Bigger EU, less public input

Greece should consider putting the European Union’s fledgling constitution to a referendum in order to jog debate over what type of Europe the people really want, Loukas Tsoukalis, professor of European politics, said last week. Speaking on the eve of the EU’s historic expansion into the zone of the former satellite states of the Soviet Union, Tsoukalis focused on the need for deeper political integration and more direct public involvement so as to close the notorious «democratic deficit.» «Given the near-complete absence of political discussion [on the constitution], Greece should think of holding a referendum on the treaty,» Tsoukalis said. Although noting that he is on principle against referenda, Tsoukalis said he would favor one in Greece because it would provide a much-needed «forum for debate.» Efforts to hammer out an EU charter began more than two years ago and, although talks were scheduled to finish ahead of the May 1 enlargement, they were until recently stymied by squabbling over voting rights. In a major policy U-turn, Britain last week announced that it will hold a plebiscite on the treaty. Other states have already decided to go down the same path, or hinted that they will do so. All EU members, including the 10 newcomers, must ratify the treaty for it to come into force. Tsoukalis, a Jean Monnet professor of European organization at the University of Athens and the president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), spoke last week during a presentation of the Greek edition of his latest book, «What Kind of Europe?» (published by Potamos) at the National Historical Museum (the old Parliament) in Athens. Tsoukalis, a warm advocate of European unification, said that more than 50 years after its birth, the EU has yet to shake off its elitist image. European citizens are put off by what is widely perceived as complex Euro-jargon and out-of-touch decision-makers, said Tsoukalis, adding that the Eurocrats in Brussels have failed to communicate a sense of purpose to the general public. «Public debate is, at best, underdeveloped or, at worst, non-existent,» said Tsoukalis, stressing the need for greater public input in the unification process. «Europe needs political oxygen,» he said. Critics often complain about the elitism and obscurity of EU decision-making, and make charges of democratic unaccountability – also seen as a result of a weak European Parliament. The draft constitution seeks to redress part of these grievances, allowing the Parliament to pick the president of the European Commission, but falls short of envisaging election of the Commission by the Parliament from among its own deputies or by popular vote – a move that could inspire greater public involvement. Experts warn that the enlargement will paralyze the EU if it does not reform its political structure. More active political participation, Tsoukalis maintained, would show that the differences between member states are not so much national as political in nature. «Often, whether you stand on the left or on the right is more important than whether you come from Greece or Finland,» said Tsoukalis, a former LSE and Oxford professor. He said that European elections – the next one due on June 13 – are a chance to inject some momentum into the faltering political integration, and expressed hope that European parties across the political spectrum could at least reach a consensus on a set of EU-specific issues and agree on a joint candidate for the helm of the Commission. Current President Romano Prodi is set to step down in October. European polls tend to be driven by domestic agendas and – like referenda – they are often reduced to nationwide opinion polls or a protest vote against current government policy. The recent landslide victory of the conservatives means this is extremely unlikely to occur in Greece. Tsoukalis hailed EU efforts to efface the bitter divisions of the past by opening its doors to eight ex-communist states plus Cyprus and Malta. But he cautioned that the big-bang expansion magnifies the need for deeper political integration, as have other developments like the global economic downturn, the volatile international environment and Europe’s growing estrangement from Washington. Some analysts express misgivings over the future loyalty of the eastern newcomers, particularly as Washington has gradually come to believe that its interests are best served by a divided than a united EU. Support by these states for the US war on Iraq gave voice to critics who claim that they will be more responsive to American interests at the expense of a common European foreign policy. Tsoukalis offered no awkward forecast but a sobering warning. «The world does not always go forward. Sometimes it slides backward. We are at a crucial crossroads. We should at least be aware of what is at stake.»

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