Europe needs a binding moral foundation not a pan-European referendum, argues Alfred Grosser
The Irish referendum raises many questions. Now I don't mean the ones concerning the circumstances of the 'No' vote. Questions such as: Was the economy slowing down instead of thriving on EU assistance as it had been until recently? Or: Was the advertising for the 'No' campaign funded by conservative anti-European Americans of Irish descent? No, the issues I want to discuss are commentaries which say: This is what happens when you disregard the people and submit a treaty which has been drawn up undemocratically and is incomprehensible to boot! Philosopher Jürgen Habermas also recently expressed his doubts about democratic practice in the EU. He suggested combining next year's European elections with a European referendum.
My first counter-question would be: Who are the citizens of the EU? The current phrasing of the treaty says: "Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall complement and not replace national citizenship. Citizens of the Union shall enjoy the rights conferred by this Treaty and shall be subject to the duties imposed thereby."
A small number of citizens of the union have decided for everybody. This does not mean to say that national referenda are illegitimate. In France, the accession of Ireland, together with Britain and Denmark, was sanctioned on 23 April 1972 by a referendum initiated by President Georges Pompidou. However, it attracted little public interest. Sixty-eight percent said 'Yes', but only 60 percent of citizens actually went to the polling booths.
On 20 September 1992, there was huge commotion when Francois Mitterrand invested enough energy to win 51.04 percent of the votes in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. Then, the French actually answered the question that was being posed. But often 'direct democracy' has the disadvantage of being about other political issues than those listed on the ballot paper. This September, the constitution of the Fifth Republic will turn fifty. Did anyone actually read the tedious text of the constitution (English version) before it was adopted with 79.2 percent approval? But it wasn't about the text. The citizens wanted to express their trust in de Gaulle, with their 'Yes' they wanted to signal their confidence in his ability to solve the Algeria problem.
Has the then President Jacques Chirac said before the May 2005 EU referendum: "Whatever the verdict after the vote, I will step down – if it's 'No' then I will have been disavowed, if it's 'Yes' then I will have fulfilled my European duty", then the 'Yes' would have won hands down. Had he said: "If it's 'Yes' I stay, if it's 'No' I go" then the 'No' would have won by a much greater margin. It was also a referendum which was used to express disapproval of Chirac.
Of course there are good examples of democratic referenda in Switzerland or California. However, important questions remain unanswered - and this should be music to the ears of parliamentary democracies like Germany. Questions like: Who decides which people are entitled to vote in a referendum? Would Catalonia, or Scotland for that matter, be allowed to determine their own independence? What about Kosovo? Why was France allowed to keep hold of Mayotte after the inhabitants of the island rejected independence, against the majority of the population of the Comoros Islands? At which level can a project be voted down if it benefits a community larger than those affected at a local level. A bridge in Dresden and a runway in Frankfurt are only minor examples. The 'people' of a municipality which decides on the construction of a new nursing home for Alzheimer's patients or a new psychiatric hospital will vote according to the 'NIMBY' (not in my backyard) principle which leads to 'BANANA' (build absolutely nothing anywhere nor anytime).
What a relief that not every justifiably complicated law is put up to a referendum. What a shame, that a document which extended the democratic foundations of the European Union and which stood for a unanimously accepted compromise negotiated between 27 states, could be rejected through a referendum by one of the 27 member states!
However, it would be correct to assume that a referendum in Germany, France or maybe even in Britain or Poland would have gone the way it did in Ireland. The main reason being that we lack a feeling of European identity or European citizenship. Why is this? Firstly, the existing institutions are unsatisfactory. Jean Monnet coined this phrase: "Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions." It's pay-back for constant betrayal. We were told there would be "no expansion without institutional consolidation." And then came: "We will expand and consolidate simultaneously." Ultimately, expansion came without any consolidation.
What's more, citizens don't even know what already exists. Try explaining the EU's common laws, rules and organisations to an American from Ohio or a Swiss from Uri or the canton of Basel and you will provoke the following outraged reaction: "If we had that in the USA or Switzerland, it would be the end of our beautiful federalism!" The Union is sui generis. For instance, there is no confederacy at all in common foreign policy and common defence policy, whereas in some areas it is already more than federal. But who knows anything about the constructive role of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg which, among other things, has been creating a common social law for four decades? But Britain complies much more readily and rapidly with the court's decisions than Germany or France. The British are also far more dependable in implementing regulations from Brussels into their national law.
The anti-EU tune is hammered out rigorously by governments, political parties and the media in Germany, and stronger still in France. Angela Merkel's six months presidency made a pleasant exception, because the chancellor did everything in her power to also drum up support for Europe from within civil society. But the tune we generally hear in Berlin, and which is sung with even greater frequency in Paris goes like this: "In the federal council, where the power lies, I vote in favour of a draft, but as soon as it becomes a commission-issue guideline which we have to follow, I protest loudly against those evil commissioners!" Everything that comes from the national capital is good, everything from Brussels is bad.
The European parliament is certainly not the powerless institution it once was. It undoubtedly plays an instrumental role. But which party gives MEPs key roles within the party ranks at national level. A few (mostly German) names might ring a bell. The media shed very little light on Europe. We hear constant niggling. Even intellectuals like Habermas have a mantra of bureaucratic and technocratic accusations which they repeat ad nauseaum. And yet there are fewer bureaucrats in Brussels than in Hamburg – if you don't include the translators. And we forget that the commission is able to entertain thoughts about the future because it doesn't have to worry about elections. The sons of the fishermen who are still too young to vote, should still have a right to fish in the future. This means imposing the sort of constraints which governments in Paris, Madrid and Athens are doing their utmost to prevent.
Euro gloom has two further reasons. First of all in Germany, as in France and Britain, more and more people find themselves peering into the widening gap between those "at the top" and everyone else. Whom can we look to for some degree of protection against global finance capitalism? The state perhaps. No one would even consider Europe.
Secondly, "the new states" are a constant source of resentment. Back in 2004 the words Robert Schuman spoke shortly before his death in 1963 still had a ring of truth to them. "We want the unity of a free Europe not just for ourselves, but for all those who, today, find themselves under the yoke of Communism, and, as soon as they have thrown off that yoke, they will seek accession and our moral support." But anyone who speaks about Yugoslavia's many splinter states today, has to justify their inclusion in the community. This is even more pertinent when it comes to Turkish accession. The question "What will it do for them?" has been replaced by the refusal to allow new arrivals to impede the path of the established members towards European unification.
What remains is the importance of providing a unified Europe with a shared moral foundation. And I don't mean the "with or without God" question. There are enough texts that already exist: from the UN Declaration of Human Rights to the charter referred to by judges at the European Court of Human Rights, right down to the first articles of the German constitution.
What is missing is the conviction that we should be setting an example both internally and externally, that we should be showing how to put our common values into words and deeds. Whether this is voicing criticism of those who "share our values" (Guantanamo, Gaza) or of the behaviour of our own governments and authorities (asylum seekers, detention conditions, police brutality, corruption of high-ranking figures ...) - are we so far away from the Irish 'No' here? Only seemingly. Instead of continuing to break apart the solidarity within the union, we should focus on creating a binding moral foundation.
Alfred Grosser was a professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris and is the leading political commentator on Franco-German questions.
This article originally appeared in German in the Rheinischer Merkur on 10.07.2008.
Translation Nick Treuherz and lp