At Large

Klaus Encounters

Only the Czech president and the Irish people stand between popular sovereignty and further unaccountable rule from Brussels.

By 5.11.09

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The Czech Senate ratified the Lisbon Treaty last Wednesday. Only the Irish people and Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who must sign the document for it to take effect, stand between the European Union and political consolidation. But both remain formidable obstacles.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus routinely offends Europe's governing elite by speaking unpleasant truths. Like when he recently lectured the European Parliament -- delivering a "blistering diatribe," reported one publication -- about the danger of concentrating ever more power in Brussels.

The European Union grew out of the wreckage of World War II. European economic cooperation became a means, in addition to NATO, to link Germany to its neighbors. The organization started as the European Coal and Steel Community, turned into the European Economic Community (or "Common Market"), and became the European Union in 1993.

Further strengthening the EU has become the premier project of Europe's elite, an amalgam of supra-national politicians, continental bureaucrats, deracinated intellectuals, and borderless businessmen. The original benefits of intra-European trade were obvious: a continental market promoted European trade and prosperity, while the prospect of joining the most prosperous states of Europe spurred economic and political reform in the new nations formed out of the Soviet empire.

But the EU's goal of ever-expanding continental markets is running into rising nationalism. The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, is battling France over the latter's plan to bail out the French auto industry. Denmark and Germany fear further EU expansion if workers are free to move throughout Europe.

Moreover, the EU increasingly micro-manages economic activity, from mandating use of metric measurements to banning "defective" vegetables. To improve people's health, the Commission is proposing to limit the salt content of bread. "What the EU is doing amounts to stupid interference," complained Matthias Wiemers, chairman of the Central Association of German Bakeries.

Yet the Eurocrats dream of turning Brussels into more than a giant OSHA. They want to harness Europe's population of a half billion and GDP of $19 trillion in order to compete with the U.S. for global influence. For that they have proposed creating a stronger government structure with greater authority to develop a continental foreign policy. Hence the Lisbon Treaty.

In 2001 the Europeans began negotiating a constitution of formidable length and incomprehensible verbiage. It created a president and foreign minister, dropped the requirement of a commissioner per country, limited national vetoes, and reshuffled EU institutional responsibilities (the European Parliament continues to debate the exact apportionment of duties). Whether the treaty is a good let alone necessary is for the Europeans to decide. But which Europeans get to decide?

Signed in 2004, the constitution had to be approved by popular referendum and was quickly rejected by both Dutch and French voters. European consolidation looked dead, but the Eurocrats changed a couple of commas and reissued the constitution as the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 -- which, conveniently, didn't require popular approval. French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted: "There will be no treaty at all if we had a referendum in France." Then the carefully prepared railroad unexpectedly ran off the rails. In June 2008 Ireland held a referendum, as required by its constitution, and the voters said no.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth could be heard across the continent. The collective reaction was: How dare they! Under the rules the treaty was dead, but the Eurocrats write the rules, and they agreed that the treaty must be ratified, irrespective of the rules. Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, announced: "I believe the treaty is alive and we should now try to find a solution."

Much was said of democracy and majority rights by elites which were doing their best to prevent the people from having any say on their form of government. Britain's Lord Mark Malloch-Brown complained: "I am not sure whether the voters of Ireland should have a right of veto over the aspirations of all the other people of Europe. I am not sure whether that is, or is not, democracy." Similarly, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said: "a few million Irish cannot decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans."

Of course not. Only a few thousand people -- the Eurocrats -- are supposed to decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans.

The problem, argued Czech President Klaus, is that "There is no European demos -- and no European nation," which intensifies the problem of "the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision-making of the unelected." Klaus warned of "a situation where the citizens of member countries would live their lives with a resigned feeling that the EU project is not their own." He was particularly scathing of the EU's attempt to suppress popular sentiments: "Not so long ago, in our part of Europe, we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition. We learned the bitter lesson that with no opposition, there is no freedom."

Although British Member of the European Parliament Graham Watson acknowledged "some kernels of truth" in Klaus' description of "the distance between the voters and the [European Parliament]," the Eurocrats are prepared to increase that distance in order to push through the Lisbon Treaty. One option is turning Dublin into a second class EU member; another possibility is tossing the Irish out of the EU. But the preferred result is having Ireland hold a second poll -- so long as voters make the right decision. As Mats Persson of the think tank Open Europe observed: "Ever since the Irish voted No to the Lisbon Treaty in June, politicians in Ireland and across Europe have tried to find ways to force this unwanted document through -- against the clear will of the people."

After winning some theoretical concessions, essentially promises to make future changes, on issues of interest to Irish voters, the government in Dublin announced plans to hold a revote later this year. Current polls have the "ayes" ahead and the EU is spending more than $2 million to lobby the Irish public. But the apparent upsurge in support may be temporary, reflecting economic fears, and groups like Declan Ganley's Libertas, which played a key role in defeating the treaty in the first Irish vote, plan to keep fighting.

If the Lisbon Treaty passes, then what? European policies will be further internationalized. European nations' sovereignty will be further eroded. European traditions will be further submerged. European peoples will be less free.

Which explains Vaclav Klaus' sharp critique. "Are you really convinced that every time you take a vote, you are deciding something that must be decided here in this hall and not closer to the citizens, i.e. inside the individual European states," he asked the European Parliament. Unfortunately, most of them are: His talk elicited "boos and catcalls and a walk-out by some members," explained New Europe.

Yet even if the Eurocrats win, they aren't likely to create a new nation state capable of challenging Washington for global influence. Rather, the EU will just create a slightly more pretentious political hollow shell.

In his valedictory address as European President, Nicolas Sarkozy said: "the world needs a strong Europe and that Europe cannot be strong if it is not united." But the Lisbon Treaty does not unite Europe. The wealthier West has rejected a plea by the East for a financial bailout. In a January poll barely one quarter of Europeans knew that parliamentary elections were even scheduled this year. The percentage likely to vote is down from the last election. And the governing establishment is afraid to let the people vote on the Lisbon Treaty. If the only way to strengthen the EU structure is to limit popular participation, then Europe must not be united. Would anyone, other than Belgians (and maybe not even them), today die for Brussels? Passing Lisbon won't create a continental identity now absent.

What the Sarkozys of Europe desire is greater international influence, but European unity or not, Europeans lack the desire and their governments lack the ability to take the necessary politically tough, financially expensive, and militarily risky steps. Even Sarkozy's supposedly successful EU presidency last year mostly reflected his stature as the hyperactive president of France. And European disunity quickly followed such ephemeral successes as confronting the Russia-Georgia war and economic crisis, for instance.

Washington is seen, for better or worse, as speaking on behalf of Americans as well as America. They consider the U.S. to be their country; they elect the head of government as well as the legislature; they finance and serve in a military actually capable of combat; they back their government (too enthusiastically too often, in my view) when it uses that military. None of these conditions apply to Europe today; none would be changed by Lisbon.

Some younger pan-Europeans exist, but most Europeans remain loyal first to their national government. Lisbon builds a higher appointed structure, not a broader elected structure.

Moreover, few European governments have militaries with meaningful combat capabilities, and even fewer are ready to use their militaries in real war. French President Sarkozy claimed that had Ireland not rejected the treaty Lisbon would have "guaranteed Europe's security for many years" by an "obligation of solidarity," whatever that is. However, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine admitted: "At no point have the Europeans shown an appetite for a truly European defense. They don't want to devote more money to defense." Indeed, Bastian Biegerich of the International Institute for Strategic Studies observed: "The majority of EU member states appear unable to deploy formations of even battalion size (500-800 troops) on a single mission." To the extent there is any European will for military action, it involves low-risk "peace-keeping" missions, not real wars. From such does not spring an influential nation state.

A surge of continental nationalism might eventually sweep Europe. But attempting to force recalcitrant peoples into a new political order is more likely to build resistance than support for Brussels. Vaclav Klaus, who says he will not approve the treaty's ratification until after the Irish vote, may not be popular with the European Parliament, but he, far more than the EU's official leaders, represents the European people.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).