Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The EU constitution and democracy

The trouble is that we�ve got, to resort to clich�, a chicken/egg scenario when it comes to the EU.

The principle criticism against the EU is that it lacks democratic accountability. Which it does, and anyone who says not is a fool or a liar. All the other criticisms stem from that to one extent or another – the imposition of directives (in this country actually normally applied far more literally than necessary), the supposedly endemic corruption (which exists, but not much more so than in any other bureaucratic organisation) and, of course, the fact that the Commission has sole right to initiate legislation despite not being elected.

To tackle the democratic deficit – as the constant complaints from both sides run – you need engagement from the people. But the people are unlikely to get engaged until they feel their votes actually count for something, which at the moment they don�t, really.

This was part of what the constitution was trying to tackle (and it�s only right to talk about the thing in the past tense now). Voters are used to a state framework when it comes to elections and participation. But the EU is not a state, nor does it resemble one (if we�re honest) in anything more than a superficial sense. The flag�s there, the anthem, the civil service and the parliament, but they don�t really work as a whole, and there is precisely zero pan-European political dialogue below the level of the political elite (and the occasional blogger).

Add to that the fact that the interrelationships are so damn confusing and complex (like the guys I heard chatting on the tube the other day, both of whom seemed fairly intelligent and politically aware – they got on at Westminster – but one of whom was insisting that the Commission appoints the Council of Ministers�), it�s practically impossible to work out how the thing works. If people can�t understand or easily see how their participation matters, they aren�t going to bother getting involved.

At the moment we hear talk of �the EU says such and such�, but this could refer to almost anything – the EU Parliament, Commission, Council of Ministers, Central Bank, European Court of Justice, and sometimes even non-EU institutions like the Council of Europe or European Court of Human Rights. The constitution�s proposal of a president could have led to a more clear idea of what �the EU says� actually means. (A Commission spokesman – even Margot Wallstrom, the Communications Commissioner – does not, currently, necessarily speak for the whole EU.) Likewise an EU Foreign Minister. Nation states are defined as much as by what they are not than by what they are. Without a coherent EU foreign policy (even if – as would be necessary – only in a few areas), an understanding of what it means to be an EU citizen is well nigh impossible.

Now, although the constitution proposed greater powers for the European Parliament (and about time too), this would not in itself have been enough to create the kind of European demos which critics of the project so often cite the lack of as an example of how the thing can�t possibly work. A President and Foreign Minister could, simply by existing, have helped to shape a sense of EU identity which has been, since the project�s inception, sorely lacking outside of the political classes. They could have acted as a catalyst for the formation of some kind of EU-wide demos merely by being able to act as the voice of the EU, cutting down on the confusion which currently runs riot whenever any kind of statement appears from anyone who could – even vaguely – be mistaken for an EU spokesman.

Without a coherent understanding of what the EU is and does – which there most certainly is not at the moment (even with some otherwise politically-aware people, and I�ll include myself here, as I have been known to muddle up the Council of Europe, European Council and Council of the European Union from time to time) – greater democratisation would merely lead to more confusion.

Add to that the difficulty of the artifical binary split in attitudes towards the EU – pro or anti, with nothing in between – and greater democratisation as the EU stands at the moment would merely lead to further chaos. As can be seen by the reactions to the French �No� vote (likely to be replicated after the Netherlands reject the treaty today), with a binary split no message can really be taken. Some have claimed the French vote was a rejection of a supranational EU, others that it reflected national politics, others that it was against the �Anglo-Saxon model�. In fact it was all, none and much, much more.

But until there is a genuine, proper understanding of what it is that the EU is and does – in the same way that most people in Britain understand more or less how it is that Westminster affects their lives – it will be practically impossible to get away from this simplistic Yes/No divide and the wild claims that ensue from such splits. Democracy cannot work effectively on Yes/No at the kind of early stage at which the EU finds itself. Before the House of Commons votes on a bill there is a period of debate and discussion. In a healthy democracy, that debate extends to the population at large – as it has been with, for example, the ID cards bill. You don�t go straight to the vote unless you want people to make an uninformed choice on an insufficiently discussed issue. And if you want that, you can only expect resentment later on once people twig what�s happened.

In the EU, at the moment, the debate never spreads beyond Brussels/Strasbourg until after the fact. EU legislation is barely ever discussed in national parliaments, let alone among national populations, until it is too late for the people to have a say. The EU constitution would not have solved that fundamental problem. It could, however, have provided some kind of framework by which the actions of the EU became known about before they happened simply by the addition of recognisable twin spokesmen in the shape of the Foreign Minister and President. If, that is, they had approached these roles in the right way.

Of course, the irony of the current situation is that in seeing the constitution rejected, the EU is experiencing its first proper period of internal debate in which the people are actively involved – via letters pages, chats in the pub etc. – in its history. It could well be that this �crisis� (it is actually nothing of the sort, except for the elites who tried to impose this constitution on us) could be the best thing for the EU, simply for its ability to get the people talking about it for a change.

(Originally posted as a comment to this post at The Sharpener)