The Vote for a Gentler and More Democratic Europe
As the powerful impact of the emphatically negative French and Dutch verdicts in the referenda on the European Union's new Constitution sinks in, it becomes increasingly apparent that the vote may not have been driven largely by isolationism, national chauvinism or xenophobic fears about immigration, as many had expected.
These sentiments did form a significant (but minor) component of the reasons behind the ballot in the two countries. But the dominant consideration seems to have been just the opposite: the urge for a more democratic EU that respects, defends and extends its citizens' rights and strives for a humane common future for a Social Europe, which the conservative, pro-corporate Constitution would have negated.
It is equally apparent that the impact of the referenda, which render the Constitution null and void, will extend to the larger world beyond Europe. If a democratic debate now opens up, focused on the aims and purposes of the European project, it will pose major issues about whether and how the EU can contribute to a more balanced, equitable, non-hegemonic world order and provide a counterweight to the United States, or whether it would be content to be an emulator-competitor of the US on Washington's terms, and thus help further distort the global order. So all of us have a stake in the debate over Europe.
First, the 70 and 62 per cent turnouts respectively in France and the Netherlands mean that the EU seems important to its ordinary citizens and evokes strong emotions - not just of anger (at ruling governments and persistent unemployment), and fear (of a loss of identity), but also nobler ones like defence of humane values. These latter probably played a far more important role in the overall "no" vote. They certainly explain the success which the pro-integration Left and progressive social movements had in forming the core - and the coherent part - of the "no" coalition and in mobilising large numbers of people, including the youth, not to speak of fence-sitters at the last stage of the campaign.
The EU vote, especially in France, reflected a class divide. The upwardly mobile professionals voted "yes". But the working class, facing 10 per cent unemployment and grave economic uncertainty, rejected the "Europe of the Bosses".
The public debate generated by the Constitutional referenda has clearly reflected a conflict between two ideas: that of a kinder, gentler Europe, and a Europe that projects power and wants to dominate. There's a tussle here between two agendas: one of the people and social rights, and the other of "free markets" and corporate privilege.
The Constitution was basically dominated by the second agenda. The Convention which drafted it was established through nomination. It was mainly comprised of representatives of governments and national/European parliaments, and generally excluded civil society organisations. This was in keeping with the EU's evolution in recent years, especially after the elitist Maastricht treaty.
The Constitution is an unwieldy 400-page-plus document, with 448 articles. Very, very few people have read it. Nor has the media summed up its provisions accurately or fully. The Constitution is almost impossible to amend. Any change requires a consensus at three levels virtually impossible to achieve. It perpetuates top-heavy structures like the democratically unaccountable European Central Bank. It would also have created an individual EU president with a term of 30 months in place of the more democratic six-month rotating presidency.
Similarly, by amending the consensus rule, under which all EU decisions had to be unanimous in the 25 member-states, it gives excessive powers to the Big Four (Germany, France, Britain and Italy) and discriminates against smaller states by stipulating a majority of only 65 per cent of citizens and 55 per cent of states.
The statute erodes the democratic decision-making space on immigration and social policy and grants the veto to national parliaments only for defence, foreign policy and taxation. The emphasis, however, is on a common foreign and security policy. An especially egregious feature of the Constitution is that it contains policy prescriptions especially "free market" dogmas. Policy is a legitimate function of the government of the day, not the Constitution.
The Constitution subordinates hard-won social rights to so-called free competition, and treats corporate interests as sacrosanct. For instance, it whittles down the fundamental right to work, to the right to look for a job! It removes valuable social protections. And it mandates that public services like water supply, healthcare and education be thrown open to "competition" and thus be privatised. The Constitution would have completed and sealed the long under-way transition from social Europe to corporate Europe.
At a seminar in Amsterdam, which I attended, Susan George, the famed author of How the Other Half Dies noted that the word "competition" occurs 47 times in the text. While "market" occurs 78 times, "social progress" is completely missing!
Equally disturbing is the obligation of each member state to "improve its military capabilities". The EU, which spends half as much as the US on the military (in GDP terms) is being asked to compete with America and match its spending on military research too.
A related EU defence strategy paper calls for military "intervention anywhere", which is "early, rapid, and when necessary, robust". It says: "We should be ready to act before a crisis occurs." This is similar to the obnoxious Bush doctrine of pre-emptive/preventive war!
The ultimate irrationality is that the EU's new militaristic orientation is unrelated to any external threat!
The Constitution's defeat precipitates a fresh crisis. This can be resolved only by deciding one central issue: what kind of Europe is desirable - an arrogant, powerful superpower unkind to its own citizens, or a federal entity that respects equality, caring-and-sharing and justice, and wants to reform the iniquitous world order?
We can only hope that such a debate gets going soon and that the EU emerges as a genuine alternative model to the hegemonic American one. Only thus can it live up to its original promise of creating an order where nations don't go to war, execute people or subject them to the market's brutalities.
Copyright 2005 Khaleej Times