The European Ideal

Yet in order to properly answer this question, we need to delve deep to the very heart of the matter. In other words, the question is not so much of why did the French and, subsequently, the Dutch, vote against the EU constitution, but what is Europe.

At first glance, the answer seems trivial enough. It soon becomes clear, however, that it’s not so obvious. This is because Europe is many things to many people. Some see it as a continent and a civilization which existed long before the birth of nations. Others view it as a shared culture, sometimes coupled with a sense of belonging.

What all versions of Europe have in common — from the geographical to the metaphysical — is that Europe is an idea. This idea vacillates between that of an identity, on the one hand, and that of the consciousness of an entity, on the other. While some may regard consciousness and identity as one and the same thing, they are not. Although they can coexist, they don’t necessarily go together. Moreover, they don’t cross time and space in a straight line, thus their relationships and interactions are, at best, subtle.

The concept of an identity — in other words, the sense of belonging by virtue of which Europeans are distinguishable from the rest of the world — long drew strength from a sense of ethnocentric superiority. It was also, at least for an elite, based on culture. The Roman churches and Gothic cathedrals, the Enlightenment, and Baroque music are all undeniably elements that make Europe what it is today.

European consciousness, meanwhile, has other roots and seems to be more widely shared by society as a whole. Some see it as the culmination of the 20th century’s major tragedies to have affected Europe, namely the First and Second World War Wars as well as the Cold War, not to mention the totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism. Others see the origin and evolution of a European consciousness beginning at a much earlier point in time.

Regardless of when a European identity and consciousness were first born, it is from the symbiosis of these two concepts, brought about the perceived need for cooperation in the face of outside economic pressures, which transformed the idea of "Europe" into a political process by the mid-20th century. Even so, the idea of "Europe" as a unified political concept remains an enigma to this day. While some may argue that the original concept of the common market over the past 50 years laid the foundation for a "European Union", it’s far from viewed as a simple, single idea. Rather, the "ideas" of a political Europe have become polarized into two main approaches: that of unionists who advocate co-operation between sovereign states; and that of federalists who support a more supranational Europe.

It’s against this backdrop upon which the idea of "united Europe" is now based. As a result, many have been left wondering what exactly the political process all about. Unless the idea of a united Europe – that is, the political concept of a European Union — is clearly understood by all, it can never be accepted by the vast majority of Europeans. Hence, the recent failure to ratify the constitution in France and the Netherlands should come as no surprise, for a common constitution can’t be approved if the socio-political entity it’s supposed to regulate isn’t clearly understood and accepted by the general public.

For this and many other reasons, many citizens see the present European
Union (EU) and its institutions as a distant authority, cold and technocratic. Indeed, eurocrats have turned a blind eye to their own statistics which for years have shown that they, along with EU institutions, are not popular. The numbers say it all: in 2002, less than half of Europeans from the original 15 member states felt that EU institutions were relevant and necessary, this according to a eurobarometer survey. In all, it represented a 7% drop in confidence toward EU institutions when compared to a previous study. Since then, these same statistics have dropped even further.

From this, it can be clearly seen that the negative attitudes toward the
EU which drove the French and the Dutch to reject the constitution isn’t anything new, but actually the culmination of negative attitudes which have been accumulating over the years. This being the case, how could eurocrats expect that, when given the chance, people wouldn’t take the opportunity express what they really feel about the EU.

In addition to this, eurocrats are often too hasty at dismissing negative attitudes toward the EU as irrational behavior. The reason Europeans feel that EU institutions aren’t relevant and necessary is because, in practice, they really aren’t. The procedures for the EU are spelled out in the Treaty of Rome, which refers to equilibrium between the European Commission (EC), the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament. While the formula may look nice on paper, in practice it’s anything but equal. It’s the EC, in its role as the executive branch of the EU, which proposes negotiations, signs, and then ratifies an EU treaty or directive. On the other hand, it’s the exclusive right of the Council of Ministers to make decisions. The parliament, meanwhile, which is supposed to be the focal point for citizens (as membership in both the Council of Ministers and the EC are appointed positions, and thus not accountable to an electorate), is relegated to an observatory role, as it’s limited to only giving its opinion on certain issues.

In conjunction with the EU’s lack of relevance and necessity, the major mistake made by eurocrats in their attempt to push through their vision of Europe is that they have consistently swept under the rug all opposition to the way in which the EU has been evolving over the years. Although the EC has gradually admitted that they have a "communication problem" in making relevant EU institutions and procedures to the public at large, what they fail to grasp is that their problem goes far beyond simply "communicating" their ideas to the public. Not only does the EC have a problem communicating its ideas to the people of Europe, it also has a problem of listening to what the people are saying. With such a blind, deaf and dumb institution operating from Brussels, one can’t expect much in terms of civic discourse between EU institutions and European citizenry.

This apparent disconnect between the people of Europe and EU institutions has thus become an unbridgeable gap. To make matters worse, eurocrats have yet to grasp the essence of what is really happening. Most view the rejection of the EU constitution as an isolated event, even an anomaly. This is despite the fact that there have been many protests against the EU and the direction in which it has been going over the years, such as in Amsterdam back in 1997. Indeed, some of these protests even became violent, for instance when the police shot three protesters at Gothenburg in 2001. Thus, what power brokers in Brussels don’t understand, either out of ignorance or contempt, is that the evolution of the EU in and of itself has been an ongoing battle, with the ratification of the EU constitution merely its latest chapter.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a common line shared by eurocrats is that the people didn’t really reject the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands, that they were instead voicing their frustrations over domestic issues. In some ways, this is actually true. However, this is only to be expected as the only political channel Europeans have to the heart of EU decision-making is through the domestic political process. Since it’s at the national level where those destined for Brussels are culled, and since there is no such thing as an
EU constituency which directly connects the citizen to the EU political establishment, political and social discourse on an EU level can’t exist. People thus can only become familiar with the EU political process at the national level, since all forms of discourse is diverted and filtered through the domestic policies and issues handled by national parliaments.

Given this conceptual framework, it’s obvious that the only way in which any sort of dialog or discourse on an EU level can be expressed is through domestic issues. Since the role of national governments is simply to implement directives coming from the EU, public opposition — and even anger — to such directives can be only directed, in turn, at national governments since they are the ones responsible for doing the "dirty work" of translating EU directives into public policy.

Thus, it’s clear that the way in which the EU has been established and works is anything but democratic. The fact that many eurocrats were genuinely surprised by the referendum results from France and the Netherlands merely attests to how those who live and work for the EU are in many ways divorced from reality, that they have no idea of what Europe is really about. As one observer aptly put it, the reaction by eurocrats to the results of the French and Dutch referendums was akin to that of the sinking of the Titanic, where the orchestra kept playing while the ship went down.

The condescending attitude toward Europe and Europeans by eurocrats is plain for all to see. The constitution, of which very few know anything about, was simply shoved in front of an electorate as if citizens are nothing more than helpless infants, that they need to be told what is good for them whilst spoon-fed a lot of soothing nonsense.

Of course, this was only the case in those countries that dared to hold a referendum, which is a minority of member states. Elsewhere, national parliaments simply rubber stamped their approval. This is understandable as national parliaments have become nothing more than the breeding ground for an elite political class. It is from this elite class where the new members of the EU aristocracy are, subsequently, selected. Ironically, often those no longer considered relevant in national politics, and in some cases who are even considered to be a political liability, are quietly sent away to Brussels. Indeed, the ranks of the EU aristocracy appear to be mostly filled by the politically dead and dying and those in need of political immunity.

Sadly, it can be surmised from all of this that the way in which the EU functions at present is similar to the way power was wielded during the Middle Ages. One can only hope that a Renaissance will come to Europe sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the debate continues as to what is really Europe. Interestingly enough, if one accepts the premise that the idea of Europe has been forged by the symbiosis of identity and consciousness, and that the consciousness of a European entity was initially derived from four successive refusals of the 20th century (the disgust engendered by the 1914-18 war, the "no" to fascism, opposition to decline, and refusal of Soviet domination), then one can conclude that to vote against the EU constitution is actually to be pro-Europe, for at the very heart of the European ideal is the struggle for freedom: freedom from tyranny, oppression, and domination. Along these lines, it can be concluded that national governments throughout the EU, all of which are uncritically in support of the proposed constitution, are actually anti-Europe. The only way around this conundrum is to tear up the Treaty of Rome and start all over again — from the bottom up.

John Horvath is a freelance writer based in Hungary.