Europe: whose Treaty is it anyway?

The people of Europe should have the ultimate say over any EU Treaty. Yet some of those calling for a referendum on the matter are driven by an anti-democratic impulse.

Chris Bickerton

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Last week’s European Summit had its fair share of traditional summitry shenanigans, all faithfully documented by the press. Journalists wrote of a ‘three shirt summit’, which meant three days of negotiations. One noted that Tony Blair gave his final press conference in a shirt he’d worn the day before. There was the typical brinksmanship, exemplified by the Polish twins, president and prime minister respectively, who argued that matching voting power with population size was unfair given that the Nazis decimated a good chunk of the Polish population during the Second World War.

On the British side, Tony Blair set out his ‘red lines’ before the summit and predictably declared at the end that none of them had been breached. Margaret Beckett’s vague concession later on that ‘there are some power transfers’ in the revised treaty confirmed the cynicism and ire of the Eurosceptic press. The summit was also something of a diplomatic coup for a newcomer, French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He managed to push through – almost unnoticed – an amendment to the 2005 Constitutional Treaty, dropping the reference to ‘undistorted competition’ as one of the objectives of the EU. This was flagged up as a sign that the new treaty was not a Trojan horse for Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism, which Sarkozy believes is the reason why a majority of the French voted against the Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

But there was more to the European Council than the pseudo-Machiavellian garb that journalists dressed it up in. Two trends stood out in particular: the referendum issue and the primacy of national governments in the integration process. One of the main aims of the leaders involved in last week’s negotiations was to find a way of dodging holding a referendum on the Treaty in their states. The position of the French government was to negotiate a reformed Treaty that looked different enough in form for the French people to accept parliamentary ratification. Sarkozy’s amendment, which so irked the EU’s army of anti-trust lawyers, was directed at his own electorate. It was intended as a sign that economic protection from the ravages of globalised free markets was compatible with signing up to a new mini-treaty.

The British government was similarly intent on wriggling out of its own commitment to the constitution, which meant flagging up how little power was going to Brussels, thus minimising the need for a constitution. The Dutch wanted a firm commitment on enlargement criteria, since this was the issue that many commentators and politicians felt drove the ‘No’ vote in 2005. Other governments, all of whom had successfully ratified the Constitutional Treaty, were intent on proving how much of the old Treaty was being preserved in this new version. The new Treaty was therefore both sufficiently different and sufficiently identical to satisfy the various national audiences. A recipe for cynicism if ever there was one.

All this talk of referenda suggested that there is a need – now more than ever – to rein in the runaway European integration; to bring it back within the control of nation states. This is the message of Eurosceptics, who feel that the revised Treaty signals an unacceptable signing away of national sovereignty, and only a referendum will plug the gaping democratic deficit. In the words of a Sunday Times editorial, if Gordon Brown does not put the new Treaty to a referendum, ‘Britain will have handed over another set of powers to Europe, signing up to a constitution in all but name, without the voters having any say in it’ (1).

This is also the message of many Euro-enthusiasts who believe that if only the EU would become more democratic, it would become more popular. This ignores the second significant feature of last week’s European Summit: the preponderant role played by member states. In fact, this is a trend that has been around for a while. The days of European integration via mysterious ‘spillovers’ from one policy area to another have long since been replaced by an integration process that has seems to be reasserting the power of member states over that of the Brussels-based European Commission.

There were many signs of this in last week’s deal. Sarkozy’s move to remove the reference to ‘undistorted competition’ from the Treaty was an attempt to reassert national rights over various elements of economic policy. France’s former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, coined the term ‘economic patriotism’, in order to defend his government’s decision to block the moves made by American fast food giant, PepsiCo, to take over the French dairy products company, Danone. In the words of Patrick Ollier, president of the parliamentary Commission on Economic Affairs at the time, ‘I don’t want any Pepsi in my yoghurt’ (2). Sarkozy, who is firmly attached to state intervention in the economy, was merely forcing through at the European level what he thinks holds true for national politics.

The same trend was evident in the substance of the revised Treaty. Philip Stephens, one of the more astute commentators on the EU, writes that the revised Treaty was ‘suffused with pragmatism coated with the thinnest veneer of Eurovision’ (3). Gone are the days of building a political union that would complement closer economic integration. As Stephens remarks, today ‘the debate centres on the balance of power between states rather than that between states and Union’ (4). This can be seen even in those areas that seem the most supranational, such as the agreement to create a post of European foreign minister. This post, likely to be filled by the current High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, in fact rebalances the power over foreign policy in favour of member states. Foreign policy will be more firmly located within the Council of Ministers, which is the inter-governmental part of the EU. The European Commission will no longer have an independent commissioner for external relations. The EU’s external relations are being re-appropriated by the Council, which will leave the Commission weakened.

If this is true, why does it seem that the EU is more distant than ever, requiring popular referenda to stave off protests against ‘ever closer Union’? The truth is that some of those who fear that the EU’s democratic deficit is deepening, and who argue that we need to reconnect the EU’s institutions with the people via referenda, are in fact expressing their own scepticism concerning national processes of democratic representation. They demand that the EU be made directly accountable to domestic populations, not because they support the idea that the European people should decide their own fate, but because, on the contrary, they have no faith in national institutions or in elected politicians. Lord Owen, foreign secretary in the late 1970s and former European envoy to the Balkans during the Yugoslav wars, revealingly writes, in his argument defending the need for a British referendum, that ‘the days are long over when the British people were ready to trust parliamentarians to make these far-reaching judgements about Britain’s ability to retain its independence within the EU’ (5). The demand for referenda is driven not by the EU’s democratic deficit, but by growing scepticism about national democracy; of course the people should have the ultimate say over important decisions such as implementing a new Treaty, but many of the demands for referenda on the rehashed EU Treaty are about circumventing already-elected national leaders.

This leaves us in a bind. European integration is, more than ever since the late 1970s, dominated by states. And yet, because we no longer believe in the ability of elected politicians to faithfully represent our interests in Brussels, each European Summit feels like an inexorable drip dripping-away of sovereignty from national capitals. More than ever, the EU has become the prism through which a national malaise about democracy and politics expresses itself.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student at St Johns College, Oxford. He is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume warned: EU better watch out. He stood up for Europe, but not the EU. After the rejection of the EU constitution, Frank Furedi welcomed the reawakening of European democracy. Chris Bickerton asked if we should learn from les rosbifs, while Bruno Waterfield wondered what part of ‘Non’ Brussels didn’t understand. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) Sunday Times editorial, 24 June 2007

(2) Libération, 4 August 2005

(3) ‘Europe’s Shared Delusions’, Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 21 June 2007

(4) ‘Europe’s Shared Delusions’, Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 21 June 2007

(5) ‘We must have a referendum on this treaty’, David Owen, The Sunday Times, 24 June 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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