Europe’s Enduring Democracy Deficit


WASHINGTON – The recent Irish referendum rejecting the new EU Treaty that supposedly will bring the EU member states into a closer union is another indication of the fundamental weakness of the whole European project.

Apparently many of the Irish voted against the Treaty for strange reasons that really had nothing to do with the Treaty itself. Others voted against it because they knew little about it, or did not understand its purpose.

This situation would encourage pro-European constituencies to argue that, as the Irish people voted against the Treaty for strange or extraneous reasons, this vote does not really count. The process of progressive unification of Europe is far too important to be derailed by a glitch caused by a small member, after all only one of twenty seven. Ireland insisted on having a referendum, while these serious and complex matters are better handled at a higher level, by the national parliaments; that is to say by “experts” who appreciate difficult subjects that the general public does not really grasp.

Of course, we know that there was no way around the Irish referendum, as it is constitutionally mandated. Still, even assuming the possibility to go around the annoyance of a popular vote, this way of conceiving and implementing the European project, that is to say as a project better handled by experts, a project in which popular will ands sentiments are of marginal importance, reveals the profound political weakness of the whole enterprise.

On the one hand the notion of a new, unified Europe as a new protagonist in world affairs is touted as the result of creative post WWII genius. What Emperors, Popes and dictators could not do by force will be accomplished peacefully through the enactment of new agreements that progressively will bring together all the Europeans.

Nothing wrong in this whole project. Except that this is an elitist enterprise; promoted by some well meaning people; but not sufficiently endorsed by the citizens of Europe. As in the Irish case, the people do not quite understand the project, its purpose and what the end game might be. Given a chance to express themselves, many tend to be skeptical about something that they have not fully understood and thus not fully embraced.

If Europe, at some point in the future, is going to be a new country, it needs convinced citizens. Right now, beyond the motivated elites who are pushing the project forward, there are the lukewarm, maybe somewhat indifferent, followers and the skeptics.

Admittedly, the whole European enterprise goes outside known categories; and so it is difficult to understand it. Still, precisely because it is difficult, it should be truly understood in order to become truly viable.

At the moment, we have a variety of agreements mostly in the areas of agriculture, monetary issues, trade and economic regulation, etc. All important stuff. And mostly good, it would seem. But Europe looks more like a supercharged European Chamber of Commerce, an eminent economic club, rather than a new state.

A state, one way or the other, has to be defined politically. And here we have the major weakness. There is no definition of a political Europe that most Europeans can share and claim to be their own. Even at a symbolic level, we see the inability to rally around something. The European Anthem is Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy, from the ninth symphony. A beautiful work of art. But it expresses moral and aesthetic values of a universal nature. It has no political content. Therefore it is vacuous and insignificant as a rallying cry for the Europeans.

Likewise, the new currency, the Euro, despite its remarkable success, is equally insipid as a symbol of a new entity. In the past the currency notes portrayed eminent citizens: scientists, artists, statesmen, kings ands queens. The Euro notes have abstract bridges that convey nothing in particular. As it was impossible to agree on one symbol drawn from one national experience, then no symbol was chosen. And this is precisely the point. No symbol means no profound, inspiring message and no rallying cry for the people.

The Irish expressed their discomfort by saying no to the Treaty. And they have been treated like naughty boys and girls who have messed up the party. Little ignoramuses who wanted to get involved in stuff that only the grown ups can deal with. And now, look at that, we have to fix this problem caused by incompetent citizens.

Well, if this is really the attitude, then the European “democracy deficit” already discussed and studied by many will continue to be the Achilles heel of the whole enterprise. Sure enough, the European project, managed and directed by the (supposedly) competent “professionals” will continue to advance, with or without popular enthusiasm. But only up to a point. Without a legitimate political structure, it is hard to imagine a legitimate European military command and willing soldiers marching behind a flag that for most people is just an abstraction.

Europe may work well within WTO disputes, but there is more than just commerce in the world.

If Europe wants to graduate from its current state of sophisticated economic club to becoming a state, it will have to get the positive support, as opposed to grumbling indifference, of its citizens. Without that, political Europe will continue to be an idea cherished by some elites; but it will have very little chance of becoming reality, as it will lack the intrinsic strength that only a truly shared sense of purpose can create.

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