The EU’s Democratic Deficit

3 October 2009

The EU’s Democratic Deficit

 By Gwynne Dyer

You can get the Irish to agree to anything, even a European super-state that forces abortion on them, conscripts their citizens for a European army, and compels Ireland to abandon its traditional neutrality. All you need is a severe recession (Ireland’s economy is the hardest-hit of all the European Union members), and suddenly all those concerns fade away.

Sixteen months ago the Irish voted “No” to the Lisbon Treaty, a deal that streamlined decision-making in the EU. For the first time the 27-member union would have a president, a foreign minister, and voting rules that do not require unanimity on every single policy decision. Twenty-six members ratified the treaty in their parliaments, but Ireland’s constitution required it to ratify treaties by referendum.

This led to a campaign in which Irish nationalists and leftists, backed by the right-wing anti-EU press in Britain (which circulates widely in Ireland), scared Irish voters into saying “No”. All the allegations in the first sentence of this article are untrue, but they all played a large part in that campaign.

The Irish “no” vote brought the process of European integration to a halt, but the EU then issued various statements promising the Irish government not to do what the Lisbon Treaty never gave it the right to do anyway. Last Friday the Irish were sent back to the polls, and this time sixty-seven percent of them voted “Yes”.

Presidents Lech Kaczynski of Poland and Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, the last two hold-outs, will both sign the treaty before the year’s end, and it will come into effect before the British election due by next spring brings the Conservatives to power. David Cameron, their leader, will therefore be released from his promise to hold a referendum on the treaty if it is still open to debate, and the EU wins once again.

By the way, this whole exercise became necessary because the original proposal to create an EU constitution was voted down in Dutch and French referendums in 2005. Whenever you ask the actual people of European countries if they want to “strengthen” and “deepen” the European Union, they have this distressing tendency to say no.

So after a “period of reflection,” the proposed EU constitution was re-packaged as a mere treaty, which in most EU countries can be ratified by a parliamentary vote without a referendum. Party discipline ensured that most members of parliaments will vote the right way, and 26 out of 27 parliaments did. Only Ireland required special treatment, and it was duly administered.

There is an obvious democratic deficit here. The grandees decide, and the people obey. Moreover, some of the grandees are very grand indeed. Take Jacques Chirac, president of France for twelve years until 2007.

Chirac has most recently been in the news when his pet Maltese terrier, Sumo, leaped up and bit him on the stomach – the dog was depressed by the move from the spacious grounds of the presidential palace to a private apartment on the Quai Voltaire – but the politician’s real claim to fame is his ability to escape corruption charges.

The charges date back to when Chirac was mayor of Paris in 1977-95. Between 1992 and 1995 alone, he spent two and a half million francs (about $500,000)in cash, mostly stuffed into brown envelopes in 500-franc notes, to pay for lavish holidays for his family, his friends, and their families. The money probably came from almost $100 million in bribes and kickbacks paid by companies seeking a share in a rebuilding programme for schools in the Paris area.

Chirac avoided prosecution for twelve years by insisting that he could not be questioned about the affair while he was president. The legal machinery ground slowly into motion once he left office, but like banks that are too big to fail, Chirac is too grand to go to jail. It now appears that all legal proceedings against him will be quashed.

There are other current example s of this phenomenon – Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for example – and many past ones. But the larger reality of which this is only one facet is that high politics in most European countries is still an elite project. That is nowhere truer than in the project of the European Union.

If it had been left to the normal politics of European countries, the EU would never have happened. It was the post-Second World War elites of Europe, appalled by the wars that had devastated the continent, who conceived the goal of a European Union where the rival nationalisms would eventually wither away and Europe would live in peace.

From the European Coal a nd Steel Community in 1951 to the European Economic Community in 1957 to the European Union in 1993, they summoned into existence a political entity for which there was little popular demand. When local nationalism got in the way, they worked round it or waited it out – like in Ireland just now.

While the forms of democracy are always observed, the spirit that animates the EU is we-know-what’s-good-for you, vote-again-till-you-get-it-right. If the result had not been a Europe that is prosperous, committed to protecting human rights, and astonishingly peaceful, you’d condemn the whole project out of hand.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and7. (“By the way…administered”)