Who has been taking the rap for the meltdown in Europe, the blame for the French and Dutch "nos"? Not the national leaders personally, of course; good heavens, no - except in so far as Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac are insulting each other across the channel. And not the people who actually cast those negative votes: of course not; poor lambs, they were all at sixes and sevens, voting as they did for divergent and largely egotistical reasons.
No, as Mr Blair prepares for his next sortie to Brussels tomorrow (Thursday), the blame has come to rest with "the elites". For decades, we are told, a euro-enthusiastic, euro-educated crème de la crème rode roughshod over the concerns of real people. These faceless "elites" entangled perfectly serviceable national laws in kilometres of red tape; they shut down sensible border controls; they imposed a common currency. And, as if that were not enough, they then admitted a clutch of new countries whose low-paid workers scrambled to take jobs in our neck of the woods. Now, the people have taken their revenge and told the faceless ones where to put their pet project.
Blaming "the elites" - note the plural - is easy and convenient. And it has one particular advantage. It means that no one with a name or identity need accept any responsibility. "The elites" are Brussels, eurocrats, civil servants and ministers all rolled into one. To blame "the elites" also reinforces the ubiquitous idea of the "democratic deficit". If only the link between power and people had been closer, all would have been different. People would have identified with Europe. There would have been no "us" and "them". Turn-out in the last few sets of euro-elections would have exceeded 70 per cent - and the referendums would not have been lost.
So that is all right then. The malady has been diagnosed, and "the elites" have to be purged or learn how to connect. Except that it is not all right. The whole notion of the revenge of the people against the arrogant "elites" makes two highly dubious suppositions. The first is that the "the elites" (whoever they are) have something to be ashamed of and, second, that the people (whoever they are) are always right. Neither is necessarily true.
Let us concede, for a moment, that the European Union which evolved from the Common Market was an "elite" project. Perhaps it was, but it was also a response to the fierce popular sentiment of "never again" after the Second World War. Here were politicians and thinkers looking beyond their immediate terms in office and their own generation. They were people who combined experience and vision. If you consider the idea of Europe as conceived by Jean Monnet and his associates, and you consider where we are today, it is hard not to feel respect, if not awe. Here was an imaginative long-term proposition that has justified itself infinitely more than anyone at the time imagined.
There are now 25 countries in the European Union, with a half dozen more at least desperately aspiring to join. The "club" has its faults, but its growth has fostered peace, prosperity and security across the continent. Many members accept a common border and currency. Not bad for an idea cobbled together by a bunch of individuals who came from the post-war "elites".
Consider some of the other positive European developments of recent decades. The Marshall Plan that revived Europe after the war: George Marshall had a real struggle to persuade the US Treasury and the Congress to accept his idea. The return of Charles de Gaulle to lead post-war France: a contentious move, sanctioned with great misgivings by the Allies. The Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek; the arrangements for Germany's formal reunification as overseen by Helmut Kohl and accepted by Mikhail Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin's leadership of Russia against Soviet communism.
In every instance, political leaders and people of ideas took calculated risks in the name of a future that they believed could be better. None of those I have mentioned began as populists or revolutionaries. Not all could be described as natural democrats by temperament. They were members of their countries' "elites", who individually masterminded change or harnessed popular movements. They were leaders who managed to carry people with them by force of character and argument - sometimes against great odds.
To blame the dissension in Europe today on a caste of cosmopolitan "elites" out of touch with the masses is to heap the guilt on a scapegoat that simply does not exist. If even two or three national leaders had campaigned with conviction, taken on the sceptics and lauded a European future to aspire to, there would have been less popular pressure for referendums - and a better chance, where votes did take place, that they could have been won. It is not the people, but the leaders who have shown themselves to be poor Europeans. "The elites" are simply an invention of weak leaders seeking an excuse for their own inadequacies.Reuse content