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8 January 2004 Edition

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A death sentence for democracy

BY Paul O'Connor

Romano Prodi and Bertie Ahern

Romano Prodi and Bertie Ahern

This week, Europe's leaders gathered in Dublin. Over the following months, with Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen fawning on them like a pair of anxious puppies, they will try to hammer out the constitutional treaty they came close to agreeing at Rome. When they have finished, the European Union will be a federal state in everything but name, and European democracy will lie in ruins.

Few among the Irish public are aware of what is at stake. In one view, this is not surprising. European treaties are prescribed reading only for insomniacs. As a conversation opener: "What do you think of the proposed EU constitution?" is unlikely to get you a reputation as the life and soul of the party. Nor will it win you any prizes for the best chat-up line. European debates move in a chilly and rarefied sphere, seemingly distant from everyday concerns about health, education or housing. They inhabit a strange world full of jargon like "subsidiarity", "shared competence" and "decoupling", and a body of law that runs to tens of thousands of pages and would require the brain of a lawyer and a lifetime of study to master in its entirety.

Yet, behind the fog of legal verbiage, European integration is changing the relationship of government to the governed across the continent. It strikes at the very foundations of democracy. We cannot afford to ignore it.

The European constitution was not signed off on at Rome. But its outline is already agreed. The constitution will establish European law as superior to national law — a key aspect of a federal state. It will give the EU a "single legal personality" — which means it will be able to act like a state on the international stage, signing treaties or joining international organisations. Europe will have a president and a foreign minister. It will have a common foreign policy that will take primacy over national foreign policies and which all members will be obliged to "actively and unreservedly support". It will have a common defence policy, with military forces able to act outside the borders of the Union. The EU will gain increased powers in the area of criminal law. Pressure is building to give it power over taxation.

The word "federal" appeared in the first draft of the EU constitution, but proved so controversial it was deleted. But this should not fool anybody. If Europe looks like a federal state and acts like a federal state, it is a federal state. If the EU has a constitution, a currency and a parliament, a president and a foreign minister; if it can sign treaties and conduct international diplomacy; if its laws take precedence over those of its members; if it has a common foreign policy and an army, and looks to have common borders and common rates of taxation — then it is no longer a community of nations. It is a federal state.

There are those who will say none of this matters, that national sovereignty is already eroded by globalisation, that our future lies in Europe and the nation-state is a relic of the past. There are those who will even welcome it, pointing to bloodshed in the name of national rivalries and branding nationalism and the nation-state as evils gladly left behind in a united Europe. But the nation-state is the vessel in which democracy grew up, and power will always be best exercised at local or national level, where the citizen has maximum input. National sovereignty and popular sovereignty are, or ought to be, one and the same. What has the whole struggle for Irish independence been for if not the right of Irish people to ownership of their country? In theory at least, the nation state embodies government of the people, by the people and for the people.

In the 26-County constitution — and those of most other European states — power is explicitly declared to come from the people. But the European constitution does not recognise the sovereignty of the people, at either national or European level. Where does power, where does legitimacy come from in the European Union? Not from "the people", for there is no European people. Not from Europe's peoples, for there is no recognition of national sovereignty. Europe's institutions stand alone, with no foundation other than the agreement of governments, whose basis in popular sovereignty they have eroded. The government of the European Union relies, not on the will of the people, but the decree of an elite.

Who wants a European constitution? It is question worth asking. Have you, the reader, felt a burning need for another European treaty ever since Nice was passed — at the second attempt? Have your friends and neighbours been writing to the papers and lobbying their public representatives with calls for a European constitution? Have you seen any protesters outside public buildings with placards demanding "New Euro Constitution Now"? Have you witnessed mass demonstrations calling for a federal Europe?

Somehow, I doubt it. The European constitution is not the result of popular demand from the peoples of Europe. The latest Euro-barometer opinion poll found that only 48% of Europeans thought membership of the EU "a good thing". There has never been pressure from the public for European integration. Always, it is Europe's political class that has pushed integration in the face of an apathetic or reluctant population. European integration is, and has always been, the political project of an elite. As Gisela Stuart, a British Labour member of the convention which drafted the European constitution, wrote last week in a damning indictment of its work, "not once in the 16 months I spent on the convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want".

The democratic deficit in the EU is about much more than institutions. It goes to the very heart of the European project, its origin and its motivations. What power have the peoples of Europe over the decisions made in their name? The answer is little or none. And this is not just because decisions at European level are taken behind closed doors by unelected bureaucrats and by ministers wheeling and dealing in secret council. It is not only because institutions do not exist to give Europe's peoples a voice in the workings of the Union, or because in a continental superstate the citizen will always be further from the centre of power than in a small republic. Give Europe an elected President tomorrow, increase the powers of its parliament all you like, and you would still not change the EU's fundamental nature.

For the EU is no benign association dedicated to peace, prosperity and the protection of human rights, as its cheerleaders would have us believe. It is an artificial construct cobbled together by Europe's political class to maintain their own privileges and power. The leaders of 'Old Europe' have realised, ever since the Second World War, that the only way to maintain their influence on the world stage is for Europe to unite in a federal superpower. The political classes of successive waves of applicant states, from Ireland to the countries of Eastern Europe, have played along with this ambition in return for membership of the rich man's club and the opportunity to pretend they are players on a world stage. Their peoples have been bribed with promises of economic largesse and kept in check with threats of economic and political isolation.

So it will be whenever the EU constitution is put to a referendum in Ireland. Just like Nice, business, the political establishment, and trade union leaders will unite to demand we vote Yes. Just like Nice, we will be threatened with every sort of political and economic catastrophe if we vote No. And just like Nice, if we don't give the right answer the first time - why, we'll just have to vote again. Already the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, is suggesting that any country refusing to ratify the new treaty might be expelled from the Union.

That's the new meaning of "democracy", in Ireland and across the continent — the right to vote as Europe's political classes tell us.

This week, Europe's leaders gathered in Dublin. Over the following months, with Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen fawning on them like a pair of anxious puppies, they will try to hammer out the constitutional treaty they came close to agreeing at Rome. When they have finished, the European Union will be a federal state in everything but name, and European democracy will lie in ruins.

Few among the Irish public are aware of what is at stake. In one view, this is not surprising. European treaties are prescribed reading only for insomniacs. As a conversation opener: "What do you think of the proposed EU constitution?" is unlikely to get you a reputation as the life and soul of the party. Nor will it win you any prizes for the best chat-up line. European debates move in a chilly and rarefied sphere, seemingly distant from everyday concerns about health, education or housing. They inhabit a strange world full of jargon like "subsidiarity", "shared competence" and "decoupling", and a body of law that runs to tens of thousands of pages and would require the brain of a lawyer and a lifetime of study to master in its entirety.

Yet, behind the fog of legal verbiage, European integration is changing the relationship of government to the governed across the continent. It strikes at the very foundations of democracy. We cannot afford to ignore it.

The European constitution was not signed off on at Rome. But its outline is already agreed. The constitution will establish European law as superior to national law — a key aspect of a federal state. It will give the EU a "single legal personality" — which means it will be able to act like a state on the international stage, signing treaties or joining international organisations. Europe will have a president and a foreign minister. It will have a common foreign policy that will take primacy over national foreign policies and which all members will be obliged to "actively and unreservedly support". It will have a common defence policy, with military forces able to act outside the borders of the Union. The EU will gain increased powers in the area of criminal law. Pressure is building to give it power over taxation.

The word "federal" appeared in the first draft of the EU constitution, but proved so controversial it was deleted. But this should not fool anybody. If Europe looks like a federal state and acts like a federal state, it is a federal state. If the EU has a constitution, a currency and a parliament, a president and a foreign minister; if it can sign treaties and conduct international diplomacy; if its laws take precedence over those of its members; if it has a common foreign policy and an army, and looks to have common borders and common rates of taxation — then it is no longer a community of nations. It is a federal state.

There are those who will say none of this matters, that national sovereignty is already eroded by globalisation, that our future lies in Europe and the nation-state is a relic of the past. There are those who will even welcome it, pointing to bloodshed in the name of national rivalries and branding nationalism and the nation-state as evils gladly left behind in a united Europe. But the nation-state is the vessel in which democracy grew up, and power will always be best exercised at local or national level, where the citizen has maximum input. National sovereignty and popular sovereignty are, or ought to be, one and the same. What has the whole struggle for Irish independence been for if not the right of Irish people to ownership of their country? In theory at least, the nation state embodies government of the people, by the people and for the people.

In the 26-County constitution — and those of most other European states — power is explicitly declared to come from the people. But the European constitution does not recognise the sovereignty of the people, at either national or European level. Where does power, where does legitimacy come from in the European Union? Not from "the people", for there is no European people. Not from Europe's peoples, for there is no recognition of national sovereignty. Europe's institutions stand alone, with no foundation other than the agreement of governments, whose basis in popular sovereignty they have eroded. The government of the European Union relies, not on the will of the people, but the decree of an elite.

Who wants a European constitution? It is question worth asking. Have you, the reader, felt a burning need for another European treaty ever since Nice was passed — at the second attempt? Have your friends and neighbours been writing to the papers and lobbying their public representatives with calls for a European constitution? Have you seen any protesters outside public buildings with placards demanding "New Euro Constitution Now"? Have you witnessed mass demonstrations calling for a federal Europe?

Somehow, I doubt it. The European constitution is not the result of popular demand from the peoples of Europe. The latest Euro-barometer opinion poll found that only 48% of Europeans thought membership of the EU "a good thing". There has never been pressure from the public for European integration. Always, it is Europe's political class that has pushed integration in the face of an apathetic or reluctant population. European integration is, and has always been, the political project of an elite. As Gisela Stuart, a British Labour member of the convention which drafted the European constitution, wrote last week in a damning indictment of its work, "not once in the 16 months I spent on the convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want".

The democratic deficit in the EU is about much more than institutions. It goes to the very heart of the European project, its origin and its motivations. What power have the peoples of Europe over the decisions made in their name? The answer is little or none. And this is not just because decisions at European level are taken behind closed doors by unelected bureaucrats and by ministers wheeling and dealing in secret council. It is not only because institutions do not exist to give Europe's peoples a voice in the workings of the Union, or because in a continental superstate the citizen will always be further from the centre of power than in a small republic. Give Europe an elected President tomorrow, increase the powers of its parliament all you like, and you would still not change the EU's fundamental nature.

For the EU is no benign association dedicated to peace, prosperity and the protection of human rights, as its cheerleaders would have us believe. It is an artificial construct cobbled together by Europe's political class to maintain their own privileges and power. The leaders of 'Old Europe' have realised, ever since the Second World War, that the only way to maintain their influence on the world stage is for Europe to unite in a federal superpower. The political classes of successive waves of applicant states, from Ireland to the countries of Eastern Europe, have played along with this ambition in return for membership of the rich man's club and the opportunity to pretend they are players on a world stage. Their peoples have been bribed with promises of economic largesse and kept in check with threats of economic and political isolation.

So it will be whenever the EU constitution is put to a referendum in Ireland. Just like Nice, business, the political establishment, and trade union leaders will unite to demand we vote Yes. Just like Nice, we will be threatened with every sort of political and economic catastrophe if we vote No. And just like Nice, if we don't give the right answer the first time - why, we'll just have to vote again. Already the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, is suggesting that any country refusing to ratify the new treaty might be expelled from the Union.

That's the new meaning of "democracy", in Ireland and across the continent — the right to vote as Europe's political classes tell us.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

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