Friday, May 27, 2005
"A no vote would only be a screw up for your own personal objectives for Europe, which are totally confused and not shared by most sensible people"
The above quote from a friend of mine comes from a discussion on the European Union in the run-up to the French referendum on the proposed EU Constitution that will take place on Sunday. It is in my opinion a harsh accusation, but also an opportunity to explore what I believe that the point of the European Union is, or at least should be, and why it is that the French should vote yes on Sunday, or at least why they shouldn't vote no.
The main problem with voting no in my view is the following: this is currently the only deal on the table. Now in itself, this is not a good enough reason to adopt a constitution. This is the way in which Napoleon came to power after all: he turned up in 1799 with the only working draft constitution for France available, threatened people a bit and won. However the EU faces a problem: institutions designed for 15 member states are not going to work with twenty-five, and probably about thirty within a decade. The whole machine is just too much of a disparate morass to avoid grinding to a virtual halt under the sheer mass of tasks that it's trying to manage. So from a purely practical point of view, the EU needs to be reformed in order to keep going. Admittedly, it would have been a good idea to deal with this problem before the accession of ten new member states, but they didn't, so there we are.
Of course, a simple bureaucratic reform, a streamlining of the EU civil service and processes, wouldn't require a constitutional treaty, however the problem is not simply bureaucratic, it's political, and it's the politics that are the real issue here.
Many opponents of the EU rightly complain about the organisations democratic deficit and lack of accountability. An important aspect of the constitution is that it does away with a lot of the "behind closed doors" stuff. It gives the European Parliament a whole lot more power, and the European Parliament is elected directly by the citizens of the EU, theoretically not along national party lines. This will remove much of the influence of the Commission, though not of the Council of Ministers, so it's returning power to national governments too. In other words, it makes the EU institutions more answerable to the electorate, more democratic.
Finally, here's the big question: what do those who oppose this constitution want to do instead? It can't continue as it is, and admittedly there are those who would be glad to see the whole thing break down. Fair enough. But I don't think that most Europeans hate the EU that much, it's an extreme point of view, especially given that the EU has brought so many tangible benefits to so many people. It's by no means certain that if this constitution is binned, there will be an opportunity to renegotiate. Even of there is, it will take something like a decade, and faced with the growing institutional paralysis of the EU, member states will have had to work ways around it. Again, some favour a looser, more flexible system in which like-minded member states create networks of alliances, treaties and agreements between them. But you don't need a European Union to do that. That's just run-of-the-mill politicking.
It is not an outcome that does justice to what is in effect the boldest, most successful and groundbreaking political experiment ever carried out. The EU, for its myriad faults, is a Commonwealth of states and people who have all chosen to be a part of it. This has never been done before. Just by its very existence, the EU exerts a good influence on the world. Look at what has happened in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia. These are all countries that are striving to become more democratic, more humanitarian, more prosperous, and all because of the goal of becoming a part of the EU. Think of the formerly totalitarian regimes that the EU has been able to absorb such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, and all the former Soviet Block nations. Surely the continuation of this process is reason enough to make sure that the EU doesn't just stagnate?
And this brings me to why the French should vote yes tomorrow: if they don't, they're breaking a promise to almost half a billion people, but especially to the people of the new member states and those of aspiring members. After all that they've been through, after being excluded from Europe for sixty years and finally clawing their way back, are the French really going to let them down by voting no? Are they going to deny everyone else a chance to make the EU work after driving the process for over fifty years? Do they want to be the dog in the manger?
I don't think so. I think that they will vote yes, and let the European fledgling leave the nest and spread its wings on its own.