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Euro elites in denial in Brussels

Some are still claiming that 'there is no alternative' to the Constitution.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

European Union leaders may not be able to agree on much these days. But on one thing there is absolute unity: the popular politicisation of the European Constitution must be stopped.

EU heads of state and government are gathered here in Brussels – on 16 and 17 June – for their most difficult summit in over a decade. They are deeply split over the fate of the Constitution, following resounding rejections in referendums in France and the Netherlands.

The French and Dutch governments, along with states such as Denmark and Britain, where there was due to be a vote on the Constitution in the near future, are seeking funeral rites for an EU charter that they claim is dead in its present incarnation. Others, such as Spain, where the Constitution has been ratified, and the Europhile state of Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, seem to be in denial about the crisis facing the Constitution.

The end result is a ‘pause for reflection’. This is set to last for one year, but it could drag on until mid-2007, in the hope that new governments in the Elysée and The Hague might be able to get a different answer (the ‘right’ one) from voters. Strip away the meaningless eurospeak, however, and this pause for reflection expresses the unanimity of the EU elites: the Europeanisation of popular anti-EU feeling must end.

Following a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, UK prime minister Tony Blair described the dilemma of Europe’s out-of-touch and disliked governments: ‘After those two “No” votes, if there was a referendum in most parts of Europe at the moment the answer would be “No”’, he said.

This view is echoed in the European Commission which, during this week’s meeting of the Brussels executive, warned of a ‘tsunami’ of no votes swamping the EU if Britain, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic were to proceed with referendums in the present climate. ‘The mood has changed everywhere where referendums are planned. Something really fundamental has happened. A feeling of discontent that has been building up for a long time has spilled over’, said Commission vice president Gunter Verhuegen.

But their conclusion is not to bury the EU Constitution. ‘We reaffirmed that there is no alternative to this Constitution’, said Commission President José Manuel Barroso, while warning Europe’s citizens that there would be no renegotiation of the treaty. TINA (There Is No Alternative), like King Canute, is trying to hold back the tide – even a tsunami tidal wave of popular discontent.

Europe’s great and good are alarmed that a stirring of popular sentiment has defined itself against EU institutions. The reaction of the EU elites against this sentiment takes various forms, but there is one unifying feature: ‘stop it.’

Conventional wisdom has long held that while EU elites can operate at the European level, the masses cannot. ‘Europe does not have – and in my view cannot have – a common political process’, opined the eurosceptic Martin Wolf in the Financial Times on 15 June. ‘What Europe can and does have, instead, is an elite politics.’

Some, including Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, simply try to deny reality. ‘I really believe that neither the French nor Dutch rejected the Constitutional treaty’, he said on 16 June. ‘Unfortunately the electorate did not understand the Constitutional treaty was aimed at answering their concerns.’

Andrew Duff of the UK Liberal Democrats believes that Europe’s elites should ignore the rabble. ‘The rejectionists are an odd bunch of racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, disappointed centre-left and the generally pissed-off’, he wrote in the Brussels-based Parliament Magazine on 6 June.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, architect of the Constitution, expressed this fear and loathing of engaging with the public most explicitly. The former French president says that his 191-page text was never meant to be read by Europe’s apparently politically illiterate citizens. In an article in Le Monde on 15 June, he claims that he pleaded with Chirac not to send copies of the Constitution to voters:

‘The discovery of this document was felt by many voters to be an aggression and a threat. It consolidated the negative attitude that the Constitution was too “complicated”, that reading it was reserved to specialists. This text is much too long, I told [Chirac]. It is enough to send the first 15 pages, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, five pages, which is relatively easy to read! For the third part, the appendices and protocols [the other 171 pages], you could indicate that they would be at the disposals of voters in the town hall.’

Others, such as the EU enthusiast Jeremy Rifkin, recognise that Europe is having a debate but regret the divergence from elite thinking. ‘The good news, as I have seen in France, in the cafes etc, at the moment of the referendum, the French for the first time have brought European politics into the public. The bad news is they voted badly’, Rifkin told Belgium’s Le Soir on 16 June.

The Rifkin stance is now the EU’s line: after Plan A – the Constitution – there is Plan D: dialogue. In this EU spin on the crisis, the ‘pause for reflection’ is a period during which the elites hope the masses will calm down and stop causing them problems. And it has the added attraction that people will not have the opportunity, for a couple of years at least, to vote the ‘wrong’ way. Instead, EU officials hope that two years will smother dissent as the oxygen of democratic choice – referendums – is removed. EU elites are choosing apathy over engagement.

Meanwhile, Europeans can expect to be bombarded by official popular campaigns. As EU leaders arrived in Brussels, the Commission’s HQ was ‘wrapped in a white band in support of the campaign for the “Global Call to Action against Poverty”’. ‘It is the first of a number of well-known buildings across Europe to be “wrapped” with a white band in the coming months’, said an official press release. Such campaigns, with wide support in the bureaucratic, corporate, NGO world known in Brussels jargon as ‘civil society’, are likely to be the EU’s answer to the emergence of popular disgruntlement.

The EU approach has been endorsed by no less a personage that aging Irish rock star Bono. ‘There’s a lack of vision in Europe, people don’t feel Europe…. People feel Europe doesn’t have a vision you can relate to’, he said during a visit to the Commission on 9 June. ‘Africa gives us a chance to re-describe ourselves – what we are about…. We are a generation that wants something to be remembered for.’

Not to be outdone, Luxembourg annoyed summit journalists by announcing that the traditional gift bag handed out by the holder of the EU presidency – which included an MP3 player in March, and processed cheese and whiskey under the Irish in 2004 – would be ditched this year.

‘On the occasion of the European Council in June 2005, the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the European Union has donated the sum of €100,000 to UNAIDS for Africa’, said a statement to the press. ‘This donation has been made in the name of all participants of the European Council in replacement of the usual gifts. We hope that this gesture will meet with your approval.’ EU officials might be able to buy off NGOs and quangos; the people, however, are a different matter.

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Topics Politics

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