At the Heart of Europe?: Two hundred years after William Pitt took on Napoleon, Europe is in crisis again. Keith Robbins warns Tony Blair that there are no easy fixes to the issues of democracy that have thrown the ‘European project’ off course. (Keith Robbins, December 2005, History Today)
It is arguable that in its various phases from the construction of the Coal and Steel Community onwards, ‘Europe’ could only have begun to cohere because of the enthusiasm, commitment, even deviousness, of an ‘undemocratic’ elite. In the case of the founding six states that signed the Treaty of Rome, in 1957, however, the political context in which its members worked was one in which the nation-states as they had existed in pre-1939 Europe, had ‘failed’ (in a manner that did not apply to the United Kingdom).
The EEC was of course only a partial ‘Europe’. Its founding members were all ‘democracies’ but they had come to their democracies by different routes. Germany was divided in a Europe in which ‘people’s’ democracies faced those of the West. ‘European’ (i.e. a certain sort of Western Europe) consolidation made economic sense and in particular gave a firm foundation to the desirable reconciliation between France and Germany. There was, however, an ambivalent relationship between ‘democracy’ and ‘integration’. ‘Integration’, whatever it precisely entailed, could certainly draw upon a widespread if imprecise notion that a ‘new beginning’ was required. ‘Christian democracy’, at least as espoused by parties that took that label, suggested a transnational ideology. Likewise ‘democratic Socialists’ differentiated themselves from Communists. These similarities made at least a meeting of minds possible. Integrationist minds, however, seeking what they deemed to be a greater good, were somewhat wary of ‘democratic control’. It might be necessary to suppose that both Nazism in Germany or Fascism in Italy had been ‘imposed’ on the ‘people’ but that was not the whole picture. The ‘people’ might again emerge unregenerate and in a xenophobic frame of mind. Democratic governments should, at appropriate moments, seek the ratification of the people for what they had decided to do, but there was a suspicion of decision-making by perpetual referendum. Use of the referendum by authoritarian regimes had shown how easily wording could be manipulated. Its use in Switzerland simply confirmed the prejudice that Switzerland was the exception to everything. […]
The successive enlargements of the Community on its way to the present European Union have had a kind of ‘democratic’ objective. Greece, Spain and Portugal, as early ‘new members’ in the 1980s, had all been nursed into democracy after their periods of authoritarian rule. One of the most compelling arguments for the EU’s recent and dramatic expansion to include the former Communist states of East-Central Europe was that common membership of the ‘democratic club’ would strengthen their own newly democratic cultures and structures. Such a mission was seen as laudable, no matter what stresses and strains might accompany it. It was the existing member governments, not the people, that agreed admissions and enlargements. The governments of applicant countries have been keen to get in and (Norway excepted) have obtained the necessary popular endorsement of membership on the terms that were offered them. What a referendum in existing member states might have said about enlargement is another matter.
The result, from Estonia to Portugal and from Ireland to Greece, has been the creation of a kind of ‘Europe’ that would not have been imaginable in 1955, let alone by William Pitt in 1805. It brings together some states that have had deep relationships over centuries and others whose interaction has been minimal. It is a democratic ‘Europe’ without precedent. And yet, a clear majority of Dutch and French voters have rejected the Constitution. Possibly for contradictory reasons, the Constitution was found unacceptable.
Sure, it was great fun for continental bureaucrats to impose an EU anti-democratically when they imagined it would consolidate power in their own hands. But now that the only feasible use for it is as a trade union, imposing economic liberalization on the older democracies and stripping power away from bureaucrats, they’ve fallen out of love with it.