More soap boxes, more ballot boxes

, by Arthur Krebbers

More soap boxes, more ballot boxes

Eureka the political elite had it. Referenda, that’s the stuff a democratic society like ours is made off.’ Provide not just a soap box, but a ballot box, so people can finally express their deeply held convictions about European co-operation. And sure enough, this line of reasoning made perfect sense at the time.

Yet what followed were several weeks of chaotic cacophony of opinions with extreme measures to sway the public vote: President Chirac made an urgent last minute video-address to the French while Ben Bot, the Dutch foreign minister, stated that ‘the lights will go out’ if the treaty was rejected.

The supposedly rational voter had been downsized to an emotion-driven pawn, open to gross imagery. The supposedly rational voter had been downsized to an emotion-driven pawn, open to gross imagery. In the end, the negative outcome of the referenda - both arising, crucially, from two of Europe’s founding countries - seemed to be a clear victory for the Eurosceptic camp. The referenda’s public turnout was surprisingly high as was the magnitude of the No vote.

Many psychological theories have been postulated to explain the results. People voted against unpopular incumbents. People opted for voting on a completely unrelated issue (potential entry of Turkey, migrants from the new Eastern entrants to the Union). Or people just released all their frustration into a ‘No’, merely because of the fact that they hadn’t been subjected to a referendum for a very long time.

Whilst I believe each of these positions to have some claim to truth, I find more interesting the analysis of the actual international views the Dutch and French voters carry. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the majority attributes great importance to some form of European co-operation. Polls show that ‘No voters’ did not reject the constitution because they favoured an isolationist foreign policy. All recognised the economic, cultural and political significance of the relations with other European countries, but disagreed about the way these should be institutionalised.

The supposedly rational voter had been downsized to an emotion-driven pawn

Despite the fact that a minority will always favour a voluntary 19th century-esque continent-wide co-operation, the majority are unequivocally in favour of institutionalised European co-operation on more than merely economic matters. The central question splitting the voters is the type of European policies they would like to see implemented, based on the visions people have of a united Europe.

On the one side, there are those who feel that the EU has trotted too deep down the liberal path. They would like to see steps taken to counteract the over-focus on the free market, putting forward a Europe wide minimum wage or establishing labourer’s rights on a European level. The leaders on this side - the socialists - have faced a strong internal divide in both Holland and France when contemplating the Treaty.

The rightwing liberal camp feels very different about Brussels’ role. They dictate something closer to a night watchman state that primarily upholds the rule of law and is vigilant in its pursuit of a common market for goods and services. Their central concern is reinvigorating Europe as a strong economic force globally, while a synchronised fiscal or social policy is to be avoided.

The above gives a highly simplified version of two of the prominent sides of the debate. Both want to reform Europe, yet both are pulling the wagon in different directions. The voter will fundamentally decide the winner.

It doesn’t make much sense to formulate the alternative agenda of the No voter. How can you combine the wishes for a green, socialist, liberal and spiritual Europe? What is needed is a better forum for debate and democratic intervention in the Brussels proceedings. We shouldn’t wait for a sophisticated document as the Constitutional Treaty before consulting voters. Let’s act now and make Europe more accessible to those who want their voices heard. Let’s consider further democratising the EU institutions. Let’s make more parliamentary sessions and meetings of the Commission public. Let’s give greater use to the possibilities modern technology has for communicating directly with the voter.

More soap boxes and ballot boxes are needed if we are to truly listen to the plurality of opinions that constitute Europe.

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