The European Union and democracy

This contribution was presented at the Sixth Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in Helsinki, Finland, September 6, 2006 at the plenary session of Cluster 3 on “Democracy and Human Rights”.

If we discuss the question of democracy in the EU we first of all have to discuss the character of the EU. What is the existing European Union and what it is not?

It is clear that the EU is not a state, not even a federalist state. It has no real state power, no army, no real government, no common foreign policy. I said no ’real’ state power and no ’real’ government, because there is some kind of European political power, and there are some aspects of governmental power in de European Commission. But these are not dominant.

The real power in de EU lies within the national governments of the member states. They - the heads of government - come together in the European Council, where they set out the general political lines of the Union. They appoint the president of the European Commission, in which all the member states are represented. And their ministers work out the policies in the different areas in the Council of Ministers.
So, although it has some federalist aspects, in the kernel of the matter the European Union is still an inter-governmental organisation. But one with a special dynamic and a special function.

The origin of the European Union - as it came to shape in this last half century - lies in the battlefields, or should I say the slaughter fields, of the two world wars. There were drown two conclusions from the mass slaughter.

First of all there was a strong feeling among the population that they didn’t want a war anymore. The idea of a ’jolly war’ was buried forever, with the use of the first arms of mass destruction.

Secondly the ruling elites in the different European countries came to the conclusion that by fighting each other for a bigger share of the markets in Europe and abroad, they were all losing, and it would be the North American competitors who would take the profit of their struggle.

This was what already happened after the first world war, when the ruins of Europe enabled the USA to strengthen its economic position considerably.

So it was clear for the ruling elites that they needed to cooperate by creating a bigger home market for their industries. Especially for branches as the petrochemical industry, electronics, aircrafts etc. it was clear that the home market of countries like France or Italy, not to speak of Belgium or the Netherlands were much too small for a successfully restart of this kind of activities and too small to collect the capital needed for a successful restart.

So the European Unity was set up as an economic project - the construction of a single market - under de banner of ’no more war’ in Europe.

Ironically it were the United States themselves who helped the economic take off of Europe after the second world war with the so called Marshall plan. Of course they didn’t do that for altruist reasons, neither were they so naïve to help their competitors in the saddle again.

They took the initiative for obvious reasons, based on the post War reality in Europe. The Soviet influence in East Europe, the strong position of several communist parties in Western Europe (due to their role in the resistance against the German occupation and the prestige of de USSR), the lost of prestige of a lot of bourgeois political forces because of their collaboration or cowardly behaviour during the war, and the general misery in the hole of Europe, made theme correctly believe that there was a danger of a social revolution on the European continent.

Therefor they calculated: better helping setting up a functioning market economy in Europe again - although that meant a certain strengthening of the European competitors - than taking the risk of losing the hole European market and their political influence in that continent.

We all know that this calculation was correct, that they helped to keep capitalism alive in the West of Europe and gained a big political influence there.

To summarise: at the origin the European Union was a political economic project of creating a European single market, to make possible a capitalist reconstruction of Europe and avoid a social revolution.

 Neo liberalism

Of course this project of European Unity did not start as a neo-liberal project. Far from it.The dominant economic doctrines of that time put a lot of emphasis on the role of the state in the economic process. And although it were market economies, in all the Western European countries there was a very strong state sector of the economy and a lot of planning and supervising institutions with the aim of controlling or directing economic development.

As we all know this changed in the seventies of the past age. Starting with Great Britain under Thatcher, in the whole of Europe neo-liberalism became the dominant economic and political doctrine. And this change led to a change of the role of the European institutions.

The implementation of the neo-liberal project with its dominance of the free market, cutting down of the state expenditures, opening of markets, privatisation etc. led to the braking down of the so called welfare states who were realised in the post war decades. The cutting down of these arrangements would led to a strong resistance of the population, and especially the organised working class.

One of the methods a ruling elite can use to demoralise its adversaries and break the resistance is to try to show that the changes they want to introduce are unavoidable, that they come from forces beyond there control, that it is not a question of their political will, or their interest, but that there simply is no other way.

’Europe’ played a big role in this for the European elites. All kind of measures in the framework of the neo-liberal project were presented as coming from Europe. This role of Europe in realising the neo-liberal project explains in my view the big erosion of the ’pro European sentiment’ in a country like the Netherlands and other countries. To understand de changed attitude of the people in different European countries it is important to be aware of the way this mechanism is functioning.

In short: A Dutch minister - member of the executive branch of the state - goes to Brussels. There he is transformed into a member of a Europeans law making body - the council of ministers. Together with his fellow ministers he takes decisions who have the power of European laws. Coming home he - again as a member of the executive branch - has to transform this European decision into Dutch legislation. Later on, when the negative effects of this are felt, he explains to the public that he cannot act differently because he has to follow European legislation.

 The constitution

It is understandable that people who are confronted year after year with this mechanism turn from very pro European to rather sceptical. That was just what happened in a country like the Netherlands. A population who was in the sixties and the seventies very pro European voted in an overwhelming majority against the so called European Constitution.

Of course the European elites understood very well the negative consequences for the image of Europe of the way they used Europe to set thru their neo-liberal project. The whole idea of writing a European Constitution came from this concern. They tried to achieve two things at the same time.

One: To fix by constitution the neo-liberal, militaristic and undemocratic Europe as it was constructed the last decades. “To carve it in marble,” as they said in the French No campaign. This constitutional treaty could only be changed by agreement of the governments of all the member states.

Second: By calling it a Constitution they wanted to legitimate the existing Europe. Because a constitution is associated with constitutional rights, with the rights of the people towards the governors and the state. Constitution is about human rights.
In my country, the Netherlands, the elites were so sure about their project that they even decided to organise the first national referendum in Dutch history on the constitution. This way they wanted to give it even more legitimacy: not only of a constitution but also of a constitution accepted by the majority of the people. Would they have succeeded, for years the response to every critic of there European Union would be: you are undemocratic, this Europe with this constitution is what the people have voted for.

But, their estimation was wrong. Instead of a majority they did only get a 38% of the electorate to vote yes, against 62% who voted no to the constitution.

This was a remarkable result given the fact that not only a big majority of the political world, - the liberal, social Christian, social democratic and Green party (representing more than 80% of the members of parliament) - was in favour of the Constitution, but also nearly all the big social organisations - including trade unions and environmental organisations, said Yes to the constitution.

The success of the No campaign was twofold. We were able to get a very clear majority of No voters by a participation rate of 62%, which is nearly twice as high as the average show up by elections for the European Parliament. But probably even more important was the fact that we were able to make it a progressive campaign in which the rightwing No (with nationalistic and anti immigrant sentiments) was drown out.

I am not going to analyse the results of this referendum in detail (as we did earlier) but limit myself tot some conclusions, which in my opinion go beyond the Dutch situation.

1. It is possible to mobilise a big majority of the people against the neo-liberal project.

2. This majority consists of the people who can be considered as the most directly affected by the neo-liberal process: people with the lowest family income, a low level of formal education, the youth, women and those who tend to vote for left parties. (All categories which were over represented in the No voters.)

3. The rejection of the constitution in France and the Netherlands reinforced the crisis of the European Union, which gives opportunities to promote an alternative project for another Europe.

The reaction of the European institutions on the French and Dutch No are a good illustration of the undemocratic character of the existing Union. The first reaction was to stop all ratification processes inclusive the planned or foreseen referenda in different countries (with exception of Luxemburg): If people are not willing to vote as you like them to vote, you don’t let them vote.

Than - after a year of reflection - there was decided to try to save the essence of the Constitution by changing the form. Rewrite part one, dropping part two, and leave aside the name Constitution. And of course avoid referenda, at least in countries as the Netherlands were a referendum over a European treaty is not obligated by law.

It is clear that the whole process in which Europe was used to implement the neo-liberal project was a process of dé-democratisation. Political power was taken away of democratically elected organs and put in the hand of institutions which are neither elected nor accountable. In a lot of domains the hand of the free markets have taken over from politics.

Very important decisions with far reaching consequences were taken without any consultation of the population, like de enlargement of the Union, the introduction of the Euro, the liberalisation of markets etc.

 An other Europe

I think it is important to struggle for an other Europe. Of course there are in general two ways in which people can express their discontent, their frustration with Europe and neo-liberal politics in general. An anti-European, anti-strangers, a nationalist attitude as is promoted by the far right. Or a progressive, a democratic and internationalist way as defended by the social justice movement.

As we have seen in the No campaigns, both in France and the Netherlands, it is possible to mobilise people in a left campaign around Europe. To explain them that the answer we have to give to this Europe is not a nationalist answer, but that we have to struggle for another Europe. A democratic Europe in which decisions are taken by the people or by organs directly elected and accountable to the people.

A Europe that doesn’t spin around money and market, but where the people and the environment take the central place.A Europe of solidarity with others inside and outside Europe, a Europe where competition is not the highest value. A non militaristic Europe. A Europe with equal opportunities for everyone. Etc. etc.

The defeat of the constitution in France and the Netherlands gives a big opportunity to discuss the other Europe for a broad audience. In these two countries there has never been such a broad discussion on Europe as during the referendum campaigns.

We need to enlarge this discussion to the whole of Europe. They always told us that common people are not interested in Europe, that it is to far away from them. And it surely is. But when people have the feeling they have something to say, that they have any power, even only to say No to a bad constitution, they are interested. The read pamphlets, they do visit websites, they come to discussions, and they come to the polling station.

So we have to broaden the discussion on the future of Europe. We have to use the spaces we have created as the European Social Forum and the National Social Forum. We have to work out our alternatives and discuss them.

But even more, we have to start, or go on, with giving shape to an other Europe in practice, in our common activities. As we did in our activities against the harbour directive, the Bolkestein directive, the war in Iraq, the war in Lebanon and the Gaza, the threat of war against Iran etc.

An other Europe is possible, let’s start to build it now.

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