The Europe debate is finally moving in the right direction: It’s the democracy stupid

The British press is growing up from the sterile debate about sceptics and enthusiasts and waking up to what the discussion on the European Union should really be about.

You can usually tell that something seismic is happening in politics just by the way people are talking. When the terminology you’ve been used to is suddenly dropped, that’s likely to be because it no longer seems adequate to the world you want to describe.

That in turn means one of two things: either the world has undergone a radical change, or your perceptions of that world have undergone a radical change. In politics, it’s revolutionary either way.

So it is interesting that, in this week’s discussion of the on-going crisis in the European Union, terms such as “Eurosceptic” and “Euroenthusiast” have largely been absent. They used to be the bread and butter of the British debate. But all of a sudden, they’re redundant.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Says it all... Says it all…

With Greece and Italy reduced to the status of protectorates, with the construction of the euro, at least in its current form, clearly revealed as a mistake of epic proportions, and with even France and Germany publicly bickering about what to do, these days everyone’s a Eurosceptic to some degree or another.

But if a term can be applied to everybody, it differentiates nobody and thus becomes useless. By winning the intellectual debate so comprehensively Britain’s erstwhile Eurosceptics have argued themselves out of existence.

So where do the terms of debate go from here?

The clue is surely to be found in what everybody is talking about. Take Sunday’s Telegraph. Three out of four commentaries on Europe are about the same thing: democracy. It’s not that there’s something new in exposing the anti-democratic tendencies of the European Union.

Rather, it’s the sense that it’s now dawning on a much more significantly large section of the population that democracy is the core issue.

To appropriate the old parlance (I’m about to talk about the past, so it’s necessary) the Euroenthusiasts, up until quite recently, gave every impression of thinking that Eurosceptic talk about democratic deficits, the absence of a European demos, or anti-democratic practices was just so much opportunism.

Few but the most flagrantly anti-democratic, or purely dim-witted, would say that today. After more than a decade in which we’ve seen referendums re-run, ignored, or promised and then not held, or just not promised at all, the nature of the beast is not a mystery.

When the European Commission lied its way out of the Constitution and into the Lisbon Treaty, they weren’t fooling anyone. It was all lies. And we could all see it.

When, as The Commentator pointed out yesterday, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy tells the Italians they shouldn’t have a general election after their change of government, it’s crystal clear what he thinks about democracy. At best, he regards it as a distraction. And that’s the most generous thing one can say.

It’s a terrible tragedy of course. It didn’t have to be this way. As a loosely integrated cooperative venture, primarily though not exclusively focused on trade, security and stability, it could have worked without compromising Europe’s democratic architecture.

The problem is that the people who built the European Union were possessed of an entirely different vision, constructed out of a deeply flawed understanding of the woes of Europe’s past.

Their biggest mistake was to believe that the great, historic problem in Europe was nationalism. But it plainly wasn’t. The great problem in Europe was the weakness or absence of a firmly rooted democratic base. It wasn’t German nationalism that defined Adolf Hitler’s thinking, it was German National Socialism – a very different thing.

By contrast, it was British and American democratic nationalism that allowed Churchill and Roosevelt to rally their people to the cause of Nazism’s defeat, ensuring that the West of the continent at least would build its way out of the ruins of World War II according to principles of freedom and democracy.

The captive nations of the East would later employ democratic nationalist precepts to free themselves from Soviet communism. Fused with democracy, nationalism was again a force for good.

But all of this has been lost on the people who built and now run the EU. Their misunderstanding of Europe’s past ills has led them to take a series of potentially fatal wrong turns.

Most worryingly, they’re clearly terrified of member states’ national electorates. Few words have the ability to strike the fear of God into a European Commissioner like the word “referendum”.

All the major building blocks of the contemporary EU, from the Lisbon Treaty to the euro itself, would not exist if the consent of the governed had been sought and then respected.

Again, absolutely everybody knows this.

And then there’s the European Parliament.

It’s a measure of how far we still need to go in relearning the basic principles of democracy that to many it is not instantly clear that the European Parliament, even more than the unelected Commission, is the very embodiment of the EU’s departure from democracy.

For in the complete absence of a European demos – an abiding sense of a shared political destiny in which people read the same newspapers, watch the same news programmes, join the same political parties, speak the same language and so on – it is at the heart of the lie itself.

And if you can’t or won’t understand that, the plain fact is that you either don’t understand what democracy is or you simply oppose it.

And that is where I think we need to get to in defining a new terminology for this debate.

Sceptics and Enthusiasts are now irrelevant. We need to know something more basic. Do you support democracy or do you oppose it? That’s the question. The rest is detail.

Robin Shepherd is the owner/publisher of @CommentatorIntl. In a previous incarnation he ran the Europe Programme at Chatham House where his views were not entirely in line with the institute’s hierarchy

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