Democracy: who are EU kidding?

Far from wrecking the Gothenburg summit, the riots did the EU a favour.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

There was a widespread consensus that the Gothenburg riots spoiled the recent European Union (EU) summit for everybody. Gothenburg’s main broadsheet Goteborgs-Posten claimed that ‘200 to 300 professional rioters…destroyed all our attempts…to showcase the art of democracy’ (1).

In fact, the opposite is true. Behind their hail of stones, the ragbag of protesters in Gothenburg actually provided EU leaders with a rare gift – they allowed them to look democratic.

One by one, the leaders got up on their moral podiums to attack the protesters. Swedish prime minister Goran Persson called the protests ‘a blatant disregard for democracy’, while UK prime minister Tony Blair vowed that the ‘anarchists’ travelling circus’ should not prevent the EU from holding meetings. French president Jacques Chirac actually managed to endow the current process of EU enlargement with democratic virtues: ‘The behaviour of these rioters is of course the antithesis of all the humanistic values embodied today in essence by the peoples of Europe, both those intent on advancing in the construction of Europe, and those impatiently waiting to join this European Union.’

The contrast between a crowd of kids with no ideas apart from how to smash things up, and the elected leaders of European states, can but flatter the latter. It meant that the EU did not have to answer the charge of its own democratic illegitimacy.

Take the process of EU enlargement, which was on the Gothenburg conference agenda. In early June 2001 the people of Ireland voted against the Nice treaty to allow 12 new, mostly East European, states into the union. One would think that, if the enlargement process embodied the will of the people of Europe, the EU would pay some attention to this result.

But no – the joint statement issued by EU president Swedish prime minister Goran Persson and European Commission president Romano Prodi read: ‘The member states and the commission will pursue the enlargement negotiations with undiminished vigour and determination, in line with our firm commitment given to the applicant countries.’ (2) EU foreign ministers hastened to add that they ‘[respected] the will of the Irish people’ but that the ‘process of ratification’ must continue ‘in accordance with the planned timetable’. There are plans to revisit the will of the Irish people until it yields the right answer.

When EU politics proceeds on the basis of transport system metaphors (a ‘timetable’ or schedule, which must be kept ‘on track’), Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern should not be surprised about the ‘widespread sense of disconnection’ between EU leaders and Europe’s citizens. If Western political elites are distant from their own citizens, the EU exists on another planet. The 59 percent turnout for the 2001 UK election dealt a severe blow to the legitimacy of the British electoral system; UK turnout for the Euro elections in June 1999 was 23 percent.

Plans are afoot to hold the next G8 summit in Genoa under an effective state of siege behind a ‘ring of steel’, or offshore on a boat. As well as preventing the violence of Gothenburg, this embattled self-isolation will provide a fitting metaphor for the state of Western political elites.

Read on:

Forget the ritual of Gothenburg, the real problem is alienation on Acacia Drive, by Mick Hume in The Times

10 things I hate about EU, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

(1) Swedish press critical of rioters, BBC News Online, 16 June 2001

(2) Ireland rejects EU expansion, BBC News Online, 8 June 2001

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Topics Politics


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