Friday, 18 January 2013

Elitism, democracy and the European Union

The Algerian hostage crisis has resulted in David Cameron delaying his speech on the EU today in Amsterdam and, as yet, no new date for the speech has been set.  However, it appears that what he intended to say was that he wanted to set out a ‘positive vision’ of Britain’s future role in Europe but that, unless  Britain’s concerns about the direction the EU appears to be moving down are not resolved then Britain could ‘drift towards’ exit.  Gavin Hewitt is right in his blog that whatever Cameron says ‘he will inevitably disappoint’.  It is clear that he will not call an in-out referendum, so he’ll disappoint UKIP and those with a Eurosceptic stance but he will persevere with trying to re-negotiate Britain’s position disappointing those with a federalist agenda.  If there is a referendum it will be on the terms renegotiated: so, do you agree with the terms or not?  Either way, Britain would still be in the EU: if the vote was in favour of a revised membership then we stay in the EU; if it was a no vote, then it will be presumed that people are happy with the existing situation even if, in reality, it means that people are not happy with the EU at all.  For Mr Cameron if the public gave their consent to any changes in membership, then the issue would be settled ‘once and for all’.  So, at least as far as the political elite were are in the EU and will remain in the EU irrespective of the outcome of a referendum.  All the public is being asked is about the detail of membership not the the broader principle of whether we should be in the EU at all.

Across Europe, the political elite have for centuries shown scant regard for the ‘wishes of the people’ and this remains the case despite the democratic nature of modern European politics.  It’s not that there is simply a democratic deficit at the heart of the EU but at the heart of European politics.  It’s a case of giving people the right to vote for their representatives every four or five years but then failing to take account of what that vote actually means between elections.  This, as much as anything, explains why people have become disillusioned with politics and have, in some countries, turned to extreme parties of the right or left that offer a more aggressive expression of what people believe or want.  It also explains the upsurge of support for UKIP in Britain.  David Cameron appears to recognise this when he says:

‘People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.’

He also says that ‘more of the same’ is not an option but is under pressure from business leaders (it will be an economic disaster and jobs will suffer), the United States with pressure from President Obama (the US values a strong UK in a strong EU) and other EU leaders.  He may also be right that he has allies in other EU members who share his view about the need to reform institutions and alter the balance of power between Brussels and national capitals but it’s still a position that is based on tinkering with the EU system for Britain’s advantage.  The problem with institutional change is that the institutions involved will resist proposed changes with vigour and for the EU, the institutions have always at the heart of the system.  They will resist any power being taken away from them and restored to national governments and institutions.  The issue, as it has been since the 1980s, is one of the popular legitimacy of the EU and the unwillingness of the federalist elite to acknowledge that they need to carry the people with them if there is to be any enthusiasm for the European project.  It is no longer sufficient to call a constitutional change a treaty as in the case of Lisbon and deny the European citizenry any say in whether it is introduced or not.  Tinkering with the system by Britain renegotiating its role is no longer enough if Europe is to become a strong economic and political force in today’s global society.  What we need is not an elitist vision of Europe but a democratic one that is legitimised by referendums in all member states at the same time about whether they want to be in or out. 

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