EU better watch out
Try to stay awake during this week’s EU summit, because the debate reveals a Euro elite united in its contempt for the continent’s peoples.
Suicide seems to be a popular political cause these days. And the latest enthusiast for self-destruction appears to be Europe’s political elite. This week’s summit meeting where European Union governments will discuss a new treaty looks like the public working-out of a death wish.
Led by German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU bureaucracy is attempting to sneak back most of the measures that were contained in the Euro constitution that was dropped after being decisively rejected by French and Dutch voters two years ago. Despite the evident tensions and divisions, it is possible they might get away technically with doing such a deal. But in broader political terms, any such success would be a Pyrrhic victory. Intended to give the EU leaders new legitimacy, it would only emphasise how isolated they are, dealing another heavy blow to what little faith or trust people still have in the political class.
Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister in waiting, stands to lose more than most. If Tony Blair, in his swansong appearance as premier, signs up to a deal that can be interpreted as a new EU constitution by the back door, Brown will be faced with the options either of refusing to hold the referendum that most people think is necessary, or of giving in to public demands, holding the vote, and losing it. Either way, the authority and legitimacy of his government would be badly holed almost before he has taken office in Number 10 Downing Street.
This is why, whether we like it or not (and let’s face it, we don’t much), the European debate matters. Of course it is soporifically boring – often deliberately so, as the Brussels bureaucracy aims to keep the public’s nose out of ‘its’ business. But it has become a symbol of the crisis of politics. The importance of this week’s summit and the reactions to it are not really about the specific measures to be discussed, whether that is the creation of an EU president and foreign minister or the reference to a new charter of fundamental rights. More importantly, it is about democracy, the relationship between rulers and ruled in Europe, and the future of political life.
So we should insist that, whatever deal might or might not be done at the EU summit, whether or not we are ultimately presented with a Euro constitution by the backdoor, there ought to be a national debate – and probably a vote – about where the EU is taking us. And as I argued on spiked at the time of the referendums on the original constitution, that debate cannot be confined to the old clichéd bunfight between the traditional Euro-sceptics and the trendy Euro-philes. Instead we need to raise another argument that is not heard nearly often enough: For Europe, but not the EU.
Contrary to the impression we are often given, they are of course not the same thing. The future of Europe, the dynamic and creative continent of millions, is not bound by what happens to the deathly bureaucracy of the EU supra-state.
The EU operates above systems of democracy and accountability. It has become a bastion of all that is rotten in European politics, from scare-mongering and authoritarian intervention to the worship of the precautionary principle. Its instinct is always to regulate, restrain and ban. The EU mindset has become the modern opposite of the spirit of the European Enlightenment. Even during the post-constitution ‘paralysis’ of the past year, it has managed to exploit the politics of fear to impose reactionary new measures in the name of fighting terrorism and global warming.
For years, first the left and then the right in Europe have sought to retreat from the heat of the political battlefield behind the barricades of Brussels, the Hague and the other centres of Euro power without accountability, trusting the Euro elite of judges and commissioners more than their own people.
Then in 2005, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution in referendums that were a vote against the isolated political class. No doubt there were all manner of confused motives involved in the anti-constitution campaigns. But one clear message was that, when the discredited political elite combines to instruct its people that There Is No Alternative, many will now respond with a resounding ‘No/Non/Nein/Nee’.
As spiked predicted at the time, the Euro elites immediately went into deep and anti-democratic denial about these results, suggesting that it had not been a genuine ‘no’ and plotting to bring back the heart of the constitution via the Brussels back door. Now German chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit host, has made clear in a letter to EU governments that she aims to stitch up a treaty that drops the controversial ‘c’ word and constitutional trappings (anthems etc), but keeps ‘much of the substance’ of the original.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president and architect of the failed constitution, has even admitted to Le Monde that the public in France and Europe is being led ‘to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly’. What part of ‘non’ don’t these Euro-aristos understand?
As the summit approaches the media coverage is putting much emphasis on the supposedly deep divisions between different leaders, with Blair said to be in a minority of those unhappy with the more far-reaching proposals for centralising power in the EU. But the one thing they all seem clear and united upon is that, whatever they agree, there should be no need to ask the public’s opinion by holding a referendum.
The German government and its allies want the summit simply to rubber stamp their ‘treaty’. European Commission chief Barroso has urged Blair to ‘have the courage’ to scrap more national vetoes and to sign up to an EU bill of rights despite public hostility. ‘You know about the UK, and the respect I have for your country’, he said. ‘We have to stand up in front of our national public opinions, not give up to some of the populisms we have in our member states.’ For unelected EU mandarins like Barroso, to accuse a leader of ‘populism’ is the worst insult imaginable.
Back in Britain, meanwhile, Blair himself assured a committee of MPs this week that, since he won’t be making any big concessions on key issues, a referendum would not be necessary. But at the same time, he gave the game away about his true attitude by admitting that he didn’t really agree there had ever been a need for a referendum on the original constitution, despite Labour’s manifesto commitment to hold one before it was dropped. And before David Cameron’s Conservative opportunists try to take advantage of New Labour’s difficulties by demanding a referendum, we should remember that the last and supposedly Euro-sceptic Tory government took a similarly high-handed attitude to popular sentiment when it signed the Maastricht Treaty that created the EU as a political entity.
As for the man who will be prime minister next week, Gordon Brown’s people have let it be known that, while he will not rule out a referendum in advance of any agreement Blair might sign up to, he will not hold one because he believes he would lose it. Good to know, isn’t it, that he has such sound democratic principles and belief in the British people.
The EU debate matters because it lays bare a major divide across Europe – not between different nations so much as between the isolated self-centred Euro elite and the peoples of the continent. Every argument the EU-philes offer drips with patronising contempt for a public they deem too fickle or just too thick to grasp the subtleties of the elite’s ways, with disdain for democracy and disappointment with us for failing to behave like obedient Euro citizens.
When much of the political class is united around the idea that there is no need to consult electorates or cause any public controversy, it ought surely to be a sign that it is time for a big public debate and some serious boat-rocking. What Europe needs is not a quietly agreed peace treaty, but a war of words; not a constitutional deal stitched up by the Euro aristocracy, but a democratic revolution.
It was a welcome sight two years ago to see Europe’s arrogant rulers humbled in such dramatic fashion, as disengaged voters refused to be railroaded into endorsing the EU bureaucrats’ plans (see The reawakening of European democracy, by Frank Furedi). Those rulers are now trying hard both to pretend that defeat never really happened, and to ensure it cannot happen again by denying voters the chance to disagree. But Euro-Emperors with no clothes will eventually have to face the naked truth.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
After the rejection of the EU constitution, Frank Furedi welcomed the reawakening of European democracy. Mick Hume stood up for Europe, but not the EU. 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.
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