Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Would France's No to the European constitution be a tragedy ?

From a French perspective, there is a democratic deficit in the European Union for two reasons: there are not enough democratic procedures and they are used in undemocratic ways. The first aspect is well known: the elected institution - the European Parliament - has little political power compared with the Commission and the European Court of Justice. The second complaint is heard less frequently but that may be because, to a certain extent, it is specific to some European countries such as France. This unsatisfaction with the way European democratic process works is the topic of this post.

We are called to vote on European issues on two types of occasions: to elect our representatives in Parliament and to adopt Treaties that represent significant changes. I have no illusions about what democracy can be in today's world but the European political campaigns in France don't meet the standards of a modest and realist conception. Indeed, even if by a democratic procedure we mean a mechanism by which the voters are able to chose between different solutions to a common problem, the campaigns we are treated to cannot be called democratic. When we vote for our representatives, European issues are not dealt with and the elections are given the meaning of a test of the majority and the opposition's popularity. What is missing there are the solutions offered to the common problem: European politics. When we vote for a referendum, there is a common problem but what we lack is a plurality of solutions. Apart from the communist party and the nationalists all other significant political parties are always in favour of the Yes.

The political campaign in France for the referendum on the European constitution has started at the beginning of this year. It began in the oddest fashion inside the socialist party. Their leaders decided that the socialists needed to adopt a common position before entering the national debate. The campaign that they launched was one of the saddest I have ever witnessed. The official argument was that the socialist had to vote Yes, not because the constitution is a good text and a significant improvement, but because voting No would bring about a dangerous crisis. A crisis inside the party that would weaken it on the national scene, a crisis between the French socialists and other left-wing national parties in Europe that would result in a marginalization of the party on the European scene and finally a crisis between France and the rest of Europe. In other words, what was debated was not the constitution or what it represents, the socialist were not asked to have such a debate, it was impossible because given the consequences of the No, it was not even an option. The Constitution was almost never mentioned and all we heard about was this dangerous CRISIS. I don't know how they did it with this argument but the leaders of the party were able to convince a large majority of their militants, the Socialist party was to speak in one voice in favour of the Yes during the national campaign. When it began, the same depressing strategy was put into motion: all against the No to the referendum; Chirac and his opposition agreeing that any other solution would be a disaster for France and for Europe. If you are not a communist and not racist, you could not find in the political spectrum a way to express your disagreement with the adoption of this constitution. No one to represent that position, no arguments to defend it and not even any proponents of the Yes to disagree with you since the No was not an option in their minds. But, fortunately for democracy, the wind has changed. In all the left-wing parties, important politicians decided it was worth it to face a crisis between them and the leaders of their party and regained their freedom. Thus the campaign will not to take place between all the moderates for the Yes on one side and the radicals (communists and racists) in favour of the No, on the other. The opponents to the European constitution discuss the text, they put it into question, they confront it with conceptions of the world, of democracy and of economy. So the proponents of the Yes are forced to abandon their strategy of the threat of a crisis, they can no longer keep playing with the fears of the voters. Raffarin has understood that and it is what he meant when he said that in order to win against the No, the Yes needed the No. The No has liberated the Yes, it has forced it to change its strategy.

I don’t mean to say that the crisis that would be brought about by a refusal of the Constitution by France is not an issue. It certainly is. But it is in no case a sufficient argument to vote in favour of the European constitution. First of all, the plausibility of the prediction that a crisis would happen can be questioned. Secondly, we can have doubts about the efficiency of the argument to convince the voters. Who will vote for a constitution because it is presented as the most cautious solution? I know that in modern society comfort and safety are fundamental values but we can hope that they are not the most important ones in constitutional matters. Thirdly if there is a crisis it should be avoided only if the alternative is not worse. That is one of the questions: do we fear more an immediate crisis or a long standing unsatisfactory solution. Fourthly, as Lorenzo would say (about clashes of constitutional rights), tragedy is part of life, of our private life and of political life. Tragedies and crisis of this kind should not be avoided at all cost.

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