In 2001, Pierre Bourdieu was saying : It isn’t easy, when talking about the European Union, to be even heard. The journalistic field, which filters, intercepts and interprets all the public discourses according to its most typical logic – that of the all or noting – tries to impose its alternative on every one: to be in favour of Europe, that is progressivist, open, modern, liberal, or to be against it, and be condemned to archaism, to racism and to be old fashioned…(1). There is a little bit of that in Srdjan Cvijic’s post where he offers some of his criticism on the call to vote No at the referendum on the European Constitution.
If I understand him well, we, left wing promoters of the No, follow this logic: we want to live in a State capable of adopting welfare policies; we believe that the more democratic a State is, the more likely it will adopt such policies; we believe that the traditional nation state is more liberal than the European Union; therefore we want to preserve it and are led to refuse the Constitution.
I am sure that he is right in the sense that some people that define themselves as being from the left wing adopt that logic. However, all do not. Right now, in France, there are 3 types of justifications proposed for voting against the Constitution: 1/ a racist justification according to which we should stay among ourselves, that we are different and should not mix (the same justification which is used against the entrance of Turkey by people not generally classified as racists); 2/ a conservative justification according to which the present national institutions have enabled us to reach levels – in terms of democracy, economical performance and social harmony – that the European institutions do not guaranty (this argument is defended by people from the right as well as from the left wing); 3/ a progressist argument, very critical towards current national institutions, according to which the progress obtained through the European Constitution is not good enough.
Respecting Lorenzo’s distinction, the arguments of the third type of justification addresses subsequently, the institutional and the economical aspects of the constitution (for an example). In Part I, the institutional arrangements are improved compared to previous treaties; notably the new powers of the Parliament in the procedure for the adoption of the budget. However this constitution was a golden chance to do much better; why not be more ambitious, why be satisfied with this result? Many proponents of the No in France welcome the type of renewal of the democratic theory that Srdjan is talking about. National institutions are old and boring and change is exciting; participation at national elections drop constantly, the far-right party obtains regularly 15 % of the votes so we would have to be crazy to hold on to this Republic of the past. But it’s not because we welcome, and don’t fear change, that we should accept any type of change. It is sufficient to believe that in voting No, change will come about in a more radical way. As for the economical aspects, Srdjan agrees that the European Union is neo-liberal as it is. How is it possible to say more clearly that it doesn’t fit with a radical leftist position? (2) If the law of the European Union is largely neo-liberal, that is a very good reason to reject the Constitution that confirms that ideology and gives it a symbolic constitutional nature. What we refuse here is the statu quo, what we condemn is that the chance to change that orientation was not taken. I really don’t understand why Lorenzo doesn’t see that as any kind of valuable argument.
I have no certainty about the referendum (3) . Sometimes I wake up at night because of it, not knowing how I should vote. Whether the progressivist No to the referendum is right or not, it is important not to describe it as a caricature of a snobbish-dirigist French position. First of all, it isn’t only French and there is no reason why it should be. For example, Attac in Germany has just declared itself supportive of our position. I suppose that if a referendum had been organized in Italy for example, the same phenomenon would have happened. It is taking place in France because we are lucky enough to have a referendum. The debate came about as the result of a very specific process for which I don’t know of any precedents in this country. The specificities of that phenomenon can be resumed in the following points: 1/ the campaign for the No is not led by political parties (aside from the communist party, the major left wing parties are in favour of the Constitution), many of the opponents of the Constitution that are heard in the media are not professional politicians; 2/ the opposition is composed in a large part by people active in the European forums organised in “think tanks” of the social society (for example La foundation Copernic, l’Appel des 200), that have unprecedented regional and international extensions; 3/ the European Union (its nature, history, future, the way it works etc.) have become the main political object of discussion ; 4/ as a consequence of the conjunction of points 1 to 3, the European Union has become an object of interest in a revitalised democratic debate that occupies parts of the public sphere that it had abandoned (the work place, school, the streets, bars etc.).
You see, opponents of the Constitution are still European citizens and they are proving it by exercising their right to participate in a public debate about Europe. Even a victory of the No at the French referendum would be the highest degree of a European democratic integration to date, not only in France, but probably in any European country. Certainly more so than in countries where the constitution’s acceptance by Parliament was ignored by the public opinion. Not only is it the case because Europe is the subject of the public debate but also because, in the way this debate is conducted, a rejection of what democracy has become (or always was) inside the nation State is formulated very clearly.
What I see happening is the reconstruction of a radical, European, left wing movement. Pierre Bourdieu and many others in all countries of the world had been calling for it for years; well, this referendum, this constitution, have given it the possibility, the motivation, the public space and the audience to take a step forward. The worst thing that could happen to that movement would be to portrayed, by other leftists in Europe, as a mere conservatism (in Srdjan’s point of view) or as French-rigidity (in Lorenzo’s).
(1) P. Bourdieu, Contre-feux 2, Paris, Raison d’agir, 2001.
(2) If Lorenzo wants to define the left as an ideology that believes in economical liberalism, that agrees with neo-liberalism, than the adjective radical becomes very important. I realise however that it is not enough to constantly talk about neo-liberalism without being more precise. I will try to be more convincing when I will answer Lorenzo’s challenge to explain why the Bolkestein directive was, and still is, bad. However I wont answer it as a Frenchmen (the challenge is issued to every French people as if only them had good reasons to fight this directive) but as a proponent of a radical leftist No to the constitution.
(3) The only certainty I have, is that anyone that is completely sure and too affirmative is, or a liar (most often for the needs of public or political argumentation), or hasn’t thought about it seriously. No one can be affirmative if it is at the same time a question of principle and a pragmatic question. A question of principle because, in the last analysis we decide ourselves according to our beliefs, our feelings that we formalises and rationalise as political and moral principles (see for a telling example Lorenzo’s justification of his preference for what he calls the UK-liberal model). A pragmatic question because we apply those principles to conjectures we make about what this constitution’s effects will be. I can see how some people can have certainties about the rightness of their principles but it would be simply foolish to pretend to know what will happen in the future. Of course it’s not a good enough reason not to take a position but the position we take should remain aware of this.