The European Union: A Noble Union now in Jeopardy

European Union

Politicians may well allow themselves to be disoriented by the apparently intractable situation the European Union now finds itself in. The more robust among them will understand that lessons can and should be learned from what has happened. These include, in the first instance, properly interpreting the results and then taking such actions to address, the problems which arise from and are reflected in, the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty.

Excluding Ireland, where bitter experience provoked the creation of a prolonged public Forum to explain the European Union, it is a shame that over the past decade Europe’s political elite should apparently have done so little to explain to their citizens the true nature of the process of European integration. Fundamental to this process is the necessity for both an open and liberalised market and practical expression of the principal of solidarity. Of course all forms of economic management, today, are under pressure because of the massive changes heralded by the process of globalisation. This requires us to take up certain challenges within the European Union. It is a touch stone of mature and self-confident political leadership in a democracy to help the electorate to understand the unfamiliar and to grapple effectively with change. By this criterion the rejection of the European Constitution, in the fashion that has occurred, marks a sad failure of political leadership not least because that rejection was more a consequence of confusion than of understanding.

It is however necessary to make a couple of preliminary points:

In the first instance the ‘no’ votes in France and The Netherlands were based upon arguments and feelings markedly different from what one might anticipate would have been the reactions of British voters should they have been called upon to vote in a referendum. The votes in France and The Netherlands did not represent a rejection of the process of integration. The fact that it was not a vote against European integration was demonstrated by more than the ubiquitous presence of European flags at ‘no rallies’. Indeed, France, according to the most recent Eurobarometer polls, has only 14% who believed that the ‘European Union is a bad thing’. In addition in the most authoritative of post-voting polls 35% of the French people apparently only voted ‘no’ because they believed that amendments were both possible and would be obtained in the aftermath of the referendum. They were misled in this as they were on many aspects of the Treaty. Of course the French ‘no’ vote was against a whole range of issues which were not addressed at all in the Treaty. There was negativism towards President Chirac, there was concern about economic liberalism, there were concerns about migration and many other matters. So, too in The Netherlands where migration and the dislocations of enlargement played a part.

The basic fact is that a Treaty of more than 65,000 words, which is exceedingly complex, is the last thing that should be put before a people on a referendum particularly when it purports to be a Constitution but is anything but one. Those countries that are unfortunately required by their domestic Constitutions to hold referendums on these matters understand the risks particularly when there is no ostensible price to be paid for voting against. There was no possibility that France would be put out of the EU as a result of a negative vote.

Punching politicians on the nose when there is no price to be paid will always be a popular pursuit. The development of voluntary referendums, of course, can be laid squarely at the door of Mr Blair and it was a very unfortunate decision of his particularly because this Constitutional Treaty is arguably much less important in relative terms than either the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty, neither of which were submitted to the people.

The fact that it was the wrong choice to make is also underlined by the volatility of opinion polls all over Europe which show the confusion of the voters. In Denmark opinion polls have fluctuated wildly even in short periods like a week when those in favour of the Treaty dropped from 49% to 36%. Additionally in the French and British cases public opinion is influenced by the constant finger pointing across the Channel. An important reason for the French ‘no’ vote was the fact that the British government (however understandably from a domestic point of view) sought to present the European Constitution as a document ‘made in London’ and ironically this line had more success in convincing French voters than it has or was ever likely to have in the United Kingdom even though Paris sought equally to declare its paternity for the text.
The bottom line is that European questions have rarely been seen through so distorting a national prism. No doubt part of the reason for this is the well publicised and democratic deficit within the European Union. Whatever about the deficit, however, there also seems to be little of an idealistic vision of Europe left in its chancellories and if we are not careful we will destroy the substance of what the EU is about.

In this regard a very timely publication has been produced by the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the European Community (COMECE). It is called, ‘The Evolution of the European Union and the Responsibility of Catholics’. Whilst addressed to Catholics it has very much more to it than the expression of Catholic thinking on the whole process. The preface says that the text, “…has no ambition other than to invite its readers to reflect on the development of the European Union in specifically the years 2004/205, during which the Union grew to 25 Member States”. It was first published in June 2003 but then was altered to take into account the conclusions of the Theological Congress organised in April 2004 at Santiago de Compostella by COMECE. It is stated to be “…an effort from a particularly Christian perspective to offer an understanding of the European construction which is marked decisively and enduringly the political evolution of our continent for more than five decades”.

It may fairly be said that the European Project effectively began with the Declaration of Robert Schuman of the 9th May 1950 when, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of France, he proposed The European Coal and Steel community. As he said then, European unity would be constructed “with patience, not in the abstract, but through a certain number of clearly defined measures, both by solidarity in action and by a continual sharing of responsibility”. One may surmise that he, and the other founding fathers such as Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenaur, de Gasper and Paul Henri Spaak, would be surprised at how far we have now come and how staggering has been our success. We have created common policies, a supranational legal system, a common market, a common currency and much more. They would be horrified too at what we now put at risk.

In their introduction the authors express amazement that the historic event of the 1st May 2004, when ten new Member States joined the European Union marking the end of the division of Europe, did not meet with an explosion of enthusiasm. It is notable they say that this reunification of Europe was based on conditions which are in reality very close to those which permitted the birth of the European Union. In both cases a spiritual choice in favour of forgiveness and a determination to overcome violence through dialogue and solidarity were motivating factors. In the latter case this choice brought down the Iron Curtain. The hope expressed that, on this basis, the countries of the Union can contemplate a common future in societies committed to democracy and peace and joined together by the European Union seems far from the current perspectives of many politicians in Western Europe.

The Report appears to balance the fact that the EU was brought into existence by the founding role which Christians have played in our history with a rejection of “the confessional Christian state”. There is no call for an explicit acceptance of the Christian roots of the European Union but rather an acceptance that the project should follow a path characterised by stability, peace, respect for the dignity of persons (especially the most vulnerable) that will serve not only its own citizens but also the whole world. It also makes the point that it is reassuring to hear a clear and continuous voice for an, “ and welcoming Continent continuing to develop the current process of globalisation, forms of co-operation which are not merely economic but social and cultural as well” (Ecclesia in Europa). The document itself constitutes a ringing declaration about the positivism about the European project in its essence. It clearly rejects the negativism and separatism which is at the heart of Eurosceptics case.

Of course the old arguments about the nation state, and even those for inter-governmental alliances, have failed us in the past in the most serious possible way on this whole continent which has been for so long, a cockpit of conflict. The achievement of the European Union in bringing back into a single whole the parts of Europe long divided by the Iron Curtain is a remarkable achievement. As the paper establishes the EU before being a large market and institutional construction, was, at first, the result of a political act in the noblest sense of the term. The fact that it is based on “…the desire for mutual forgiveness, reconciliation and peace” seems sometimes to be lost in the current debates and the naked nationalism so often evident in some of the media not least in the UK.

Today’s politicians appear to have lost any sense of idealism regarding the European Project. Our debates have become sterile exercises unlikely to appeal to the young. Increasingly they are based on nationalism. For example in the discussion on the future financing of the EU everything seems to revolve around questions of how much we put in and how much we take out, as if the sole motivation for the whole exercise could be reduced to Euros and cents and as if concepts of solidarity were and are irrelevant.

The European Union is used to crises. In the past they have often been salutory. This time one suspects that the failure of the Constitutional Treaty will have no positive effects. It will induce uncertainty, recriminations and paralysis. It will significantly reduce the prospects for further enlargement and will adversely effect the prospects for economic reform. It is peculiarly ironic that this state of affairs will have been induced by the failure to ratify a treaty that is erroneously described as a Constitution, when it is clearly not one, as a result of the referendums that need not have taken place in either France or The Netherlands.

This article was first published in The Tablet in 2005.