Public on the sidelines

The way in which Greece intends to ratify the European Constitution is yet another sign of the so-called democratic deficit bedeviling EU affairs. We need not underscore the significance of the treaty for the future of our country and Europe in general. Nevertheless, Greece is expected to give the green light through an ordinary parliamentary session amid a striking absence of public discussion on the issue. Greeks know very little about the EU’s constitutional treaty. Their ignorance is not because they do not care about community affairs, but because the domestic political system and the media did not want to spark a debate on the issue. The same thing happened with other landmark decisions, such as the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, Greece’s accession to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and, more recently, the scrapping of Athens’s longstanding objections to Ankara’s European ambitions. On all these crucial issues, the political class made its decisions behind closed doors. The populace was never asked its opinion but was instead kept on the sidelines. The ratification of the landmark charter presented the government with a unique opportunity to break with this negative tradition and to make a new start. Public surveys and empirical studies have shown that the document was virtually guaranteed ratification even had the government decided to put it to the people. Notwithstanding any misgivings, the overwhelming majority of Greeks were certain to back the constitutional treaty. A plebiscite would be democracy in action. The mere announcement of a referendum would automatically trigger a public debate over the different aspects of the text and, by extension, the prospects of European integration. The conservative administration of Costas Karamanlis chose the beaten track, following a tradition of an executive power that is allergic to referendums. It is worth noting that neither the ruling party nor the parties of the opposition, which had pressed for a public vote on the issue, ever really tried to initiate any public debate on the issue. The French referendum on the constitution will give people here an opportunity to learn more about the proposed treaty. A French «no» vote would send shock waves across the continent. However, the fact that big European governments have decided to put the issue to referendum – without any guarantees of a positive verdict – should be a cause for serious concern at home.

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