15th Jul 2018


A gaping lacuna at the heart of European democracy

  • Something is missing in Jacques Delors' democratic recipe (Photo: Luxembourg EU Presidency)

One of the unintended consequences of the Second World War was that I learned to fly an aeroplane at the age of 17.

Having been caught short of pilots in 1940, the Air Ministry was determined that this shouldn't happen again. I spent the summer of 1963 happily airborne at Government expense.

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Part of the training involved handling an aircraft in a stall - the time when the speed of the aircraft falls below the necessary minimum to sustain flight and it falls out of the sky. With dramatic consequences if you are near the ground. To help prevent this a klaxon wails in your ear like a banshee as you approach the stalling point.

Jacque Delors' democratic recipe

I was put in mind of this Stall Warning Indicator the other day by something that Mr Jacques Delors said to the European Economic and Social Committee. Or rather didn't say. Let me quote him, in translation. "Democracy has three basic foundations: politics, the economic and social field and civil society. I am sure that by building on this idea of civil society, rather than getting bogged down in communication issues, we will be able to make many more people feel that they belong to Europe……"

Some might take him to task for dismissing 'communication issues' so lightly, but that is not the point that I want to make. It is what he omits from his 'foundations of democracy' that is important here. And you can see that he omits it quite unconsciously; for that matter most of the European political elite omit it also.

They do so because the European way of thinking seems at one with that of Dr Pangloss - to wit that 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.' In this make believe world European politicians know just what is good for us and never make mistakes because they are the best of all possible politicians.

Moreover, the European construction is the best of all possible constructions and the noble motives which are the motor for European integration are the best and most noble of all possible motives. So there is no need for any klaxoning.

Unfortunately, this is just not true. Never was true and never will be true. European politicians are as fallible as any other politicians; the success of the European project is not guaranteed by any fundamental righteousness. Its noble nature does not mean that it should exist without scrutiny and criticism from both its defenders and its detractors. They are the klaxons that should serve to keep it in the air.

You may now have an inkling of what I feel Jacques Delors omitted from his democratic recipe. It is of course a powerful and critical European press and its absence is a gaping lacuna at the heart of European democracy.

Enlargement without tears

Let us look at a few decisions in which Europe's politicians have refused to believe the harsh and uncomfortable evidence before their eyes and instead, with ostrich-like optimism and reluctance to upset even the smallest of apple carts, have persisted with policies long after they should sensibly have been reversed or abandoned.

Take Cyprus, for instance. Not for one minute did Europe's politicians believe that the Greek Cypriots would throw out the UN's reunification plan. And so the extraordinary promise was made that Cyprus could join the Union however she voted in the referendum.

The result is the nonsense we are seeing today with an ever-darkening cloud overhanging relations between Greece, Cyprus, Northern Cyprus and Turkey.

Turkey, of course, is part of the grand and hopeful vision of 'enlargement without tears' - part of that expansive gesture of the past couple of years when it seemed that the Union wanted swiftly to embrace every European state, however distant or undeveloped, regardless of cost or consequence.

Expectations having been duly stoked we are now in the undignified position of revising our position, even to formal candidates like Croatia and Macedonia, while we try to address the basic questions of whether our institutions can cope and whether our citizens will agree, neither of which we know just quite how to do.

There is no plan A either

That brings us to the Constitution - another project undertaken with Panglossian idealism. No doubt about its desirability, necessity even - yet we still have no concrete ideas, even on the verge of the German Presidency, how actually to proceed.

Not so much a case of no plan B; there is no plan A either. The Commission talks glibly about having these institutional questions settled by 2009. Optimism replaces detailed planning.

No room for optimism, you might think, in the field of climate change. The problem of global warming grows ever more acute as Al Gore's film 'An Inconvenient Truth' shows compellingly.

I continue to believe that insufficient attention has been focused on halting the sustained trashing of the natural processes of carbon sequestration - particularly in the sea - but the problems are so acute that action is needed on emissions as well. We shall simply fry otherwise.

Yet Dr Pangloss is alive and well in the Commission's most recent report. If we rely on 'Additional Measures, Carbon Sinks and Kyoto Mechanisms,' it says, we shall reach our target of cutting emissions to 8 per cent of 1990 levels by 2010. But such additional measures are just that, additional to what we are doing now. As yet they have not been substantiated and remain improbable. If we continue as we are our emissions will fall by merely 0.6 per cent.

The press has a vital part to play

Without the rude klaxoning of a vigorous press, Europe's politicians can easily be carried away by the belief that all will turn out for the best. The press, of course, is not infallible: it is irrational, inconsistent, divided, facetious, disrespectful and no doubt any other adjective you may wish to add.

But by constantly challenging policies and progress, by stimulating intelligent debate, by reinforcing the message that the world is far from benign and infinitely uncertain, the press has a vital part to play in breaking the Panglossian spell that envelopes too much of current European thinking.

How indeed to develop the small existing European press into the fourth leg of European democracy? That is a question well worth debating.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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