Wanted: A tonic for Europe

European politicians have spent a great deal of time and energy seeking ways to «bring Europe closer to the people.» The problem is they often want to follow opposite ones. Such divisions were once again highlighted during an Athens conference yesterday which focused on the citizens’ role in light of the new European constitution. The conference, which took place at the European Parliament offices in the capital, was organized by the European Network for Communication and Information (EURONEM), a non-profit organization seeking to promote public awareness on EU-related affairs. Public ignorance of European Union institutions and policies and tumbling turnouts in European Parliament elections show that people do not feel comfortable with the European enterprise, the attendants were told. But although participants were in good voice in diagnosing the symptoms, they seemed less prepared to agree on the remedies. Most agreed that the European Constitution marks a step in the right direction but controversy erupted when the R-word came up, as socialist and leftist politicians criticized the Greek government’s decision not to hold a referendum on the issue. Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said that the inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the new constitution shows that «the EU is on the right track.» «The new constitution does not only wish for but also imposes a greater role for the citizen,» the conservative official stressed. The new constitutional treaty, which was signed by EU leaders in October last year, aims to streamline voting and decision-making procedures as membership of the bloc has ballooned to 25 states and a further expansion is on the cards. The treaty foresees an EU foreign minister (instead of the two representatives it has now) and a president to be appointed by EU leaders. To vote or not to vote? Nine countries have announced they intend to put the document to a referendum. All 25 member states must ratify the treaty before it comes into force but a single «No» vote will be enough to kill the plan. The traditionally Euro-skeptic Britain on Wednesday published legislation for a referendum «sometime in 2006.» Greece has accepted the new constitution almost by default, as the main political parties have long given a green light to the treaty. Pavlopoulos hinted this was nothing to be shy of. «Greece will be among the first states to ratify the constitution. It will thereby be making an active contribution to European integration,» he said. New Democracy MEP Giorgos Papastamkos was more explicit in rebuffing calls for a referendum, discarding it as barely disguised roadblock set up by the enemies of real unification. Enemies of a referendum point out that elected politicians can better represent the interests of the public and point out that decisions which were heavily contested in the past finally came to be seen as useful. Lacking legitimacy Defenders of a referendum, on the other hand, hold that it is this elite-led model that is to blame for the EU’s notorious «democratic deficit» and believe public plebiscites would give the whole project greater democratic legitimacy. Stavros Lambrinidis backed the EU plans for a constitution notwithstanding any defects. A rejection of the constitution, the PASOK MEP said, would leave us with the Nice Treaty – hardly a better alternative, he said. Nevertheless, Lambrinidis argued for a popular referendum saying that it would get the European debate going and raise public awareness over developments in Brussels. «A referendum would be a good idea so that people know what is going on. After all, this is about changing the way we function,» he said. According to an EU study that was made public yesterday, 89 percent of EU citizens know little or nothing about the draft constitution. The Eurobarometer poll found that only 11 percent of Europeans claim to have good knowledge of the constitution, 56 percent said they know «little» about the blueprint, while an embarrassing 33 percent admitted they had never heard of it. In a fresh blow to the pro-constitution camp, the study showed that popularity of the treaty is lower among those that have opted to put it to popular vote. Panos Trigazis, member of Synaspismos Left Coalition, slammed the New Democracy government for its urgency to stamp the constitution in Parliament. «The government has stifled public debate,» Trigazis said, adding that Greece should have opted for a popular vote on the treaty in parallel with all other EU nations. Trigazis said that his party, which is often plagued by ambiguity concerning its European positions, has firmly been in favor of an «ever closer union» but flatly rejected the new constitution which he accused of no less than «institutionalizing neo-liberalism.» Synaspismos, which was originally set up as a reformist, Europe-oriented party, has increasingly experienced a split between a pro-European and pro-constitution camp and the now-dominant Euro-skeptic wing. Competing loyalties It seems that 48 years after the birth of the Union and despite the efforts of the most convinced Europhiles, national identities remain more deeply ingrained than any pan-European loyalty. Alluding to that, Professor Stelios Perrakis offered a mixture of realism and hope. «Let’s be honest about this. Europe is not ready to adopt a federal structure,» he cautioned. «But this does not necessarily mean the end of the integration process.»