With last Wednesday’s “no” vote for the EU constitution, two stalwart “Europeanist” countries have dealt serious blows to the constitutional movement. Commentators on both left and right have already noted the arrogance of mainstream bureaucrats who assumed the “yes” vote was a foregone conclusion, and the “too little too late” campaigns for “yes” votes in France and the Netherlands.
But there is something deeper here. The idea of an EU constitution is an historically good one. The EU constitution would, for the first time ever, make a supernational organization directly transparent and maybe accountable to voters. There is no historical precedent for this that I know of. Certainly multinational corporations have no accountability to a constituency other than their shareholders and governing boards. We cannot say much more for the UN, NATO, WTO, and so forth. A European constitution would also bring together the mess of regulations from a plethora of treaties, some decades old.
But relatively few voters interviewed by the press worked their way through the draft constitution. Rather, the papers at TV stations repeatedly reported that “no” voters used the referendum to voice their discontent over the actions of unpopular governments. Which brings raises a set of questions about the role of voting, and democracy, in the creation and conduct of supernational organizations.
Voting is the beginning of democracy, not the end. The current constitution is a classic bureaucratic document, designed by a cadre of experts that would make Walter Lippmann proud. The public debate over the constitution in France and Holland occurred with the “yes” side claiming that there was no alternative to the constitution. In other words, the referendum was something of a sham to begin with, to give the appearance of democracy to an undemocratic process.
Perhaps it is not possible to have a constitution created in some purely democratic form. Perhaps, as Jacques Derrida wrote of the Declaration of Independence, the founding documents of democracies call a polity into existence more than they ratify an existing political body. But certainly there are alternatives to the current document. Indeed, left wing “no” advocates in the UK have already said in televised debates that the problem is not Europe, but rather the environmental degradation and neoliberal economic policies that were written into this draft of the constitution. Of course, there are other issues that Europe will have to face head-on, especially nationalist, racist and ethnicist sentiment tied to concerns about admitting Islamic nations into the accord, or about waves of immigration that may follow from incorporating new member states.
As usual, actual politics doesn’t follow an easy left-right binary. The “no” vote can be interpreted as a resurgence of nationalist politics and a rejections of Europeanism. But to what end? Interviewed “no” voters in France spanned the entire political spectrum, from labor activists concerned about preserving the relatively labor-friendly political culture in France to an apathetic and ignorant middle to radicalized National Front rightists. Commentators in Holland, meanwhile, took the “no” vote as a combination of anxieties over rising unemployment and a rightward shift, especially around questions of assimilation into distinctively “Dutch” culture. It’s clear that new political coalitions are possible in the resistance to so-called globalization and other international projects. It is less clear whether, at this moment, new progressive coalitions can emerge around positively internationalist projects.