‘The leaders of the EU are just so uninspiring’
Declan Ganley, hated by the Irish elite for opposing the Lisbon Treaty, makes some good points about democracy.
Last summer, as Ireland prepared to vote on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, a Watford-born businessman emerged as an unlikely firebrand in the campaign for a ‘No’ vote.
In the eyes of the amassed Lisbon refuseniks 39-year-old Declan Ganley became something of a hero. For the Irish establishment, collectively in thrall to Brussels, it was a different story. Content to circulate rumours about his connection to the ‘American military industrial complex’, the Irish and British media painted him as a man on a secret mission, a Manchurian candidate sent to wreck European integration, allegedly at the behest of a) the CIA, b) the UK Independence Party, or c) money men so shadowy that even their shadows cast shadows.
Despite this often harsh spotlight, especially in Ireland, Ganley did not go away. Indeed, if anything the antagonism he faced last year seems to have spurred him on. The result is Libertas, once Ganley’s lobby group, but now a full-scale pan-European political party. And yesterday morning, in the rather austere neo-classical environs of London’s No.1 Great George Street it received its UK launch.
For an organisation vehemently opposed to the current EU oligarchy, the launch was a suitably strident affair. In the words of Robin Matthews, unveiled as Libertas’s British campaign leader, the British government has ceded more and more power to Brussels, ‘chipping away at national sovereignty’. The consequences have been profoundly undemocratic. An ‘unelected elite’ and a ‘sprawling bureaucracy’ enact legislation on our behalf, leaving each nation’s citizens in the role of ‘spectators’. This shouldn’t be mistaken for an anti-European ‘Euro-scepticism’. Rather, as Matthews was at pains to emphasise, Libertas is a pro-European party seeking to ‘revitalise’ and ‘refresh’ the institutions of the EU, to make it more democratic, more accountable, more transparent; in short, a European body ‘people can believe in’.
Ganley, speaking alongside Matthews, was no less forthright: ‘Almost 80 per cent of laws that change the daily lives of Britons come from Brussels, and those laws are drafted by unelected, unaccountable civil servants.’ The British political class, like their European counterparts, seem to be actively seeking to disenfranchise their electorates, said Ganley. What else could explain how ‘Gordon Brown is able to ratify the [Lisbon Treaty] without even asking your permission’? More worrying still, article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty, to which Brown has agreed, makes the proposed constitution self-amending. That is to say, no referendum, indeed, no consent is necessary ever again. Article 48 means the opportunity to consent, or indeed dissent, from this current EU constitution is removed for posterity. ‘It is a truly appalling state of affairs’, declared Ganley.
So what is Libertas trying to achieve? Its aim is to field candidates in every EU state in the European elections this June. ‘By building a pan-European bloc of seats in the European Parliament’, Matthews explained, ‘Libertas offers the only real opportunity for people across the UK to get a better deal from Europe. National parties are powerless – the biggest UK party in the European Parliament has less than four per cent of the seats and represents only one country out of 27.’
But there’s more to Libertas than electoral strategy. In fact, there’s more to Libertas than the rather wishy-washy rhetoric of democracy, accountability and transparency, to cite their tagline. What is important is the way in which the party is intent on drawing upon and expressing, as Ganley did in Ireland, a contemporary dissatisfaction with the political class, a Europe-wide estrangement of a managerial elite from a patronised public. In doing so, it might potentially reconfigure, not just Europe’s political landscapes, but national political landscapes, too, bringing the nature of contemporary governance into unforgiving focus. In the understandably hyperbolic words of Ganley, ‘Libertas is a new dawn for Europe… we’re going to shed light on the unaccountable and unelected elite’. If nothing else, Libertas might politicise what has for too long been presented to us as an apolitical project and something that is not really of concern to European citizens: the governance of Europe. ‘This isn’t politics as usual’, Ganley said, ‘we shouldn’t leave politics to the politicians’.
Nowhere is this politicisation of legislative and administrative realms that were previously deemed beyond politics more apparent than in the incredulous reaction to Libertas from those who support Lisbon. For the EU technocrats and stooges, unelected, unappointed and over there, the Libertas project appears simply unintelligible. Hence the rumours about nefarious James Bond-style funding. Why else would a group, now a party, be so opposed to the EU, a model of non-conflictual rule, if it wasn’t because they were being paid to be so? There seems to be an almost wilful inability to take Libertas at their word. The Liberal Democrats’ response to the formation of Libertas was typical. ‘Anti-European voters in Europe [will be] spoilt for choice’ in the upcoming election, it said. In other words, Libertas is little more than UKIP minus Robert Kilroy-Silk.
But Libertas is not the same as UKIP. Its members and supporters are not anti-Europe. They are simply against the self-serving EU oligarchy. That it is possible to be pro-Europe while being against aspects of the EU is an anathema to today’s political elite, which is so convinced that it knows what is in our best interests that it is only dimly aware of its own anti-democratic, anti-demos tendencies.
The potentially democratising impulse at the core of the Libertas project, its desire to expose the sequestered world of contemporary EU diplomacy, does not, of course, make for a set of concrete proposals for reform. It is unclear, for instance, how Libertas plans to balance national sovereignty against the powers of a reformed European Parliament. The best Matthews or Ganley came up with was a vague averment that there are certain decisions that can be made at a European level. What those might be is unclear. The precise nature of the institutional reforms will be revealed later, said Matthews.
This lack of clarity is perhaps understandable. Libertas is born of discontent, a moment of resistance given organisational form; it is formulating what it wants in terms of what it opposes. Hence Ganley, aware of how undemocratic and unaccountable the Lisbon Treaty is, could do little more than talk of the need for more democratic ‘mechanisms’ and new ‘technologies’ of accountability in the EU. Even then he could only illustrate this negatively: currently, if a party wins all of the UK European Parliament seats, it would still only amount to 72 out of over 400. There is no way to make a country’s democratic weight felt.
At points Ganley seemed like a latter-day John Wilkes, the mid-eighteenth-century Radical scourge of parliamentary corruption and courtly privilege, whose fight for parliamentary reform won him riotous support on the streets of London. But like Wilkes, one wonders if Libertas are merely a prelude to greater battles to come, a moment in which the elite faces up to its own shortcomings. Certainly it is Libertas’s negative momentum, their critical force, that makes the project quite compelling. But at some point, they will have to say yes to something. And in that affirmative instant, that flash of agreement to some ‘technology’ or some ‘mechanism’, Libertas will cease to be the agent of democratic interrogation and will instead become its object. But for now Ganley’s get-up-and-go optimism is heartening: ‘The leaders that we have right across Europe are just so uninspiring! They’ve no new ideas, and we need to do something about it.’
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.