Honestly, I’m not sure how keen on democracy the European elites have ever been. In my lifetime, most have preferred social and political arrangements — Marxism-Leninism, “social” democracy, the “social model” — that centralized power in their own hands, and limited the choices available to the citizenry to those already blessed by them. In a very real sense, European culture has never outgrown its awe and admiration for the most superficial aspects of the old blood nobility.
De Tocqueville, born a noble but a liberal democrat by conviction, first perceived this tragic flaw at the heart of Europe’s politics. He foresaw the rise in democratic Europe of centralized, paternalistic, “all-powerful” governments, ruled by stern “schoolmasters” whose only distinction from despots lay in having been elected. Thus the people could pretend to be free, while the elites could exercise an aristocratic authority over the people’s lives and property.
Today, De Tocqueville’s vision of schoolmasterly rulers is struggling to be born in the European Union. The EU sits atop the elected governments of 27 nations, and from this ungainly perch drains, vampire-like, the sovereignty of each. Interestingly, the nations’ loss hasn’t been the EU’s gain. Nobody in Europe, high or low, wastes passion on the EU, or feels the slightest loyalty to its institutions. Sovereignty and legitimacy have simply leaked away from all politics, all government.
That might be considered a bad thing, but only if one believed in the sovereignty of the people. For those who wish to rule in the mode prophesied by De Tocqueville, with a democratic face but a despotic hand, a little confusion can go a long way.
It scarcely matters whether the beneficiaries of this “project” are unelected Euro-elites in Brussels, or national elites who play the EU like a shell game to ignore the wishes of their electorates. The point is to “build” Europe like the Soviets used to build socialism: so the schoolmasters rule.
Centralization and massive bureaucracy typify the EU, but also every phase of life in the continent. Europe’s elites everywhere are seized with the urge to regulate and control the welfare of the masses — wedded, naturally enough, to fear and loathing of the opinions of ordinary people.
Ordinary people, given the chance, reciprocate the feeling. The elite’s first attempt to erect a supranational entity was the EU constitution, written by a former French president, blessed by everyone and everything with any standing in the political, cultural, and business worlds. It went down in defeat in referendums held in France and the Netherlands.
That was the wrong answer. The constitution was rewritten, its language made even more impenetrable to discourage prying eyes, and presented yet again as the Lisbon Treaty — which, not being a change in governmental structure, needed only the approval of the national parliaments. The elites, in other words, would ratify what the elites had wrought: game, set, match.
Except for the Irish. Because of skittishness about their neutrality, the Irish must put every foreign treaty to the popular vote. Still, nobody worried overmuch. The Irish have been the greatest beneficiaries of EU largesse and of the single market. Why would they bite the hand that fed them?
Good question. In a vote held last Friday, the Irish voted by 53 to 47 percent against the Lisbon Treaty.
We don’t know why large numbers of people vote one way rather than another. We can barely guess what motivates a single voter. So I’m not going to pontificate on the intentions or higher meanings behind the Irish vote. This much is certain, though: the people spoke. Since the treaty requires unanimous approval of all EU member nations, that should be the end of the story.
Wrong answer. At present the Euro-elites are too stunned to think clearly, so they haven’t yet come up with the plan to bury the Irish vote. But their opinion of democracy is of long standing — no need to think. Democracy, by their lights, is the celebration and confirmation of their worldview. The only legitimate vote, then, was for the Lisbon Treaty. A vote against meant the people hadn’t listened to their schoolmasters hard enough, and were in the grip of superstitious error.
According to the BBC, “Correspondents say many voters did not understand the treaty despite a high-profile campaign led by Mr Cowen, which had the support of most of the country’s main parties.” The triumph of ignorance: there’s your democracy. Not to worry, though: the same source reported that European Commission President Barroso had spoken with the Irish prime minister, and both had agreed “this was not a vote against the EU.” Get it right: No to Lisbon meant Yes to the EU — but Yes also meant Yes, and Maybe meant Yes, and Silence meant, well, Hell Yes.
As always in referendum campaigns, the most absurd fantasies triumph, the most absurd rumors, the most shameless take hold multiply to infinity. They plunged again into the democracy of opinions with its demagogues, populists, confabulators, and its myth obsessed. It’s a technique which is irresistible to a culture riddled with superstitions.
The Yes side had wisdom, evidence, and right reason. The other side suffered from an incurable “democracy of opinions” — God (or Marx) help us, the vote was an effusion of the Dark Ages which the Irish apparently have never outgrown.
The immediate reaction of the leaders of France and Germany was denial: move along, nothing to see here, ratification of the treaty continues. This is a normal response to illness or imminent death — less so to a referendum vote. According to the Guardian, the French “European” minister asserted, “The most important thing is that the ratification process must continue in the other countries, and then we shall see with the Irish what type of legal arrangement could be found.” And: “‘We’re sticking firmly to our goal of putting this treaty into effect,’ said the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. ‘So the process of ratification must continue.'”
The people have spoken, but the schoolmasters will have none of it. All EU nations must ratify the treaty, by the EU’s own rules — but what are rules among friends, or to philosopher kings? The point of the exercise was to achieve a given outcome, pre-approved by the elites, and if that outcome isn’t achieved then the rules must get ditched.
I save the best for last. A former Romanian foreign minister, currently member of the European “Parliament” — a body of vague but limited authority — is the author of the following burst of eloquence (via England Expects):
The Irish “No” is not the result or the expression of democracy, but of the crisis of the latter. On the one hand, we have the inability of the mass to find or understand the solutions for the settlement of the complicated problems regarding the guarantee of security and social justice in the conditions of globalization. On another hand, we have the divorce between the people and the elites. The Irish referendum is not a victory of democracy, but a last blow to the idea of democracy. (Especially the direct one). Unwillingly and without knowing, the Irish proclaimed with the candor of innocence that the “king” of democracy is naked.
Undeniably, the European process cannot continue through referendum. Such a method does not function when the electorate is unequally informed and educated about the problems in discussion.
The Romanians, newcomers to the games that Euro-elites play, merely say out loud what the more experienced schoolmasters hint at. Europe must shun the will of its people. Democracy, which represents that will, is the emperor that has no clothes, and the Irish the innocent child who has now exposed its naked failure. The people must never be given an opportunity to divorce their betters.
The elites want their Lisbon Treaty, and my guess is that, by hook or by crook, they will get it. It has always gone that way in Europe. But I have a sense that even the elites, weary and demographically depleted, can tell the end is in sight. They can’t “build” Europe endlessly: sooner or later, a limit must be reached. I’m guessing it was reached last Friday, by the Irish vote, and much of the noise quoted above is the political equivalent of whistling in the graveyard.
Otherwise, the Europe they build will resemble a house of cards, in which the fall of a single piece will bring the whole edifice down.
UPDATE: My favorite Brit writer, Theodore Dalrymple, had done a commentary for City Journal that echoes pretty closely what I posted above. Here’s the gist of it:
Is the European Union heading for a Yugoslavian-style denouement? It sometimes looks as if its political class, oblivious to the wishes or concerns of the EU’s various populations, is determined to bring one about. The French and the Dutch voted against the proposed European Constitution, but that did not deter the intrepid political class from pressing ahead with its plans for a superstate that no one else wants. To bypass the wishes of the people, the politicos reintroduced the constitution as a treaty, to be ratified by parliaments alone. Only the Irish had the guts — or was it the foolhardiness? — to hold a referendum on the issue. Unfortunately, the Irish people got the answer wrong. They voted no, despite their political leaders’ urging that they vote yes. No doubt the people will be given an opportunity in the future — or several opportunities, if necessary — to correct their mistake and get the answer right, after which there will be no more referenda. [. . . ]
Not to worry, the European political elites soon recovered from the shock. Ireland, they pointed out, is a small and peripheral country, and not a founder-member of the European Union. Anyway, what does it really matter if referendum after referendum, in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland, defeats the proposals of the European political class? The proposals can always be enacted regardless, by other means. What does it matter if two-thirds of Germans regret monetary unification, as do the French and the Italians? What does it matter if prime minister Gordon Brown refused to hold a referendum on the treaty in Britain — having previously promised one — once he realized how roundly voters would reject it? As European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said after the Irish vote: the Lisbon Treaty is not dead, it is living. What the people of Europe want is completely irrelevant.
For the moment, all is peaceful and quiet. The political class, which loves the unitary European state precisely because it so completely escapes democratic or any other oversight (let alone control), and for whom it acts as a giant pension fund, holds the upper hand for now. But tensions and frustrations in Europe have a history of expressing themselves in nasty ways.