Democracy in the EU? Only when convenient for Brussels
Concerns about Europe’s disregard for the opinions of normal, non-technocrat, non-banker people have bubbled to the surface of social media after Italy’s recent close-call with the near-formation of a government with a clear democratic mandate. But the EU’s glaring democracy deficit has been an inconvenient characteristic of the bloc since its founding.
The Lisbon Treaty: Because only important people need to approve treaties
Once upon a time – in 2004, to be exact – there was something called the Constitution for Europe. This proud document was meant to codify all the wonderful things that the European Union stood for: human dignity, free markets, the rule of law and democracy. Although it was enthusiastically agreed upon and signed by EU bigwigs, the constitution still required rubber-stamp ratification from each member state.
Much to the chagrin of Europe’s visionary leaders, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected this sacred document during a series of referenda held across Europe in 2015. In a refreshingly blunt speech given after the failed Dutch referendum, then-prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende nonchalantly remarked: "The idea of Europe has lived for the politicians, but not the Dutch people. That will have to change."
And change it did. Sort of.
After a great deal of soul searching, Europe’s top minds came up with an ingenious way to ensure that there would be no more democratic roadblocks interfering with their grand plans for Europe: The constitution would simply be rebranded as the Treaty of Lisbon – and this time, no referendums. Instead, the treaty would be ratified by parliamentary processes.
Actually, there was one country which foolishly allowed its citizenry to vote on the Lisbon Treaty – but luckily this error of judgment was quickly rectified. In a 2008 referendum, Irish voters rejected the treaty by a majority of 53 percent. Not to be dissuaded by the will of the people, Ireland held another referendum on the treaty a year later – and this time the plebes voted the 'correct' way.
The Lisbon Treaty’s ultimate triumph over the annoying will of the European people would be the first among many victories against the EU’s arch nemesis – the democratic referendum.
Greeks vote against EU-imposed austerity, Brussels laughs and laughs
In July 2015, the Greek people voted decisively to reject harsh austerity policies sought by the EU and other global institutions in exchange for modest debt relief and a multi-billion-euro bailout.
But the Greek government, strong-armed by Germany and the European Central Bank, ultimately ignored the referendum results, and swiftly introduced tough austerity measures described as necessary in order to thwart economic collapse.
Commenting on the brazen affront to basic democratic principles, former speaker of the Greek Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou said that the rubbished referendum showed how “Europe has steadily departed from its principal founding goals, democracy, human rights and freedoms and the prosperity of its people and its societies.”
Brexit: Making an example of EU party-poopers
In a 2016 referendum, which has since created incalculable reams of breathless headlines, Britain voted to leave the European Union in clear violation of Brussels’ zero-tolerance policy for anything that it doesn’t like.
Top EU officials wasted no time in calling the democratic result “stupid” and have even urged British youth to reverse the decision.
Although the UK is scheduled to depart from the EU in March, 2019, Brussels has shown little enthusiasm for the necessary negotiations and agreements to ensure an orderly transition. True to form, some within Britain’s political elite are openly campaigning to prevent Brexit from taking place. Former British prime minister Tony Blair has called for a second referendum, and has urged Brussels to do all it can to persuade the UK to remain in the bloc.
Aside from its bureaucratic foot-dragging and patronizing comments, Brussels has also cynically stoked fears about the economic and social consequences of Brexit. This tactic has been especially visible in the bloc’s dealings with Dublin.
“What looks like Brussels love is really an expedient exploitation of Irish concerns to try to weaken British democracy,” Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked Online, noted last year. “No one in Britain wants the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to ossify. No one’s arguing for that. Rather, this fear of a firmer border has been ramped up by Brussels to paint Brexit as a harbinger of division.”
Recalling how pro-EU media had accused the Irish of being “treacherous” children who had “spat in the soup” after they voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, O’Neill observed: “EUphiles suddenly love Ireland for one reason only: they see you as a potential truncheon against Brexit.”
Spain bludgeons peaceful independence movement, EU predictably silent
In October 2017, Catalonia held an independence referendum which had been declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court. Organisers said 90 percent of voters backed independence, but turnout was less than 45 percent. Many voters who did go to the polls were greeted with police batons and arrests. More than 400 Catalans were reportedly injured as police forcibly removed voters from polling stations.
After Catalonia’s parliament honored the result (a massive EU no-no), Madrid dissolved the region’s parliament, sacked its leaders and called a snap election.
Usually eager to issue sanctimonious statements, Brussels was tellingly tight-lipped about the troubling human rights situation which unfolded in Catalonia. After all, the referendum was an “internal Spanish matter,” so why would the EU get involved?
We’ve now reached the present day, and the EU’s complicated relationship with democracy continues to manifest itself in new, even surprising ways. This week, Italy’s new government was essentially blocked from assuming power, after president Sergio Mattarella refused to approve the new minister of economy, arguing that his Eurosceptic views could endanger Italy’s eternal commitment to the euro. The move – described by analysts and blatantly unconstitutional – was followed by Mattarella’s appointment of a former IMF director as interim prime minister, who will now be charged with forming a different, more responsible government.
“They are with the bankers and the powerful ones. We are with the Italian people," Matteo Salvini, the leader of Lega Nord, tweeted on Monday, shortly after Mattarella announced his decision to make ex-IMF head Carlo Cottarelli interim prime minister. The defiant message was accompanied by a photograph showing Mattarella, Cottarelli, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Salvini is pictured below, rallying a crowd.
There will almost certainly be new elections in the coming months, and the Euroskeptic parties, now more galvanized than ever, will likely turn parliamentary elections into a plebiscite on Italy’s relationship with the EU. Long-overdue karma for Brussels? Perhaps.
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