Le jour de gloire

(Or “the glorious day”, for any lurking Citizen Smith nostalgics.)

Paul Anderson raves about John Palmer’s presentation of “the left case for a yes vote in the French and Dutch referendums”. I’m not so sure.

Very briefly: the new elements of the constitutional treaty can be grouped under the headings of economic liberalisation, democratisation and institutional consolidation. From the Left’s point of view, moves to entrench the dominance and extend the scope of free-market capitalism in the EU would be – I think John would agree – a Bad Thing, which we would be well advised to oppose. John’s response to this aspect of the treaty consists of denying its existence:

If the constitutional treaty is killed, all the free-market provisions that the no side objects to will still be in force. This is because they are part and parcel of all the other EU treaties that will remain in force.

Really? Does the treaty do nothing to entrench the neo-liberal model or extend its scope, nothing to promote privatisation or assist European corporations? This has not, to say the least, been my impression to date. (Nor is it Victor’s, and he’s got references.)

Secondly, democratisation – of which, I think we can agree once again, the EU currently stands in crying need. John again:

What the new treaty does – for the first time in clear terms – is to balance the imperatives of economic growth and competitiveness with a commitment to a wide range of human rights and social values and standards, and to greater powers for the elected European parliament. This opens the way to the emergence of a democratic European polity where voters will be able to choose between rival European party programmes and candidates for election as president of the commission.

This strikes me, again, as a distinctly partial summary. Wouldn’t meaningful democratisation start by giving the elected European parliament power over the unelected Commission, not by giving the Commission a fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy? To whom would an elected EU president be accountable, and how? What John describes here sounds less like democratisation, more like a continuation of the long-term project of building a new Europe by stealth (“a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing”, in the words of one of the pieces I quoted recently at Actually Existing).

The third aspect of the treaty – and of the Yes campaign – John barely touches on, but I think it’s central. I’m talking about the provisions which make the EU look a bit more like a state, for example by giving it a President and a Foreign Minister. Some commentators are quite excited about the idea of a United (Capitalist) States of Europe emerging to challenge the global hegemony of the USA; a vision something like this is lurking in Habermas’s comments and, perhaps, in John’s peroration:

[rejection of the treaty] will also obstruct the urgent task of creating a genuinely common European foreign, security and defence policy. No wonder the neocons in Washington gloat as they prepare to celebrate.

For me this, in itself, counts neither for nor against the treaty. By which I mean that, in the current situation, it counts very strongly against. Were we talking about a reasonably democratic EU – let alone a social-democratic or socialist EU – institutional consolidation would be much to be desired. Since we’re not, I can’t see any justification for giving the governing elite even more power, or even more swollen heads, than they have already.

Those, I think, are the important questions – the first and second in particular. I’m not saying I’ve got a final answer to any of them. If (as John says) the treaty genuinely democratises the EU while doing nothing to tilt the balance in favour of neo-liberalism, it’s well worth voting for. If, on the other hand, it does little or nothing to bring genuine democracy while extending the reach of neo-liberalism, it’s well worth voting against. I’m leaning towards the second of these positions, but that’s not particularly important; the point is that these are the terms in which the treaty should be judged. That much should be reasonably clear.

If it’s not clear – and it certainly hasn’t been up till now – part of the blame lies with two supplementary arguments, both advanced in John’s piece. Firstly, John points out that we can’t choose our allies:

Perhaps the biggest self-delusion of the anti-treaty left is that it can ignore the link between hostility to the EU and hostility to immigrants and to the further enlargement of the European Union. These links are at the heart of the no campaign in the Netherlands.

This, though, is an appallingly bad argument. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a coherent Left case to be made against the treaty – or even against the EU – the fact that racists and xenophobes are also campaigning against the treaty can’t discourage us. If anything, it should make us work harder, precisely to demonstrate that not all critics of the treaty are racists – and, perhaps, win over some disgruntled democrats who have ended up on the Right because only the Right was prepared to criticise the EU. If there is a coherent Left case against the treaty, we can’t afford to leave the field to Kilroy. (Victor, again, is very good on this.)

Secondly, John argues that the French Left should support the treaty on tactical grounds:

Rejection of the treaty – including its provisions to extend democracy and social rights – will only strengthen the determination of the majority of centre-right and conservative EU governments to weaken its democratic and social content further in any new negotiation.

If there’s a Left “No” and a Right “No”, in other words, it’s only the Right “No” that will be heard. We have been here before, and not very long ago – less than a month, as I write. We were told that we should hold our noses and vote Labour, since any swing away from Labour would only benefit the Tories; we – hundreds of thousands of us – went ahead and voted against Labour, mostly not for the Tories but for the Lib Dems or the Greens or Respect; the swing away from Labour was massive, the swing towards the Tories tiny. Blair reacted exactly as if there had been a swing to the Tories: he’s deaf to appeals to move to the Left, but he can hear appeals to move Right even if they aren’t actually there.

Well, so much the worse. The vote was what it was: all those Labour MPs (and ex-MPs) whose vote crashed know that, even if Blair doesn’t. The vote is our means of communicating with our representatives: to vote according to our judgment of how they’ll react is to compromise ourselves and corrupt the vote. In any case, if it’s hard to tell between a Left “No” and a Right “No”, it’s even harder to identify a Left “Yes”. The referendum is a request for popular endorsement; to vote Yes is to endorse the treaty. C’est tout.

I’m more sympathetic to a third supplementary argument, which John doesn’t touch on. It’s this:

This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted – in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined. … A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we’re being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.

Zoe Margarinos-Rey, quoted from Le Monde. The level of discussion of the constitution in Britain, even among its advocates, has been abysmal: it’s generally assumed that this is simply one more obligatory step in the journey towards European integration, whereupon the discussion moves on to the more interesting meta-topics (“will Blair secure the backing of his party?”) and meta-meta-topics (“if Blair fails, how will the Tories exploit it?”). If I were voting in a referendum on the treaty, I’d vote No on this principle alone: if this treaty is as important as it’s cracked up to be, it deserves a period of consultation so prolonged and intensive as to give every citizen the means and the opportunity to express an informed opinion – and have it heard. Anything less, in matters of this importance, really is taking us for idiots.

  1. The trouble is – and sorry for taking so long to respond to this – that we’ve got, to resort to cliché, 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.

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