Thursday, 1 October 2009

Betraying liberal democratic principles in the EU

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT – On Friday, the citizens of Ireland will go to the polls to vote for the second time on the Lisbon Treaty, after apparently giving the ‘wrong’ answer the first time around.

After agreement was reached in June on the so-called guarantees that are supposed to assuage Irish fears about the Treaty, the EU Presidency confirmed that “the text of the guarantees explicitly states that the Lisbon Treaty is not changed thereby.” The Irish people are therefore being served a re-heated Treaty – even more unappetising than it was before.

One can argue over whether transferring more power to the EU level is a good or a bad thing. Clearly many people across Europe are opposed to it, as shown by the French and Dutch people’s rejection of the EU Constitution, whose content, in the words of the man who presided over its drafting, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, is “all to be found in the Treaty of Lisbon” .

But that is not the only issue at stake here. Asking people the same question until they give the desired answer raises an utterly more fundamental debate – about the rules of the game, about democracy itself.

It has been said many times before that politicians in Brussels and Strasbourg live in a bubble, safely out of the public eye and at a comfortable distance from the platform they were elected on back home. The leader of the German CSU party recently accused one of his own MEPs of having “lived too long on the Brussels gravy train”.

This phenomenon is particularly apparent when it comes to the EU’s so-called liberal parties, which in the European Parliament sit in the ALDE group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). All over Europe, these have always championed their firm belief in democracy and opponents will say that they have often been ahead of other parties when it comes to advocating initiatives such as citizens’ petitions or referendums. The fact that they are often not the dominant political force probably plays a role in that.

However, it is striking how often these parties’ attitudes to direct democracy don’t make it on to the plane when their MEPs head to Brussels or when they are forced to confront EU issues.

Direct democracy

Take the German liberal party, the FDP, which has just enjoyed great success in national elections. Back in 2003, they were in favour of submitting the European Constitution to a popular vote. They even launched a legal proposal to change the German Constitution to make this possible. But they changed their position after the referendums in France and the Netherlands delivered the ‘wrong’ response.

Now they are only in favour of a ‘Europe-wide’ referendum – a poor substitute and so politically impossible it comes across as an empty gesture rather than a bold policy proposal.

Another prominent ALDE member is the Dutch “Democrats 66″ (D66) Party, which has always called for “radical democratisation of the political system”. The party, formed in the Sixties, considers the proposal to introduce referendums as one of the “crown jewels” of the party due to its entrenched belief in direct democracy.

At least this is what Dutch voters were led to believe. After the Dutch referendum, where 61.6 percent of the population rejected the European Constitution, D66 approved the Treaty of Lisbon in parliament in 2008, while at the same time admitting that Lisbon “only cosmetically” differs from the rejected Constitution .

Interestingly, D66 stresses in its manifesto that “parties should always promise beforehand that they will respect the outcome of a referendum.” This seems to have slipped leading D66 MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld’s mind when she voted on 20 February 2008 with the rest of the parliament in favour of ignoring Ireland’s first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even before that referendum had taken place. Shockingly, no less than 88 percent of ALDE MEPs joined her, including Dianna Wallis, Fiona Hall and Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat MEPs from the UK.

Liberal U-turn

In 2005 the Lib Dems joined all the other main parties in the UK and pledged to hold a referendum on the European Constitution. In 2008 however, leader Nick Clegg U-turned on his promise, blocking calls for a referendum on the treaty in parliament. Clegg instead proposed to have a poll on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, using the same political trick as the German liberals: promise something politically distracting in the knowledge you will never be called on it.

The ALDE Group itself, while defending the idea of direct democracy and referendums, is at the same time the group that has been viciously fighting all attempts to respect the outcome of the referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland. Reacting on its website to the No votes in 2005, ALDE is proud that the group “played a substantial role in the careful analysis of the possible reasons for these negative results”, setting out how “a period of reflection must re-launch the constitutional project”.

Many liberals will be familiar with monetarist economist Friedrich von Hayek, who said: “Whoever betrays his principles, will go to hell”. They’d better take his advice.

By Pieter Cleppe.

Pieter Cleppe is head of the Brussels Office of Open Europe, a think tank campaigning for EU reform.

This article first appeared on EU Observer