‘Why we’re standing in the EU elections’

The British head of Libertas tells spiked about their campaign to fix Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Like Mein Kampf or Being Jordan, the de facto EU constitution known as the Lisbon Treaty is a text that few people in politics claim to have read. But 44-year-old Robin Matthews, former army officer and now British leader of European political party Libertas, is different. ‘Yes, I’ve read it’, he says. ‘It’s impenetrable.’

Written in 394 pages of near unintelligible ‘Brusselese’, and seemingly set to be ratified by EU member states whether their electorates like it or not, the Lisbon Treaty serves not just as a self-amending European constitution but as a symbol of the European political class’s contemptuous attitude towards the public. Matthews explains: ‘They’ve built something [the Lisbon Treaty] with which they’re trying to plough on, all the while knowing that the majority of European citizens are not willing to sign up to it. I’m sure that there are many people in Brussels who are well intentioned, but something as important as a European constitution needs to be voted on, and the people [in the UK] are not being given that opportunity.’

Not that being given the chance to vote in a referendum did the Irish much good. Having given a resounding thumbs-down to the Lisbon Treaty in June last year, the Irish electorate look set to be asked to vote again in October. Matthews thinks there shouldn’t be a second vote: ‘I think the Irish people made it very clear what they wanted. And they said “no”. There’s not been one single sentence or paragraph of the Lisbon Treaty that has been changed.’

EU officials’ dismissive attitude towards the public is not limited to, as one official called them, the ‘ungrateful wretches’ of Ireland. In 2005, the Lisbon Treaty’s forerunner, the European Constitution, was rejected first by the French electorate, and then by the Dutch. Humiliated, the French and Dutch governments decided to forego the embarrassment of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, preferring instead to ratify it in parliament. Truly a fait accompli.

‘The [constitution] and the Lisbon Treaty are virtually the same’, says Matthews. ‘Some of the typos are the same. The point is, what type of “no” don’t [the political class] understand. The French, the Dutch and the Irish have all said “no”. And then you have the situation in Britain, where the solemn manifesto pledge of this government to hold a referendum has not been kept. I saw [an opinion poll] the other day and it said that 85 per cent of people want a referendum on Europe and yet you have Gordon Brown saying how proud he is to have ratified the Lisbon Treaty. How out of touch can you be? What this says is that there is a massive democratic deficit.’

It is this ‘democratic deficit’ that Libertas is seeking to rectify. By fielding candidates in every EU member state in the European elections in June, the aim, says Matthews, is to ‘give people a voice right across Europe’. Committed to making the EU democratic, accountable and transparent, Libertas’ project is both vague in content but specific in ambition.

First, the ambition. Throughout our conversation, the key word for Matthews was ‘reform’. That is, Libertas is not Eurosceptic, he says; it is not even opposed to the European Union per se. It does believe, however, that the EU cannot continue in its current undemocratic, unwieldy, unpopular form. ‘I think that whatever Libertas is about, it’s about reform… We want to reform the European Union, revitalise it and restore people’s faith.’

So what does that entail? First of all, ‘you’ve got to let people have their say, and when they have their say, listen to what they are saying. And to have their say, there should be a referendum on any constitution [and] presidents and ministers should be elected.’

Central to Libertas’ democratising impulse is the need to bring the EU’s legislative and administrative conduct out into the open – in effect, to make power accountable. This doesn’t simply demand a change in attitude, but a change to the EU’s recondite machinery of governance. The Council of Ministers, the European Commission, the Economic and Social Committee, the European Parliament… one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the sprawling, complex structure of the EU, with the unelected parts frequently wielding more power than the elected, is meant to be incomprehensible, a mystery forever withheld from public understanding. This is something that Libertas would seek to put right, says Matthews.

‘What is the role of commissioners? What is the role of the European Parliament?’ he asks rhetorically, before noting that the influence of the European Parliament is not commensurate with the amount of power that is being taken away from national governments. ‘I think that in what is a largely impenetrable system, with much activity carried out behind closed doors, decision-making, how our laws are actually arrived at, what is the power of lobbyists, etc, etc, are all issues that need to be looked at.’

There is little doubt that to politicise the apolitical, sequestered realm of EU governance, to throw open its doors to public judgement, is a decent impulse. But there is also a sense that Libertas’ momentum is largely, if not entirely, negative. It seizes upon, indeed crystallizes, the outbursts of anti-elite sentiment, especially the Irish ‘no’ vote, and attempts to turn it into something more. But what? It is clear that Libertas does not want to abolish the EU, that it accepts that there are certain issues that are best dealt with at the European level, but it refuses to go into too much detail as to what they are.

Matthews is honest enough to admit that there is a lack of specifics right now: ‘I recognise that Libertas is going to have to take a view on other areas: the energy, environment and the economy. So there are three areas where a transnational approach is appropriate…’ But he will not be drawn on where Libertas might stand on certain issues, nor where the lines ought to be drawn between the national and transnational. ‘I don’t want to get away from what our platform is, and that’s the reform agenda.’

I wonder if this political coyness might testify to a deeper problem with the Libertas project. While exploding the cosy, inter-elite consensus at the heart of the current EU ought to be a positive mission, is reform really enough? It’s almost as if Libertas’ pan-European vision, as yet politically contentless, replicates the apolitical nature of the current EU in a slightly different form.

Tim Black is staff writer of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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