The reawakening of European democracy
The French people's rejection of the EU Constitution represents
a positive political event.
Anybody who genuinely feels bound to Europe should be pleased that
the French people have said 'Non' to the EU Constitution, and to
those who arrogantly asserted that they had no alternative but to
vote 'Oui' in the referendum on Sunday.
Advocates of the proposed EU Constitution, in France and elsewhere,
didn't so much argue for it as present it as a fait accompli. Time
and again, Europeans have been warned that there is no Plan B, no
alternative to the Constitution. This message - that there is no
real choice - threatened to deprive the French referendum of any
political meaning. Historically, democratic politics has represented
the possibility of choice and the denial of fate, and has been underpinned
by the idea that the democratic imagination can envisage a Plan
B, and even a Plan C.
By contrast, the statement 'There is only one proposal on the table'
and only one right answer to give in a referendum on the EU Constitution
is a diktat that runs counter to democracy. Fortunately, this attempt
to blackmail the French electorate into accepting Plan A failed
to intimidate the majority. And the outcome represents a major setback
for the politics of technocratic managerialism.
EU technocrats need the Constitution to pursue their agenda of endless
institution-building. From their perspective, consulting the people
is a distraction; its sole purpose is to use referenda to endow
their decisions with a measure of legitimacy. Many EU operatives
believe that the public are too stupid to comprehend complex things
like the EU Constitution and therefore do not take our views very
seriously. Back in 2003, Chris Bryant of the British-based Labour
Movement for Europe explained his ambivalence about holding a referendum:
'I confess that I am not a big supporter of referendums. I believe
that they are especially inappropriate when trying to deal with
the intricacies of creating a treaty. Let us examine the facts.
The draft constitutional treaty has 565 clauses, five protocols
and two declarations. The vast majority are almost identical to
those in previous treaties, but it is important to scrutinise the
document line by line, clause by clause, not simply subject it to
a question of "yes" or "no". Although a referendum
might be appropriate for Pop Idol, when deciding whether Gareth
Gates or Will Young should win, it is unsuitable for examining a
treaty. That needs to be done with due diligence and only Parliament
can do that.'
According to this logic, the people should never be asked to give
their assent to a legal instrument; that is a matter only for the
clever chaps and chappettes in Brussels.
The French rejection of the Constitution is all the more striking
because voters in France faced a formidable alliance of interests
demanding a 'Yes' vote (as do voters in Holland, where there will
be a referendum on the Constitution tomorrow). Most of the French
political class supported the 'Yes' campaign, as did the media and
the cultural elite, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with big business
on the need to push the Constitution through. Powerful institutions
bandied together and said there was no alternative to the Constitution,
effectively arguing that voters had no choice but to accept what
their betters had deemed to be in everyone's best interests.
This idea that There Is No Alternative - or TINA for short - has
been conveyed by politicians from Thatcher through to Blair. The
fatalistic politics of TINA has also been adopted by advocacy groups
and lobbyists. For example, we are often told that unless we act
in a certain way the environment will be destroyed - so we have
no alternative but to do what green lobbyists suggest.
In recent decades, the claim that there is no alternative has succeeded,
most of the time, in shutting down debate and forcing people to
reconcile to the decisions of the technocrat. In the case of the
EU, however, it was easier to rumble the TINA merchants. Europe
has been around for much longer than the EU. The idea that somehow
everything will come unstuck unless a project cobbled together by
a bunch of technocrats is accepted as Europe's Constitution seemed
a bit far-fetched. Consequently, the myth of no alternative has
been challenged by a questioning European public. And in this sense,
the outcome of the French referendum represents a positive political
The referendum debate can also be seen as part of the silent culture
war being fought across Europe. Politicians and commentators tell
us that the debate is between forward-looking cosmopolitan Europeans
and backward-oriented, politically illiterate provincial hicks.
Voters are caricatured as being out-of-touch, afraid of change,
unrealistic and confused, with their heads stuck in the sand. Denis
MacShane, Britain's former minister for Europe, characterised opponents
of the Constitution in France as the 'reactionary forces of the
left and right'. Ex-European commissioner Neil Kinnock said he was
'utterly disgusted' with sections of the French left, for joining
'fundamentally reactionary and disgusting elements' to form the
Supporters of the EU Constitution also castigate their opponents
as racists, reactionaries and xenophobes. The use of anti-racist
rhetoric is curious, since some of those using it seem to consider
their opponents to be inferior. So Constitution-supporting EU politicians
are critical of the chauvinist language of Le Pen and the French
far right in one breath, yet in the next they patronise and look
down upon voters, who apparently lack the mental capacity even to
recognise their own self-interest when it's staring them in the
This arrogance on the part of EU technocrats means that some of
them have simply discounted the significance of the French result.
For example, former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene claims
that the 'Non' vote does not represent a rejection of the EU Constitution
since French voters were more concerned with rejecting their own
president, Jacques Chirac, than making a statement on the Constitution
(see No means no, by Bruno Waterfield). Dehaene's argument is plausible
only if people are deemed incapable of properly behaving as democratic
For genuine democrats, the outcome of the French referendum suggests
that there is a potential to renew civic engagement. The referendum
revealed that the process of political disengagement afflicting
Western societies is not a natural phenomenon; nor is it the inevitable
outcome of a new postmodern era of globalisation that has unleashed
a technocratic imperative. We can now see that, at least in part,
people have been discouraged from engagement with public life by
a political elite that feels more comfortable talking to itself
or holding consultations with fellow-travellers in NGOs and other
outfits that make up what they call 'civil society'.
From time to time, EU operatives express concern about voter apathy
and a decline in electoral participation. But they are worried about
it more out of embarrassment than anything else, concerned that
it undermines their authority and the legitimacy of institutions
that claim to represent the interests of all.
The French showed that they would like to re-engage with political
life, and that they have had enough of being patronised and taken
for granted. That is an encouraging development. A section of the
European public has stirred - will it wake up? The next step is
to develop a political language and a democratic imagination for
confronting the issues of twenty-first century Europe. That might
provide the public with greater clarity about who they are, and
a conviction that Europe is their home too.
published on Spiked, 31 May 2005