Tag Archives: Europe

Explaining the inexplicable

Tories, pop media and now Labour rebels want us to vote on a European Treaty that’s barely readable, largely incomprehensible and hardly consequential. Why?

UK Legislators have got the referendum bug again. Nothing wrong with that: asking your electorate to decide on really big questions has a long and noble history. This referendum, though, if it happens, will be a travesty of democracy. The problem is that no one in the electorate understands the treaty we’re asked to vote on (I blogged about this before).

The Lisbon Treaty is not wicked or dangerous. It won’t undermine our democracy and it won’t smear the States of old Europe into a single, continent-wide suburb of Brussels. It is a mess, though: it’s shabby, incoherent and compromised. The whole thing feels arbitrary and reeks of political contingency. People close to its drafting have even said that it’s been written in this awkward, occluded way deliberately because the lofty, Napoleonic terms of the constitution it replaces obviously stuck in the throats of quite a lot of ordinary Europeans.

And it’s on this compromised, difficult document that the Tories (and their new friends on the Labour back benches) want us to vote. They want us to absorb and understand the European Treaty which, in its amended form runs to over 330 pages. This, of course, is ridiculous. It’s worse: it’s anti-democratic. It says “screw democracy. We’re looking for some short-term electoral advantage.”

The Liberals, it pains me to say, have responded to this difficulty in a rather creative way. They say we shouldn’t be required to vote on the treaty itself but rather on the simpler (and obviously much larger) issue of whether we should stay in the EU at all.

So we have some options: the government’s approach, which is to rely on the mechanisms of representative democracy and shoo the thing through parliament in 12 days of debate; the Tories’ approach, which is to hold a meaningless referendum on a topic that’s essentially too complicated to understand or the Liberal approach, which is to sidestep the treaty and vote on Europe itself.

Or, it occurs to me, we could treat this is a genuine and quite exciting opportunity to produce some democratic engagement and explain the bloody treaty

Oi! referendum monkeys!

The political classes and the media should seize on the reform treaty referendum as an opportunity to spread understanding and get people talking.

I’ll keep this brief (my wife says my blog is the most boring in Britain. She may have a point). A referendum is a deliberative device. It only works if voters understand the proposition they’re asked to vote on. In fact votes solicited by politicians or lobbyists in a referendum are democratically valueless if the voters don’t understand the issue.

This brings me to my questions for you referendum monkeys. First, have you read the draft treaty? Second, do you understand it? Third, if you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, could you explain the treaty to another grown-up?

If those who want a referendum get their way we have a real democratic problem on our hands. We’ll have a few months (I assume) to get every elector up to speed on the reform treaty ready for the vote. The draft treaty runs to 253 pages.

There are plenty of summaries online. The Telegraph has a handy, and obviously rather partial, Q&A and a brief survey of attitudes to the treaty elsewhere in Europe. The Government’s own summary is useful but you’d be entitled to regard it as partial in the other direction (especially when read with its companion EU reform treaty myths).

The Guardian’s Q&A is a bit thin to be honest and there’s surprisingly little going on at the Centre for European Reform, apart from this think piece by Hugo Brady. The BBC’s ‘A close look at the reform treaty‘ by Stephen Mulvey wins the helpful summary competition hands down. The comedy prize goes to this mendacious ‘look back from the year 2020’ by Andrew Roberts in The Mail.

The Sun (and Girls Aloud) are running a campaign. You’ll probably want to read the treaty too, won’t you. It’s in four parts (PDFs): draft preamble, articles 1-7, protocols and draft declaration and doesn’t stoop to providing any kind of summary of its own, leaving that, I assume, to member governments and the media.

My own summary: a referendum held without wide public understanding of the treaty’s purpose and likely effects would be a travesty, a democratic pantomime. I don’t think of this as a reason to pass on a referendum, though, but rather as an unprecedented opportunity to actually explain the treaty.

A national effort with major government and media investment to summarise and explain the document while providing tools for debate and deliberation would be a wonderful thing. I can see a competition, for instance, to produce the best online explanatory tool, the best schools’ information pack, the best newspaper pull-out or the best unorthodox outreach method (Catherine Tate? Dizzee Rascal? Balamory?). Let’s see if we can’t turn this messy episode into a shining example of deliberative democracy in action.

Europe 2.0?

It’s an epic defeat for the European establishment but that doesn’t make it a victory for the isolationists and sceptics. Once the dust settles, once Giscard’s Napoleonic (and paralysingly boring) constitution has been abandoned, this moment might just look like a real opportunity for the radical European middle. For people, like me, who believe in a Europe of social solidarity, peace and economic cooperation, built on the consent of its citizens, but who don’t want a monolithic, State-like entity at the centre and don’t want it to have a constitution at all. Constitutions are for States (and Bowls clubs). The EU wants to be a State. It’s probably inevitable that any big, trans-national institution will aspire to Statehood but it’s the job of the National component parts to counter this accretion of power and ambition at the centre.

These edge-and-centre disputes are as old as the nation state and the cyclical shift of power from imperial centre to ragged edge and back again is the historic norm. Since the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes, we’ve already heard Euro legislators and national leaders saying things like ‘one way or another, this treaty must be enacted’. That’s not only undemocratic, it’s a short-sighted refusal of the opportunity to re-engineer the EU as a 21st Century alliance of States, regions and communities, organised like a network and governed, from its edges, by its people.

Titter ye not

Can’t beat a 21st Century Eurovision Song Contest for lessons on the dynamics of the new Europe. Talk about New vs. Old. Fringe vs. centre. East vs. West. Anyway, the fringe is obviously where it’s at now. Those picturesque Eastern European capitals with their glistening waterfronts and their pretty mediaeval old towns and their flat taxes are the new centre.

Slow, old, slow growth Western Europe nicely filled out the bottom four places (Britain at least made it off the bottom). Swirling, folk-inflected ‘Eastern’ sounds dominated the competition, from Greece to Moldova. Self-confident, good looking, aspirational, enthusiastically-English speaking artists made all the running. Greece may have won but the real competition was between the new nations of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Get your hat, Europe’s going East.