In May 2005 the French electorate was offered the chance in a referendum to express its views on the proposed European Constitution. It voted by a majority of 54% to 46% to reject it. Shortly afterwards, the voters in Holland expressed the same view by an even larger majority – 58% to 42%. Two core EU countries thus voted down a proposal which, from the beginning, we had been promised required unanimity for its implementation. If democracy was to mean anything in the EU, this ought to have been a clear indication that the Constitution, as proposed, had to be abandoned and an alternative approach developed. This is not, however, the reaction there has been. Instead, the clear opinion of the French and Dutch voters has been almost totally ignored. To a large extent, the proposals in the Constitution are going ahead anyway, despite their rejection. How is it possible that, in an organisation like the EU which claims to be in the Western social democratic fold, such a thing could happen? The answer is that, unfortunately, the EU is not a democracy. It is its breathtaking lack of accountability which explains in large part why support for its role and functions is so evidently on the wane.
There is no better way to illustrate the brazen unwillingness of EU leaders to pay attention to what their electorates have told them than to listen to their reactions to the referendum results. Wolfgang Schüssel, Chancellor of Austria and the EU’s current president thinks that: “The Constitution is not dead but in the middle of a ratification process.” Angela Merkel, Germany’s leader, announces that “Europe needs the Constitution . . . We are willing to make whatever contribution is necessary to bring the Constitution into force.” Dominique de Villepin, the French Prime Minister says that: “France did not say no to Europe.” while President Jacques Chirac openly calls for elements of the Constitution to be “cherry picked” from the Treaty. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Constitution’s author, tells the world: “Let’s be clear about this. The rejection of the Constitution was a mistake that will have to be corrected.” Such views are replicated daily among the less elevated members of the EU political class in the European Parliament, in the Commission and among the vast army of EU lobbyists who depend on the EU for their incomes, their careers and their perks. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that EU Member States have been very cautious about holding any more referendums – the only exception so far being in rich and highly subsidised Luxembourg – leaving it instead to compliant national parliaments to express support, thus by-passing any further opportunities for the voters to express their views. A dismal recent example was the ratification of the Constitution by the Estonian Parliament, with only one Member voting against it, despite the fact that opinion polls show that 80% of Estonians oppose its implementation.
As a result, far from the Constitution having been stopped in its tracks by the clear expression of the French and Dutch voters, the vast majority of its provisions are in the process of being implemented as if the results of referendums held in France and Holland had been the exact opposite to what they actually were. Some of the Constitution’s proposals, such as those for the establishment of an EU wide diplomatic corps, were already being put in train before the French and Dutch referendums took place. Many others are now going ahead despite the fact that it was the Constitution which was supposed to provide the authority for their establishment and positive support for the Treaty agreeing the Constitution was required to enable these proposals to proceed. Instead, ignoring the referendum set-backs, the EU has continued to work as it always has done, steadily encroaching on the powers of the Member States without any democratic mandate to do so until wearied electorates are presented with faits accomplis which it then appears to be too late to reverse.
It is not just the fact that the EU has no authority to proceed with the proposals which are now being implemented, it is the scale of the changes now being made without electoral endorsement which is so crucial. An External Borders Agency is being established which will give the EU control over sensitive immigration and common asylum policies. There will be a European Public Prosecutor, portending very significant changes in the way that justice is administered. This will involve, not least, great pressure on the UK gradually to abandon our long established Common Law system, including trial by jury and Habeas Corpus, in favour of the continental inquisitorial system. There will be a justiciable Charter of Fundamental Rights with wide legal implications, opening up scope for yet more regulations covering the way private individuals run their lives. Militarization of the EU is to proceed with the establishment of a European Defence Agency, EU Battle Groups and a Rapid Reaction Force, though whether there will ever be sufficient funding or political will to turn aspiration into reality in this area remains to be seen. There will be a European Space Programme, which already has a budget of £8bn and is to be planned on a major scale. These are not minor changes to the way in which the EU is organised. These are major steps towards creating an EU power block, whose intention, in the minds of many behind the EU project, is to challenge and rival that of the USA.
Is it really possible for the whole of the Constitution to be implemented despite there being none of the full democratic support for it, which it was clear from the beginning was going to be needed? The answer is probably not. There are going to be some proposals which are so clearly outside the ambit of any agreements so far negotiated between the Member States that some additional authority for putting them into effect will be required. This does not, however, appear to present the EU’s leaders with what they regard as any insuperable obstacles. Instead of having a comprehensive document setting out the way in which the EU should be run, which is what the referendums in France and Holland rejected, it seems likely that we will be presented with a much smaller and apparently less significant proposal which, we will be told, is not of sufficient moment to warrant any more referendums. This will deal with issues such as the establishment of a European President to replace the present rotational system, new voting systems among Member States and the creation of a legal personality for the EU. Provided that the national parliaments can be relied upon to nod these proposals through – which they almost certainly will – the Constitution in all its details will effectively be in place. By proceeding in this way, the votes in France and Holland will have been successfully bypassed and their awkward expressions of public opinion totally ignored.
While it may appear to be in the short term interests of the EU political class to behave in this way it is nevertheless an extremely dangerous strategy for them to pursue. The process by which the Constitution is being implemented, despite its popular rejection by the electorates in two founder Member States, can only create a deeper chasm between the rulers and the ruled in the EU. It is shameful that the governments of one Member State after another, having toyed with the idea of having a referendum on the Constitution, have rejected doing so for the simple reason that they know that it lacks popular support. Successful governments depend on their electorates being engaged and broadly supportive of what they do. Effective democracy requires the voters to have realistic choices about how their affairs are to be run, with their decisions respected and implemented whether or not those currently in power agree with them. It is clear that, judged by criteria such as these, the EU falls a very long way short of any sort of democratic ideal. It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that support for it is draining away, that the gap between EU leaders and their electorates is steadily widening and that most people feel less and less engaged, interested, supportive and involved in what the EU now appears to be becoming.
It is indeed its fatal lack of democracy which is the EU’s Achilles heel. We need to remember that the EU was never intended by its founders to be a democratic organisation. It was always intended to have civil servants rather than elected politicians holding the real power. This is why, now just as much as was the case fifty years ago when the first institutions which have transformed themselves into the EU were established, it is only civil servants in the Commission, not elected politicians, who can propose new legislation. Unfortunately, the EU, like every other organisation, is not immune to the influence that power without accountability always has on inducing and encouraging policies among those in power which suit their immediate advancement. The result is that they lose touch with those whose interests they are supposed to be representing, while self-seeking behaviour at best and corruption and fraud at worst steadily become more endemic. The way that the Constitution is being implemented without democratic consent is all part of this pattern, for the new policies which are being put in place hugely increase the power, influence and rewards of those who are in charge of EU policies. The reason why these policies are going ahead is not because they are what most people in EU Member States want to see being done. It is because those who run the EU are in a position to pursue them, to their own advantage, irrespective of democratic opinion which they believe they can safely ignore.
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