TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Voting for a European Political Project

After Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Reform Treaty in last week’s referendum, the European Union is in uncharted waters and needs a complete rethink. But the early signs are that Brussels and the national capitals have not grasped the true nature of this latest crisis. Paradoxically, the No vote in Ireland is pro-European. Like the Dutch and the French in 2005 (when both rebuffed the Constitutional Treaty), the Irish support a wider political project—they just want a Union different from the one currently on offer.

EU heads of state and government are currently gathering in Brussels for their regular summit meeting—this time the EU Council takes place under the chairmanship of the Slovene Presidency. Discussions are revolving around three equally problematic options. First, renegotiating the entire Lisbon treaty and re-ratifying it by all the 27 member-states will not command unanimous support. Second, granting Ireland some concession and holding a second referendum risks backfiring and might well produce another No.

Third, adopting the Lisbon treaty without Ireland and thereby creating a two-speed Union—whereby some countries form a core of closer integration while others are relegated to the periphery—is fraught with constitutional problems and would almost certainly be challenged in the European Court of Justice.

Thus, the most probable course of action is to delay any final decision until another country joins the EU, at which point the Union is obliged to modify the current arrangements. Croatia’s accession, expected in 2010 or 2011, will provide an opportunity to replace the existing Nice treaty with the provisions of the Lisbon treaty.

In the meantime, ratification will continue, with 19 member-states having already adopted the treaty in legislatives votes (the latest being Britain on Wednesday night in the House of Lords) and another 7 seeking parliamentary approval.

The trouble is that this strategy—by excluding the voting public from the political process—fails to address the two main concerns that prompted a clear majority of Irish voters (53.4%) to reject Lisbon: an increasingly remote and unaccountable Union that combines centralized bureaucratic regulation with the extension of the free market.

According to post-referendum polls, many Irish voters said No because the proposed reforms would do little to reduce the distance between the EU institutions and the people they are supposed to represent. Ireland’s citizens feel that the Union in its present configuration is increasingly self-serving and out of touch with ordinary people—a project devised by elites for elites.

Moreover, fearing an EU-wide privatization of public services and a curtailing of workers’ rights and pension entitlements, the electorate in rural and urban working class areas across Ireland voted massively against the new treaty.

At a time of growing pressure from globalization and a slowdown of growth, the Irish—like other Europeans—are looking to the Union for protection and stability. Instead, neo-liberal structural reforms at the level of the European single market undermine economic security and social cohesion. This is achieved by a downward legal harmonization that aims to increase efficiency and enhance competition by imposing a centralized regulatory regime. It is precisely this narrow economic and legalistic vision of Europe advocated by the political and business establishment that has been rejected by Ireland.

In consequence, symbolic concessions such as reintroducing the right for Ireland and every other member-state to nominate a Commissioner (replaced by a rotating system in the Lisbon treaty) will do nothing to bind the Irish or any other peoples closer to the Union. Rather, what is needed is a proper political project in which the citizenry can participate.

To fashion this ideal into reality requires considerable political transformation. Presently, the three main EU institutions are dominated by the member-states, not the European electorate. Members of the European Parliament are candidates selected by national parties. The President of the European Commission and all the Commissioners are appointed by national governments. And the Presidency of the Council (the EU’s other executive, constituted by the 27 member-states) is held by each member-state on a rotating basis.

A genuine alternative is to hold European-wide elections that bypass national party politics and connect Europe’s citizens directly to their elected representatives. Rather than each country voting to send its own proxies to Brussels, citizens could select among candidates from EU-wide party federations. Thus constituted, the European Parliament could choose the Commission President and the Commissioners from its ranks. The only elected institution could then hold them more fully accountable than at present.

Similarly, instead of rotating national presidencies (or, under Lisbon, appointing a President for two and a half years), there could and should be a contest among candidates from different political traditions for the office of President of the Council. Elected by universal suffrage, this office would then command more legitimacy, not least by avoiding accusations of horse-trading and favoritism. Taken together, these changes could help bring about a Europe-wide debate about the Union’s fundamental political and socio-economic direction.

The EU can no longer afford to muddle through in the hope that a No vote can simply be overturned in a second referendum. What is required is a political project that engages Europe’s citizens and gives them a genuine say. Shared electoral practices across the Union would contribute to a sense of common identity among European voters.

Comments are closed.