An Erosion of Democracy

First Published: 2008-04-04

The new European Union treaty approved at a summit of member states in Lisbon in October, 2007, has attracted fierce opposition in Britain. It has been labelled “the great EU betrayal”. The controversy is as much about the accountability of an elected government to its voters, and the implications for democracy, as the nature of the new powers ceded to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

In an article published in The Tribune last October, the Nassau Institute examined the debate leading up to the EU summit meeting. The treaty was designed, ostensibly, to improve the working of the EU’s existing institutions, though many claimed that it was identical to the new EU constitution which had been rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Fast forward now to March this year when members of parliament at Westminster voted against holding a referendum about the treaty. This was preceded by pressure on the Labour government to honour its manifesto commitment in 2005 – matched by the other two main parties – to hold a referendum before prime minister Gordon Brown signed the treaty last December.

Mr. Brown maintained that a referendum was unnecessary because the treaty was substantially different from the constitution.

This flew in the face of evidence to the contrary, not least from former French president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who drew up the constitution, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Mr. Brown also claimed that Britain’s interests had anyway been protected by opt-outs in key policy areas.

Despite the government’s success in defeating calls for a referendum, the debate is far from over. The issue was originally about the wisdom of transferring more powers to the EU at the expense of national sovereignty. It has now developed into a matter of trust between government and the electorate.

Further EU Integration

As the dream of the founding fathers to build a supranational federalist Europe gradually and ineluctably becomes reality, many now question whether – with 27 countries and 490million people – this can work or is desirable.

Deepening the links between the original 6 EEC (European Economic Community) members – France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries – would have been broadly acceptable since it would have cemented the Franco-German alliance which was the key to peace in Europe. However, it is now argued that, since this has already been achieved in an expanded and economically integrated Europe, it is unnecessary to press for more political integration.

EU member states have already forged strong links with the removal of tariff and other barriers to trade and a single market and currency including free movement of capital and labour. There has been peace in Europe since 1945 (despite localized conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia) and the danger of future conflict has been effectively removed.

Moreover, the EU is already fundamentally undemocratic with too much executive power vested in its unelected Commission – the body which proposes and executes EU laws — and in its legislative body, the Council of Ministers, which is not subject to sufficient systematic scrutiny by the electorates of its member states. The EU requires national currencies to be abolished and its directives and regulations to be adopted as domestic law. Already in Britain it is estimated that some 60% of legislation on the statute book originates in Brussels.

Against this backdrop, French and Dutch public opposition to a new EU constitution in 2005 was mirrored more recently in Britain when this was reconstructed into the Lisbon treaty which provided for the similar transfer of more powers to the EU; namely, an EU president and foreign minister, a supreme court, a civil service, flag and anthem, a Charter of Fundamental Rights, extended majority voting, treaty-making powers and a new “passerelle” clause enabling Europe’s institutions to extend their powers without recourse to further treaty amendments.

Democracy and the voice of the people

In a parliamentary democracy voters rely on their elected representatives to promote and protect their interests. A referendum is normally reserved for a constitutional issue of major importance. In 1975, British people voted in a referendum in favour of continued membership of the then EEC which dealt with economic, trade and social matters.

Today’s EU is substantially different. Even though there was no referendum in Britain to approve the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, which created the EU and was a turning point in the European integration process, there is a case for using the opportunity of the Lisbon treaty to test public opinion again directly. Certainly, it is in Britain’s interest to maintain its membership, but in a democracy the people need to be seen to be associated with government decision-making.

A recent independent and unofficial poll showed over 80% in support of such a referendum, and the government appears to have fought shy of one because it fears it would lose and that that would adversely affect Britain’s EU membership.

But most people favour the existence of the EU as a force for peace and economic cooperation and understand the benefits of membership; though eurosceptics fear its gradual emergence as a separate collective entity increasingly beyond the control of its member states. They want it reformed rather than dismantled and the terms of Britain’s membership redefined.

The Lisbon treaty provided a catalyst for an overdue constructive public debate, but the government has stifled this and simply stuck to the patently false claim that the treaty is materially different from the constitution so that a referendum is neither needed nor appropriate. That is bad for Britain and for the future of the EU because it will destroy trust and build resistance thus strengthening the hand of the eurosceptics at a time when Britain should be playing a leading role at the centre of the European project.

Lessons of ‘big’ government

Libertarians who view the dominance and, invariably, the arrogance of the political class as inimical to the interests of individual citizens will regard these developments with dismay.

They will see them as another example of dictatorial politicians calling the shots in blatant defiance of public opinion instead of taking account of the views of their constituents when the evidence indicates strong public interest. They will say, with sadness, ‘I told you so……..’

The implications will go beyond the question of Europe alone because the issue is one of trust. The consent of the governed is an essential ingredient of a successful democracy, and that requires trust in political leaders.

Many in Britain consider the refusal of a promised referendum on the Lisbon treaty as a betrayal of that fundamental trust between government and the governed. For libertarians it is a cautionary tale.

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