To Be Absolutely Frank

The European Religion

It takes faith to believe in the EU -- and in its leaders, who do their important work in secrecy.

By 10.17.03

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Among the many good deeds for which the Pope's admirers praised him yesterday, on the 25th anniversary of his election, the strangest to American ears must have been his support for the European Union. Surely this titanic crusader for peace and freedom hasn't had the time to waste on a bunch of politicians in Brussels? In fact, John Paul II has consistently backed European integration since well before coming to the throne of St. Peter.

The Vatican's enthusiasm for the EU is such that at least one European politician has characterized the whole thing as a popish plot. Amusing as it would be to believe this, I'm afraid that the answer is much simpler: John Paul thinks that supranational governance fosters peace. But it must be said that the people who run the EU do behave a lot like the College of Cardinals, sealed into the Sistine Chapel as they negotiate a papal election and bound by a perpetual vow of silence about their dealings.

While the proceedings of the largely ineffectual European Parliament are public, the really consequential meetings -- of the European Commission in Brussels, and of the national governments in the Council of Ministers -- are almost all held behind closed doors. That is supposed to change, finally, according to an announcement earlier this month. But so far the curtains have yet to part.

The EU's leaders expect citizens to accept their authority on faith. They hide behind arcane concepts, like the distinction between "supranational" and "intergovernmental," that allow them to act outside the scrutiny of those they are supposed to serve.

The result is that most Europeans know as little about the EU as they do about the church -- which in today's secular Europe is saying a lot. Hardly anyone can tell the difference between the Council of Europe and the European Council, or identify the Three Pillars of the European Union. It's no wonder that voter turnout for elections to the European Parliament is far lower than for national races.

Europe's leaders have a chance to fix this, if they have the courage. So far, only seven of the 25 countries that must ratify the proposed European constitution have announced national referenda on this monumental decision. Some governments apparently fear that their electorates might veto their signatures. They remember that French voters approved the Treaty of Maastricht (which established the EU) by only a hairsbreadth majority, and that the Irish actually rejected the Treaty of Nice (which set the terms for enlargement) the first time they voted on it.

Going over the people's heads is therefore tempting, but it is also dangerous. In the future, voters alienated from a constitution and a union that they did not choose will be naturally receptive to arguments that blame everything on the bogey of an all-powerful Brussels. But oh, reply the Europhiles, by then it will be too late. Maybe so. Or maybe we can't imagine what a mess this all is leading to.

Every European should be able to vote on the constitution. Let its proponents make their arguments in terms that a majority can understand. If they succeed, they'll make the EU incomparably stronger. If they fail, they'll learn a salutary lesson in humility. Now it's time for the governors of Europe to show some faith in the governed.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.