Is the EU tactic of avoiding ratification of the Lisbon treaty through referenda in various EU countries a cynical plot of a European elite to bypass the mechanisms of democracy as Habermas and Murdoch suggest? I have always been sceptical of this argument. Given how much public discussion of the EU has been poisoned by the likes of Murdoch and the rest, there's limited reason to believe that the positive merits of further EU integration can come across. As with many things, fear and loathing [those wretched Eurocrats!] are far easier to sell than patience and understanding. To be sure, EU-friendly politicians have not made much of an effort towards selling the Lisbon Treaty. Can anyone really argue that the person in the street is more likely to come across yet more tabloid rants against the EU a la the Sun than to seek well-reasoned the arguments for further integration? That Habermas plays to the former crowd is indeed disappointing. Here are some excerpts from Der Spiegel:
European governments are at their wits' end. It is time for them to admit it -- and let the public decide about the future of the European Union.
…and everything comes to a grinding halt.
The farmers are upset about falling global prices [!!!--even dyed-in-wool agricultural protectionists should be aware of rising global commodity prices] and the new regulations constantly coming from Brussels. Those at the bottom of the social ladder are upset about the growing gap between rich and poor, especially evident in a country where both groups live in close proximity. The citizens despise their own politicians, who promise the world but who lack perspective and do not (cannot) deliver.And then along comes a referendum over a treaty that is too complicated to be understood. EU membership has been more or less advantageous. Why should anything be changed? Doesn't the strengthening of European institutions necessarily lead to a weakening of democratic voices, which are only heard within the national public sphere?
The citizens sense that they are being patronized. Once again, they are to ratify something in the making of which they were not involved. The government has said that this time the referendum will not be repeated until the people give in. And aren't the Irish, this small, obstinate people, the only ones in all of Europe who are actually being asked for their opinions?
They don't want to be treated like cattle being driven to the voting booth. With the exception of three members of parliament who voted "no" on the issue, the Irish people and the entire Irish political class are entirely at odds. In a sense, it is also a referendum over politics in general, making it all the more tempting to send "politics" a message. This temptation is one felt everywhere today.
One can only speculate on the motives behind the Irish "no" vote. But the first official reactions have been clear. Suddenly roused out of complacency, European governments don't want to appear helpless. They are looking for a "technical" solution -- which would result in a repeat of the Irish referendum.
This, though, is little more than unadulterated cynicism on the part of the decision makers, especially given their protestations of respect for the electorate. It is also wind in the sails of those actively wondering whether semi-authoritarian forms of pseudo-democracy practiced elsewhere are perhaps more effective after all...
Until Nice, the integration process, fuelled by economic liberalism, was pursued by the elites over the heads of the population. But since then, the successes of economic dynamism are increasingly perceived as a zero-sum game. There are more and more losers across Europe.
Justifiable socio-economic fears and consequent short-sighted reactions may explain the unstable mood. But the public's frame of mind can be influenced by political parties -- by offering the electorate a credible vision. Unsolved problems should be taken more seriously than transient states of feeling.
The failed referendums are a signal that the elitist mode of European unification is, thanks to its own success, reaching its limits. These limits can only be surmounted if the pro-European elites stop excusing themselves from the principle of representation and shed their fears of contact with the electorate...
The price of this diffuse expansion project is a lack of political leverage in a global society that, while economically tightly knit, has been drifting apart politically since 2001. One only has to look at the miserable images of petty princes Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, as they kowtow to US President George W. Bush, to realize that Europe is bidding adieu to the world stage.
But the problems of climate change, the extreme gaps between rich and poor, the global economic order, the violation of fundamental human rights and the struggle over dwindling energy resources affect everyone equally. Even as the world becomes increasingly interdependent, the global political stage is home to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and an increased willingness to turn to violence. Isn't it in the interest of a politically strong Europe to push for the constitutionalization of international law and an effective cooperation of the international community?
Europe, though, is unable to achieve political significance commensurate with its economic importance, precisely because its governments disagree over the purpose of European unification. Where the blame lies is clear. First and foremost, it can be pinned on the fact that governments themselves are at a loss -- and are thus spreading the malaise of a lackadaisical and morose "more of the same" attitude.
Naturally, the fundamental conflict over direction derives its explosive force from deeper-seated, historically-rooted differences. There are not grounds for criticism of any particular country. But in the wake of the Irish signal, we should expect two things from our governments. They must admit that they are at their wits' end. And they cannot continue to suppress their crippling dissent. In the end, they are left with no choice but to allow the peoples to decide for themselves.