29 May 2003 Edition
Time to debate a real Eurovision
People were glued to their seats with long, loud and hotly contested debates about clashing political and economic interests, national rights and culture. Most important was the debate on how they would cast their votes. No, this was not a discussion about the future of Europe and its new constitution, launched this week. It was the drama of the Eurovision song contest, played out in homes, pubs and clubs last weekend.
This is the reality of European politics. It is possible that more people voted in the five minutes' polling time allocated for the Eurovision than will discuss the new EU constitution published this week.
You could put safe money on betting that more people will have watched last night's Champions' League final than will have seen a copy of the new EU treaty. For the record, 62 million in the largest six European TV markets watched the four quarter final games.
While the politicians have been making noises about the new EU treaty published this week, there has and is little real interest among the citizens of this new Europe in the structures, current or new, of this political and economic union.
So how did this happen? How did the 105 members of the EU Convention spend the last year? It seems they have been carefully building a new EU structure that its actual citizens, the people who give it sovereignty, don't really care about.
This indifference is not confined to the EU. The voters of the new member states are complacent also.
A Eurobarometer poll conducted last autumn found that only 31% of Cypriots, 28% of Czechs, 21% of Estonians, 41% of Latvians, 27% of Poles would actually vote in an EU membership referendum.
Actual turnouts this year have not been that impressive either. Turnout in Hungary was 46%, 52% in Slovakia and 62% in Lithuania, where polls were kept open for two days. In some areas, shops were offering free sweets and beer to those who proved they voted!
GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY?
So now we have a new European treaty with definitely a referendum in Ireland, maybe Denmark and elsewhere, but is anyone really interested?
EU Parliament president Pat Cox believes that the publication of the treaty is "a good day for democracy". So what is so good for the democratic process?
The 300 articles in the treaty are supposed to create the structures needed for an EU that could include more than 25 states and 450 million citizens.
The Treaty involves having some more powers for the EU Parliament, including that of electing the Commission president and foreign minister, while reducing the use of national vetoes in 30 new areas, including foreign policy and taxation. It will also commit member states to a charter of fundamental rights, while at the same time the unelected EU Commission retains much of its power. Again it is hard to see what is so good for democracy here?
BIG STATES DECIDE
Criticism of the constitution has come from many quarters. The ailing British Conservatives, seeing a chance to peddle their imperialist 'one nation superpower Britain first' philosophy, want a referendum on the Treaty.
German MEP Elmar Brook, who chairs the conservative grouping in the EU Parliament, has described the Treaty as "extraordinarily disappointing". Strongly criticising the draft treaty, Brook said: "Do we want a directorate in Europe where the big states decide everything? If so, it will be the end of the European Union."
Some other German Christian Democrats want a reference to God in the treaty, and the Danish EU Commissioner for development, Poul Nielson, believes that the members of the Convention, who were formulating the actual draft went off track and that it developed into an "orgy of manipulation".
Nielson said the political debate had been stifled by the president of the Convention, Válery Giscard Estaing, whom he believed directed the work in great secrecy, which goes against the actual idea of the Convention.
The Tory calls for a referendum on the Treaty caused a crisis in Tony Blair's Labour Government when Peter Hain, a minister and party representative at the convention, said he would quite happily "fight the next European elections on a Labour Platform endorsing the Treaty". Hain had to promptly backtrack and eat his words. It is another example of where New Labour's support for elections is conditional.
The Danish, though, have committed themselves to a referendum. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said this week that "what is at stake is so new and so big that it is right to hold a referendum".
HEARTS AND MINDS
So here we are, back where we started, with the need for a referendum of all EU citizens for a plan in which they have little interest and when it comes to it little say in what is proposed.
Sinn Féin TD and spokesperson on EU affairs, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, told An Phoblacht that there is an urgent need for a debate on the EU that "really engages the citizens and encourages them to participate not just in the actual voting, but to express opinions and shape this treaty".
Maybe though, the governments of Europe don't really want this level of participation. In recent months, millions of European citizens have been on the streets calling for no war in Iraq. Their calls, which were the largest political expression of activism in a generation, were ignored.
The British spent billions on the war, even though a majority of people initially opposed it, while other EU states, including Ireland, were active participants in the "coalition of the willing".
It was the cold war that threw the original member states together. It was the end of the cold war and the economic power of the EU that has made the rest of Europe succumb to the better off in argument. There is no real process of European integration.
This is a Europe without the hearts and minds of its citizens. This week, absolutely nothing has changed. How can this be good for democracy?
The EU Constitution - The good, the bad, the new?
"respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights".
"offer citizens an area of freedom, security and justice.... and a single market where competition is free and undistorted".
"sustainable development based on balanced economic growth, with a social market economy aiming at full employment and social progress".
EU Commission president
The EU Parliament will elect the president of the EU Commission.
EU Council President
The EU Council will now elect its own president by qualified majority.
The EU parliament will now also elect a foreign minister by qualified majority. The holder of the post will be a Commission vice president and "conduct the Union's common foreign and security policy".
This person would be responsible for tackling cross border fraud in the EU.
The 12 participating euro states get to elect a president and get new powers to set economic policy independent of the rest of the EU.
The right to veto, now gone in almost half of all EU decision making will go in 20 new areas, including taxation.
EU Parliament gets new powers in 36 new areas, including asylum policy, EU budget, energy and regional funds.