by David Heilbron PRICE
Every time that a new treaty is negotiated, governments around Europe worry that they will lose referendums. Only a certain number of countries have promised referendums on the constitutional treaty. But if in any one of the referendums the No votes win, all the governments worry that this will block progress for them all. Because of the dangers, some people have suggested that there should be a single European-wide referendum. They say that this would create a more rational, efficient system to run European affairs.
Is this a good idea?
Referendums have been used by democratic nations like the Swiss for centuries. But this is a superficial analysis and could be dangerous. Efficiency does not always equate with wisdom. Referendums were used quite often by both tin-pot dictators abroad and chrome-plated ones in Europe to retain power. They can insert and reinforce anti-democratic powers, especially in times of crisis. The Hitler dictatorship was installed when the German people voted in a referendum during the Weimar democracy. The referendum gave up democracy. Only mature, democratic nations use referendums properly. Even some Swiss cantons prevented women voting until recently. Democracy, the fruit of centuries of efforts, needs the maximum of safeguards.
The European Community and the present Union was not created by de Gaulle for the glory of France. It was founded much earlier (9 May 1950) by another Frenchman, Robert Schuman, as the means to strengthen the internal democracy of France, Germany and other European countries. It did so, internally and externally, by developing simultaneously better democratic practice inside the country and effective Europe-wide governmental democracy for its treaties. The European rule of law is available to all citizens, starting with Schumanís 1950 human rights legislation and allowing all citizens to appeal to European courts. The Community system forced democracies to compare and contrast their own practice while designing and building a Community of Democracies. Some old democracies have had to reform what appears to other states as sharp national practices. Governments hardly want to advertise these failures. But European citizens today have much better national democracies than they had before they entered the European Community system.
Democracy is based on trust and impartiality. The strength of Schumanís Community system comes from the remarkable idea that supranational democracy has to be confirmed and refined by as many democratic means as possible to ensure its impartiality. All the 25 member states (representing all shades of political opinion) have to agree in all their parliaments to each treaty. The new constitutional treaty was originally designed as clarifying existing, democratically agreed treaties. If it fails in one country that implies that some interest groups are not convinced the political leaders have got democratic impartiality right. Are politicians adding or subtracting powers without proper consultation? It is then back to the drawing board for repairs. A system that fails to allow legitimate, democratic interest groups to have expression could be seen as imposing the tyranny of the majority. Not listening is in no-oneís long-term interest.
DAVID HEILBRON PRICE. © 1989, 2005.
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