Only democracy can pull Europe together

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The Independent Online
The worst mistake in politics is to stick to the carcass of dead policies. So said Lord Salisbury, Conservative Prime Minister at the turn of the century. Like war wounded who can, apparently, still feel sensation in amputated limbs, Europe's leaders reiterate the old slogans; shell-shocked, they have not yet realised that the battle of Maastricht has been lost.

The two main pillars of Maastricht were the common foreign and security policy, and monetary union. They remained in the realm of rhetoric rather than reality. Bosnia and the Gulf war showed that there was no such animal as a European foreign policy; while the ERM, the means to monetary union, has now, in effect, collapsed


The franc was the battleground on which the ERM expired. But France had shown, almost a year before, that Maastricht was unrealistic. In the referendum of September 1992 all the major political parties, with the exception of the Front Nationale, supported Maastricht. Yet, in a country that saw itself at the heart of Europe, the treaty was given a grudging endorsement by just 51 per cent of those voting.

Europe's leaders ignored the lesson of the French referendum because they confused means and ends. Maastricht for them had become not a means to European unity, but an end in itself. Yet, if Maastricht has proved to be an unsatisfactory means, it should now be jettisoned, however painful this may be, and some alternative way forward found. That was the method of the Community's founding father, Jean Monnet. In 1954, after the French Assembly rejected the European Defence Community, Monnet, rather than knocking his head against a brick wall, sought an alternative route to unity. That alternative route turned out to be the European Community as embodied in the Treaty of Rome. Creative thinking is likewise required today if the whole European adventure is not to run into the sands.

The response of Europe's political leaders to the collapse of the ERM is to ask how new monetary institutions can be created that will avoid the 'fault lines' exposed by the events of recent weeks. But the central defect of Maastricht lies not in economics or institutions, but in its failure to do anything to construct a popular European consciousness. Without such a consciousness, plans for unity are merely empty constructs, paper plans which lack the breath of life.

Jean Monnet established the Community by persuading Europe's political elites that union was necessary, and that they could create it. The Europe of today, Jacques Delors has admitted, was constructed through a process of 'benign despotism'. That process has now come to an end. Even when the leaders can be persuaded to lead, the people can no longer be persuaded to follow. Everything that has happened since the Maastricht treaty was signed has shown that the Europe of Jean Monnet - a Europe built by elites - is dead. It must be replaced by a democratic Europe, built by the people themselves.

In theory, direct elections to the European Parliament ought to be the motor for European integration. Yet the low level of turnout and lack of enthusiasm for direct elections has shown how difficult it is to translate generalised approval for European unity into concrete support.

That is hardly surprising. Most democratic elections have three functions: they allow the electors to choose a government; they help to determine the direction of public policy; and they provide a recognisable human face for government in the form of a political leader - a president or prime minister. Direct elections fulfil none of these functions.

'Who do I call?' Henry Kissinger once asked. 'Who is Mr Europe? If I wish to consult Europe and have a phone in front of me, what number do I dial?'

To these questions no answer is at present possible. And until the Community possesses democratic institutions capable of inspiring Europeans and creating a genuine European consciousness, voters will be unwilling to transfer sovereignty. Democracy is thus not the icing on the cake of the European enterprise, but rather its very foundation, without which nothing can be achieved.

If elections to the European Parliament are insufficient, what alternative methods can be found? A number of Europe's more far-sighted leaders have come to favour the direct election of the Community's executive. The former French President Giscard d'Estaing has advocated direct election of the President of the European Council. Jacques Delors has argued for the direct election of the Commission President - with, as a first step, his own successor as Commission President being appointed by an electoral college comprising members of national parliaments and the European Parliament.

The difficulty with such proposals, however, is that European solidarity is insufficiently advanced to expect nationals of one country to vote for the national of another as, in effect, leader of Europe. But the basic premise - that Europe needs a stronger basis of democratic legitimacy - is surely right.

A natural alternative would be to hold direct elections for the Commission, which would become the embryonic executive of a European Union. Each party group would nominate a team of commissioners comprising at least one candidate from each member state, headed by a candidate for the Presidency. An election of this kind would enable voters to choose a Community government with a clear mandate for policies of left or right; and, above all, it would serve to generate popular interest and even excitement in Community affairs, qualities sadly lacking at present.

For European leaders, the failure of Maastricht is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to find some means of harnessing popular sentiments to the construction of Europe. The opportunity is that of building a truly democratic Europe, which alone can help to transform the dreams of today into the realities of tomorrow.

The writer is Reader in Government at Oxford University and a fellow of Brasenose College.