The democratic paradox

There is a paradox in the heart of democracy: A system that wants to serve the majority, and which is based on the equal power of each vote, often leads to a situation where the few impose their will on the many. And this is achieved most democratically – through voting. We see this often in countries that have an electoral system based on simple proportionality, where the biggest parties cannot easily gain a majority and so have to rely on smaller coalition partners. In some cases, a party with only one representative in parliament can make the administration – and thereby the country – carry out its will under threat of bringing down the government. We can say that, on the one hand, the system is so democratic that every vote has incredible power but, on the other, the votes of the many mean nothing if they do not lead to the right juxtaposition of political forces. These thoughts sprang to mind on Friday when it became clear that Irish voters had rejected Europe’s efforts to become more functional and to gain greater political unity. Ireland is the only member state that put the ratification of the de-fanged EU Constitution (now named the New Treaty for the European Union) to a referendum. The other 26 countries, fearing a repeat of the «no» votes in France and the Netherlands in 2005, are ratifying the treaty in their parliaments, as Greece did last Wednesday. The Irish, then, with 3 million voters, have more of a say in Europe than the other 500 or so million Europeans. One could argue that the value of a single vote is the basis of democracy’s strength and justice, but that would apply only if we all voted on the same issue at the same time and in the same process. As things are now, the parliaments (which are accountable to their voters anyhow) vote on a specific issue, which in this case is the ratification of the treaty. In a referendum, though, each voter expresses his or her own hopes, anger, fear and prejudice. As reports from Ireland indicate, very few voters knew what the treaty was about, but what did concern them were fears that an enlarged Europe will increase joblessness at home, will lead to a relaxation of anti-abortion laws and will allow an increase in corporate taxes. From the far left to the extreme right, everyone with a gripe against the government, capitalism, socialism, foreigners or Europe can join the «no» vote, whereas the «yes» is left only to those in favor of greater European integration. It’s a mismatch. With high prices and insecurity plaguing the world, it is almost certain that any government that puts a major issue to a referendum will harvest a vote that has more to do with the current political situation at home than with the issue at hand. (This very simple fact is what former Prime Minister Costas Simitis pointed out in a letter to PASOK party leader George Papandreou last Thursday and got expelled from the party’s parliamentary group for his pains.) In France and the Netherlands, the «no» vote was swelled by those who feared an invasion of Polish plumbers moving westward and by those who disagree with the future membership of Turkey. The Polish plumbers never did get to France; Turkey, sinking once again in its centuries-old fight between reformers and conservatives, will take a long time getting to the EU’s door. The constitution, in other words, was scrapped for the wrong reasons. But it was scrapped nevertheless. Now, after the Irish vote, Europe’s leaders would do well to have greater confidence in their task of building a stronger Europe. When they need to ratify something of major importance, they should ensure that there is a single procedure for all countries: All should hold referenda or all should ratify the specific change with a parliamentary vote. In both cases, in order to make it clear that the issue at hand concerns the future of Europe and not of some national government, countries that reject the treaty should lose their representative on the European Commission immediately. The treaty foresees that not all countries will be represented on the Commission all the time, so weeding out those who don’t believe in Europe will make it easier for those who want representation on the Commission. The dropouts would still have the same rights and obligations as all EU members, but they’d be without a voice on the EU’s executive body as it seeks ways to keep Europe on track. Democracy is a great system; democracy with responsibility would be even better.