We appear more than a little preoccupied with Brexit. It is not the only game in town, well, more precisely in the EU, but it feeds back and forth and interweaves itself in the bigger picture. There are problems with democratic processes in Hungary and Poland, Austria is not without similar issues, the stability of Spain and how democratic the Catalan referendum and then the regional elections were , and how the government intervened raises a multitude of questions, also Belgium and the Netherlands are not without ‘problems’ and Greece is confronted with strikes in reaction to government measures at present.
Against that backdrop Emmanuel Macron in France is pushing for EU reforms that are supported by Martin Schulz of the German SPD who is negotiating the terms of a coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU. Although much is said about the EU being 40 years old, in fact it is less, just over a quarter of a century, since the Lisbon Treaty that gave it its present form. That is long enough for reforms to be necessary, but also for EU conservatism to have emerged in which there will be those who like things as they are, so do not wish to have reforms. There is much that needs to be said, but also more that needs serious consideration and, ultimately, to be done. The most pressing of these would appear to be close examination of the state of democracy.
Scars on democracy
In 1989 we saw the Berlin Wall fall, the Soviet Union begin to come apart, some kind of liberalisation in other once ‘communist’ states, but also a backlash whereby some very quickly became again dictatorships, but this time almost as likely to be right wing as ‘left’. The Cold War was over but the division between east and west was resurgent and remains an ever present threat. At more or less the same time, outside of Europe especially, some regimes became all the more conservative, particularly in theocracies, and new terrorist groups emerged. Some European states were involved in wars beyond our borders, for instance the UK in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and UK intervened militarily in Libya in 2011. Nonetheless, the perception is that Europe is a continent at peace. We gloss over that which is outside the EU, but Cyprus is still divided into the Turkish north and Greek south with reunification talks ongoing, but the risk of conflict ever present. With Brexit in the UK the risk of renewed conflict between republicans and unionists in Northern Ireland has risen again. To claim that Europe is a continent at peace is only true in as far as there are no actual conflicts at this point in time.
There are greater risks than we generally perceive, though. Democracy itself appears to be under a great deal of strain and in one way or another appears to being reduced. Alongside that, often because of it, human rights are being threatened, as yet not breached, but that is expected by some people. Civil rights are also under pressure, indeed as democracy becomes diluted, it is often the case that the fundamental rights of citizens suffer. Right wing nationalists particularly are exploiting these changing political conditions, riding on economic phenomena that they pair with social trends that can be blamed for almost anything. At present large numbers of refugees reaching the EU are becoming scapegoats for unemployment, taking housing others need, benefit fraud, rape, robberies and other criminality, in fact almost everything that can be thrown at them except that national statistics will show just how little they have to do with most things they are accused of. Islam has been demonised massively, but it has raised the phantom of anti-Semitism that is slowly but inexorably following Islam to the position where it shares blame for all evils. Bankers who happen to have names such as Rothschild, Goldman, Sachs or Guggenheim are always thrown in as the controllers who are central to the Bilderberg Group about whom conspiracies abound. These usually regard world domination by a small number of wealthy people, amongst whom some conspiracy theorists claim are Jewish bankers who pull most of the strings. Ultimately, the blaming diverts attention away from actual negative and usually political changes. Charges that democracy and sovereignty are being stolen from under the ‘feet’ of nations is a gambit both left and right extremes play as often as possible.
Brexit, the scab that will not heal on a raw wound
A good example of the irrational fear of loss of sovereignty is in the White Paper of 2 February 2017 that introduced procedures for leaving the EU, whereby the UK government made an astoundingly forthright admission: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.” The principal claim of Leave campaigners was that it was necessary to ‘take back control’ of UK laws from unelected officials in Brussels. That was false, given that control had never been lost, thus the Leave campaign was not based on fact at all, but on what it ‘felt like’ which reflected an irrational emotion rather than an evident condition. The Leave campaign presented the EU as a deadly threat to national identity, without a doubt the stranger and enemy that had stolen sovereignty and with it UK parliamentary democracy. They demanded the EU give them back their country, thus voting against membership was to vote to recover what they had supposedly lost, although they had no real notion of what actually happened within the UK that was neither derived from the EU nor elsewhere.
The outcome of voting revealed that that perception of the EU worked predominantly in England, albeit Wales voted similarly, therefore the Europhobia behind the outcome stemmed from a specifically English crisis of identity. One cannot measure it as a British phenomenon and whilst some very depressed areas of England did vote massively to leave, it is not entirely economic or political but something deep in the English national psychology. Although within the EU the UK had always kept control of its borders, many people demanded that control back because of the numbers of migrants ‘flooding’ their country, thus taking employment and housing, bringing with them a religion, too many dependants and terrorism. Scant attention has been paid to the fact that most terror actions have been carried out by ‘home grown’ terrorists, often marginalised and severely unhappy children and grandchildren of migrants, thus born British but still outsiders. Scotland voted 62% in support of Remain, so too 55.78% of Northern Ireland with the Republic support next door currently estimated at over 80% support for European Union membership. The United Kingdom is not as united as sometimes imagine, in fact it is increasing divided. There is nostalgia for the return of an imperially self-sufficient UK and eventually some kind of revival of the British Empire because it is erroneously assumed the commonwealth will fall back at the feet of its old English masters. The English were masters of the seas who could even circumvent the globe without setting foot outside their empire, and economically the UK was superficially self-sufficient. However, there is a millstone around the neck of those who wish to take back sovereignty which is that England lost a large part of its identity in the unions with Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1800, thus creating the UK. Ireland is now divided with the larger independent part the Republic since 1949, which included leaving the Commonwealth. A schizophrenic attitude toward Scotland pervades that opposes independence and also toward Northern Ireland reunifying with the rest of Ireland, thus denying absolute sovereignty to increasingly unhappy members of a union who do not wish to remain in that union, whilst in England a larger union that gives them a place in the European ‘family’ is unwanted, but the smaller union is treated as their ‘property’, so they will do whatever is in their power to prevent those countries from leaving. That is not at all democracy.
Shadows of Europe’s worst political past
Political nationalism, often hard right wing conservatism, is strong in Europe at present, experiencing a worrying revival. Within the EU, Fidesz last achieved almost 45% of votes, since 2010 governing Hungary, where there is also a smaller harder nationalist party, Jobbik that is harder right. Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) in Poland won the election of 2015 with an outright majority. The Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria) are extremely strong and outspoken, supported by other right wing parties, they have come close to a share in policial power. The Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) led by Geert Wilders did not do as well as anticipated in 2017 but is still very strong. Χρυσή Αυγή (Golden Dawn) is an ultranationalist, far right political party in Greece that has a small but vociferous following. Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) a German nationalist, right wing populist and Eurosceptic party that collaborates with the even further right wing Pegida took 12.6% of the vote and received 94 seats in the Bundestag in 2017. The Italian Lega Nord (Northern League) did very well in the 2017 elections across large parts of northern Italy. In France the Front National (National Front) has been a threat to democracy for many years, but despite its strengths has failed to be as politically successful as it is supported at grassroots level. Last but not least the UK has the British National Party, Britain First and, of course, the United Kingdom Independence Party. Those parties are usually by no means the only ones in their countries, other supposedly supportive groups who are not parties also abound, for instance the English Defence League that is anti-Islamist yet goes further into other politically charged areas. Those groups tend to network among themselves, have contact with groups such as the Framstegspartiet (Progress Party) in Norway, and whilst nationalist and separatist ideologically, they appear to have a joint cause that has the potential to become a continent wide mass movement.
The hard left is equally as narrow minded, but at this point in time has none of the large scale support and public projection of the right, thus is less contentious. It is also often the case that the populist right gives an impression one of their key areas is restoration of discipline and rule of law, ending corruption and often restoring older moral values. They thrive in policy vacuums in which traditional parties allow them to propose single dimensional political narratives. The irony is that they are all too often the most corrupt political groups of all in which the over-inflated egos of their leadership is often far more important than the constituencies they supposedly represent. The established traditional parties have often forgotten the importance of engaging with citizens in a way that disrupts those vacuums and offer persuasive policy alternatives. A good example has been how refugees have been used as a rhetorical device to denounce high numbers of immigrants. An example was Slovakia’s 2016 elections when two right wing, Eurosceptic parties used immigration as a campaign issue even though the country only had 330 asylum applicants during 2015 (see Eurostat for the precise number), which was significantly fewer than other EU countries.
Citizens’ movements, ambitions of independence and staying together
The delegation of power from citizens to their elected representatives has been one of the most powerful principles of organising democratic societies. In fact, political parties largely emerged to facilitate this delegation of the will of the electorate to its members through representatives chosen by them who are elected to parliament with the intention of doing what their supporters send them to do as and when they assume government. In practice really little of what was promised was delivered to the party faithful, usually just enough to satisfy some and subdue anger in others. Since 1945 even that has happened less to the point that promises, like policy, seem to be manifesto propaganda that seems to evaporate as soon as a party takes up office. Today, both established and post 1989 democracies are under pressure to redirect power back to the citizens who put them in power. That drive comes from voters themselves, targeting so-called traditional forms of political organisation in established parties that increasingly appear to be entirely disassociated from the electorate but closer to a small but powerful elite who pull the strings. Donors have become perhaps too bold at a time when information is often easily accessible, so that the vast amounts of money ‘donated’, but actually buying influence, is being questioned by people who feel disenfranchised. It is leading to regrouping of voters in such new movements and parties as En Marche! and la France insoumise in France and Momentum within the Labour party in the UK. However, other voters are moving into right wing groups, although there is also a move into other, essentially left leaning and social democratic national identity groups, such as the successful Scottish National Party (SNP) with a mandate to achieve independence since its foundation in 1934; the independentisme català (Catalan independence movement) that is made up of four pro-independence parties that has a small majority of voter support but are held back by the constitutional powers of Spanish central government; Plaid Cymru in Wales that has waves of popular support; Sinn Féin which is a left wing Irish republican political party active in both the Republic and Northern Ireland that aims to achieve reunification; at least three small but very active parties in Brittany; Corsica Libera in Corsica; at least four small parties in the French Basque region and at least six in the Spanish part including Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (Basque Nationalist Party) which is a member of the European Democratic Party; and many others of varying sizes and strengths across the whole of Europe. Whilst seeking independence, or at the very least a generous degree of autonomy that only just stops short of independence but transfers such powers as raising taxes and other revenues, of which the larger part is retained for their own regional development, the majority are grass roots democratic parties that by and large have little to do with right wing forms of nationalism and are also broadly speaking pro-EU. Many of them see a kind of federal Europe that allows national and regional self rule without total centralisation around a European ‘capital’ as a desirable goal. In that sense they are one of the forces that stands up against any kind of political union that could be compared with, for example, the USA. On the other hand, their cause has not (yet) been especially successful.
Referendums, or the car crash at the crossroads of the European project
Few recent democratic developments have better reflected the tension between citizen identity group participation and representation than recent referendums. The 2017 referendum in Catalunya achieved a narrow victory for independence that brought the weight of the Spanish central government down on the autonomous region, detaining and bringing about flight of the leadership and a new election that has reached a similar impasse. The fact that the Spanish government relied on the constitution, but would neither negotiate nor seriously consider the reality that a small but nonetheless measurable majority had chosen independence, is distinctly not democratic. Had it been treated truly democratically, PM Mariano Rajoy would have initiated a means of resolving how, what and why the Catalan situation had arisen but not simply by attempting to suppress it. Scotland’s independence referendum failed to achieve the ambitions of the SNP, but remains a tantalising possibility when the time is right and Italy has seen regional separatists in northern and northeastern regions move closer to at least greater autonomy. In 2016 referendums brought about political shockwaves from Italy and the UK, none more surprising and disturbing than Brexit, as too in Hungary and the Netherlands. Those referendums have brought about discussion as to whether referendums do indeed give voters a greater voice or simply provide politicians with a calculated instrument for the political manipulation of the citizenry. So back to Brexit for an example of just how undemocratic a referendum could be.
It was set up as an advisory referendum, therefore no threshold as would be the case if it was binding. The campaign on both sides of the argument were entirely disingenuous whereas the Leave EU campaign used a mixture of distorted ‘facts’, rumours, hearsay, negative propaganda and outright lies, the Remain campaign was lacklustre at best with merely a smaller number of the mistruths. Although a sizeable margin in favour of remaining was expected, the outcome was 51.9% to 48.1% in favour of leaving. David Cameron accepted the vote as mandate to leave the EU, then promptly resigned as PM and shortly after as an MP. The replacement party leader, Theresa May, was eventually the remaining candidate for party leadership, therefore walked carte blanche into the premiership unelected even by her party. Thus began the process to leave the EU.
However, looking back at the referendum objectively, there was a 72.21% turnout of 46.5 million voters. Thus 37.79% remain an unknown factor who may have made the outcome more decisive either way. Out of a population of around 65.75 million individuals, more than 19 million did not have a vote, yet very early on in her premiership in one speech May claimed to have all 65 million behind her! That is a curious claim that discredits the referendum all the more. Included as voters were citizens from some, but not all, Commonwealth countries plus Irish citizens living in the UK. Also included were Commonwealth nationals from Malta and Cyprus, who along with the Irish voters are also EU citizens. Yet EU citizens were otherwise excluded, although the result directly affected them far more than, for instance, Australians or Canadians who could vote. In a population census permanently resident EU citizens are included in the over 65 million population; therefore her claim is already wrong. Then approaching 24% of the population was under the voting age of 18 years, plus people in prison, seriously ill or excluded for any other reason are another small percentage, bringing the figure to at least a quarter of the number she used, thus 48 million eligible or able to vote, which would be the electorate plus a few unregistered but both eligible and ineligible parts of the census count. Outside of those people were those who live permanently outside of the UK who were excluded because they have been gone longer than 15 years but still had British citizenship. Then there were people eligible to vote who for one reason or another were unable to or prevented from voting for a number of reasons including lost registrations, late sent or undelivered election papers or delayed arrival because of inadequate postage to return in time, plus several other variants. A small but significant point regarding all of the people permanently outside of the UK is that they are not part of the 65 million population unless they were still resident for the last census, but they are nonetheless part of the electoral roll number, thus skewing the entire calculation slightly further.
Referendum madness is not democracy!
There we see an example in rough detail of just how unrepresentative a referendum can be with consequence we now know. By looking at twists and turns provided by population and electoral statistics, the two not actually corresponding whatever Theresa May might imply, the referendum was anything but conclusive, therefore too risky to proceed on the grounds of, thus not in any sense a part of democratic decision making. Nothing in any political theory or system can ever justify the claim made by the UK government that the referendum was democratic. In fact, if anything, it perhaps serves best of all to show just how absurd the proposition is and without very tight rules and regulation can be misappropriated as an example of exactly what it is not. Having said that, a note of caution to remind myself the principle is not entirely wrong. My wife is Swiss; therefore she receives regular postal referendum materials. Sometimes she votes , other times we have some useful paper for lighting our stove. Even whilst they have a veneer of democracy, at times so few people are interested in the subject of a referendum that the actual vote is far too small to be representative. In such cases it is voided. It is perhaps closer to democratic, but still a few steps short of achieving that.
The way politicians formulate, then legislate and implement what is sold as direct democracy increasingly determines the relationship between citizens and their elected leaders. In general it appears to be increasingly distant. Needless to say, it depends on the political ambitions of leaders and their parties, the form of governance they intend to allow or impose and whether they prefer unionist nationalism within existing states, in a number of cases preferring to remain in the EU, or regional/independent self-rule within a larger federation. In the case of the UK, an apparently pro-EU Conservative party kowtowed to its right wing minority and chose to leave the EU. The opposition has failed to oppose although polls show that up to 80% of ordinary members and supporters would prefer to remain in the EU. The leadership is dominated by a leaver minority. Therefore the will of the people is of little consequence. Both of the largest parties have bowed before the altar of separatism although not all of the UK agrees. Before completing this, I was just in time to read Martina Brinkmann’s piece suggesting ‘Why all Europeans need a second referendum on the UK exiting the EU’. She is perfectly right to say that the UK government has no mandate for what they are currently doing, furthermore suggesting that the European project is suffering, with it democracy and millions of Europeans. I agree with her that it needs to end. However, I would hope that the detailed breakdown of the UK referendum and the shorter viewpoint on the Catalan fiasco over a year later provide an answer to her suggestion. It is an absurdly bad idea in practice, no matter how effective it might seem in theory. It would simply require what is sometimes described as ‘voter fatigue’ by political analysts to see a low turnout, but one in which the activists on one side or the other of the divide push their supporters to vote, relying on the apathy of those who feel they have been asked to vote too often for no significant improvement in their lives. Behind all of that is always the possibility of a government that will ‘interpret’ rather than adhere to the will of the people. In that sense it becomes a dangerous game. Democracy is not a game.
So let’s get back on track…
It is the entire corollary of politics that is often far too distant from citizens, but at least rhetorically appears to speak out for discontented sections of their society, that is creating a crossroads for Europe, the EU especially, at this political moment in time. The reason upsurge in support for hard right parties throughout Europe and the events that led to and have developed since the highly divisive Brexit situation in the UK arose, should be seen as warning shots across the bows of federalism, although those of us who support that idea may not share a single model of how that may be although we see it as a unifying, democratic movement that is openly internationalist. The right wing is historically proven to be corrupt, inward looking with priority given to its elites, to be authoritarian and unjustly discriminating and punitive. Broadly speaking, modern European federalism is a concept without the kind of monopoly politics of the former Soviet Union or Third Reich, but as a social and economic democratic structure that unites people without enforcing single national identities, that maintains the hard won peace after many centuries of small local to continental wars and disputes; that creates a level playing field for opportunities and the movement of people among each other and provides the support of those parts of a federation that are strong to help the development of other parts that are weaker. To some people it may seem over idealised, to others threatening their national identity and yet to many people who have no strong views the chances are that if it was carefully explained they would support or at least allow it to happen, confident that there would be no personal detrimental outcome, indeed perhaps bring benefits. The story told above includes a number of worrying and negative components that we need to confront, as I personally confront and oppose Brexit daily, in order to learn how to advance our message positively. It is why I am able to use the UK most explicitly but appreciate that others among us have an equal ability to describe the equivalents in their own countries and regions. The last two years, at least most of 2016 and all of 2017, have been a battleground for some of us, thus in many respects bad years. Now 2018 offers us a challenge, to turn this around by offering what we see as a better future in a positive and encouraging manner. If the European project is to survive and thrive, we must begin by exorcising the evil spirits of the immediate past and taking a positive and constructive role in building the future Europe deserves.