EU must take road back to democratic accountability


If Europe is to succeed and if it is to have the powers it wants, it must be seen to be legitimate, writes Declan Ganley.

IT'S TIME for real democratic change. Over the weekend, it should have become clear to anybody who lives their life outside of the bubble that is Ireland's political and media establishment exactly why the people gave Lisbon the verdict they did in such forceful terms last Thursday.

Immediately following the result, major leaders of the EU project, who had assured us all before the vote of their love of democracy began openly talking about finding a way to circumvent the democratically expressed will of the Irish people. President Sarkozy, who has ignored his own people's rejection of the same formula, has taken to referring to our referendum result as an "incident" which can be overcome. Their argument is a simple one, but one that is equally simply deconstructed. 26 member states either have or will ratify Lisbon, and one has failed to do so - why should Ireland hold up Europe? The answer is something that ordinary people can quite easily grasp, but that appears beyond the grasp of our leaders. The moral power of a popular referendum is infinitely greater than that of ratification by parliament in a political system where a majority of government and opposition parties agree.

Take Ireland as an example. 53 per cent of the Irish electorate oppose Lisbon. 94 per cent of our elected politicians support it. There is no prospect in the immediate future of a major political party in the State changing its view on Lisbon, and as such, our electoral system offers no real choice to those of us who feel that European policy is on the wrong track. The same situation is repeated in an overwhelming majority of EU member states, and to suggest, as our leaders do, that those systems for ratification have the same moral weight as our referendum is frankly ludicrous.

If Europe is to succeed and if it is to have the powers it wants, it must be seen to be legitimate, and true political legitimacy in a democratic society can only come from voters who have been presented with a real choice. I truly believe that European voters want to make a positive choice, in favour of a new Europe, but they can only do that if they can hold the key decision makers to account.

Those leaders must now face up to the reality that on three occasions, electorates in three culturally, politically, and historically distinct nations have rejected the formula that they have chosen to present to us. On the previous occasion, a cynical attempt was made to circumvent that result, and silence the will of those electorates who had rejected the Constitution. On this occasion, the early indications are that this is the instinctive approach of our leaders on this occasion also.

If they go down that road, they will significantly undermine public trust in the Union that an overwhelming majority of Europeans want to see succeed.

Throughout this campaign, we were told that a No vote would weaken Europe. The reality is that Europe has already been weakened by a loss of faith in Brussels' leadership among the people who reside within the Union's boundaries. Our leaders need to recognise this chasm between Europe's citizens and an unaccountable Brussels, and address it immediately, or we will see the Irish result repeated again and again across the continent on the increasingly rare occasions when people are given a chance to vote.

The solution to this should be obvious to our leaders. Most Europeans want to see our Union grow, prosper, and lead, and realise that for this to occur, further and deeper integration between member states is a necessity. Voters, in my view, will accept that. In return, however, they want to be given the chance to have a real input into the direction that a new, more powerful, and more credible Union takes.

The challenge, therefore, is to reform the Union in such a way that it brings people from vastly differing cultural and political heritages together, and gives them a chance to speak with one voice on a regular basis. I personally believe that the idea of an EU president is a good and sound one, but only if that person is democratically elected by Europe's citizens, has a much stronger EU parliament to act as a check on his or her power, and is forced to submit him- or herself to the people at agreed intervals for their record to be judged. Member states must have permanent and credible representation on a commission that respects the principle of subsidiarity. I am not advocating a European superstate; I am, however, suggesting one possible way to begin the process of creating a pan-European polity, wherein people are given a meaningful say in the process that now generates a majority of most member states' laws.

Brian Cowen was given a mandate by the Irish people last week. I hope he will now go to Brussels and speak on behalf of the people he represents. He must stand up for our interests, and defend our right to say No. He has also, however, been given a clear message, and one that should be articulated to his colleagues at the earliest opportunity. That message is that people do not feel comfortable handing away more power to a Union that appears not to understand the word No. We cannot risk closer union until we feel confident that our voice within that Union will be respected, in a way that is not currently happening.

If Mr Cowen can persuade his colleagues of this, and get them to act, I would hope that many of us who said No on this occasion could, in our own small way, join him in asking Irish people to support what he brings to us. Europe's leaders stand this week at a fork in the road.

To paraphrase a line, Mr Cowen might ask his colleagues to take the road they have thus far less travelled. That's the road back to democratic accountability. It might make all the difference.

Declan Ganley is the founder of Libertas.