Strasbourg to intervene on their behalf. The right, too, proved perfectly willing to take political issues out of the public arena and send them to the Euro-bureaucrats. For instance, despite its avowed Euro-scepticism, the Tory government of the 1990s was exposed when a secret memo revealed how it hoped the European court would strike down the ban on gays in the military, thus relieving it of responsibility for such an embarrassing issue.
Now it seems that, while the creeping influence of the European supra-state continues to grow, almost nobody in British politics wants to talk about it. New Labour is quietly hoping that the French result will remove Europe from the agenda once more. And even the Conservatives refused to make Europe into an issue in the General Election, for fear of what the repercussions might be. Wherever there is a top-level consensus on keeping silent, and the elites start lecturing us about the need for ‘calm reflection’ behind closed doors, it is a sure sign of the pressing need for some loud and clear public debate.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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