Home

Why I wish I could condemn Cameron's decision whole-heartedly but can't

It is now that we really need a genuine democratic European movement with strong civil society roots. But it doesn't exist, and in its absence, the Commission is an untrustworthy institution.
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
9 December 2011

I wish I could condemn the narrowness and stupidity of Cameron's decision to veto the Franco-German proposal of EU Treaty modifications with all my heart. I am deeply committed to the para-national. Three of my grandparents grew up fluent in at least one language none of the others spoke. I grew up on borders and never feel so comfortable as when positioned in-between things. I want Europe to succeed, to be the model, the stepping stone, for the global government we need and should dream of.

And yet I can't condemn it. I can't help thinking that Cameron made the best of a bad choice. The fatal flaw that leads me to this uncomfortable conclusion is the almost complete absence of a European democratic community; it is more than the democratic deficit in the institutions of Europe - it is a European deficit in the civil society of the continent. The groups of people who make it their business to keep life outside the market and the State alive hardly ever do so with Europe as their frame.

The big, strategic questions at this point seem to me to be about how we rescue the idea of Europe so that it is not lost to future generations. And outside of the 17/23/26 might well be a part of the answer.

The argument that we ought to be at the heart of Europe and cannot afford to be locked out of important decisions comes in various forms:

  • realpolitik - the UK's vital interests will be affected by the decisions taken by the 23, or the 17, and so we need to be in there influencing outcomes
  • "don't follow the money" - the only reason for the veto is the City's fear of a Tobin ("Robin Hood") tax and the British State's addiction to the milk that flows from the teats of finance; we need to fight the City and Franco/German proposals for tighter regulation are a good way to do that
  • The veto encourages the worst sort of little-englanderism at home and ultimately serves to strengthen American world-dominance as Europe tangles itself up in the impossible knots of continental-scale consensus
  • "Do it for Europe" - Britain has a positive role to play within Europe, a small but influential focal point tugging against Bonapartist conceptions

I have some sympathy with all of these arguments. Charles Grant, in this piece, runs through some versions of these arguments and there is a certain frame of mind in which the arguments are very persuasive - a sort of incrementalist view of what Europe needs to do tomorrow and the day after, of where the national interest lies as we can see it today. But I think more is at stake: it is about whether Europe can be built democratically or not. 

Before diving directly into them, let me take a diversion through some of the impressions that I gathered from a meeting in Brussels last week. I was invited by EuropeanAlternatives - an anti-authoritarian, progressive think-tank with a strong commitment to the European ideal to enjoy a day of discussion and networking in the European Parliament (the lavish committee rooms where we were hosted, by the way, reminded me of nothing more than a state-of-the-art language lab, circa 1979 ... lots of analogue dials set in plush hardwood furniture, but not a place to plug in a laptop or an ethernet port ... ).

The meeting was a convention of European civil-society organisations involved in grass-roots action and activism all of them wedded to the idea of a democratic Europe. All those present were passionate about democracy and making a difference, and simply bringing this group together across the political continent was very inspiring. (Thank you, Niccolo Milanese (oD author)!)

The central question as posed by Niccolo was this: "given the treaty changes or reconfigurations that will come about in the months ahead, what should be and could be the role of European Civil Society in shaping outcomes?"

There were some excellent elements of answers. My own favourite - and I hope openDemocracy will carry a longer piece on this soon - was the proposal from Greg Czarnecki, of the Polish Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LBGT) pressure group KPH, that mutual recognition should be extended beyond goods and services to include marriage, adoption and other civil matters. As he described it, here was a clearly European problem - EU nationals can find themselves married in one country but not recognised as being so in another - with a well tested European solution that has worked very well for things like Health and Safety legislation as it relates to trade in goods. This was a campaign with a European dimension stamped on it.

Just as inspiring - but much less convincing as emanations of a European civil society were calls, for example from Enzo Bernando for a European campaign to protect our commons, with his particular focus being on water. Enzo argued powerfully that the idea of the commons, of valuable spaces and institutions that are essentially non-marketisable should be central to the creation of a democratic Europe.

Hurrah to that! But stating it does not make it so.

It is precisely because public space is so important and valuable that politics cannot be left to a combination of technocratic elites and law-based bilateral market relations. Sometimes, non-marketisability arises because of technical factors: the fishes of the sea won't be penned in as once were the cattle of plains; when a river is polluted upstream to such an extent that life in it dies downstream, there is no telling if it was cement plant in country A that was to blame or tannery in country B: the fact was that the water just got starved of oxygen overall; it reached its critical load of pollutants ...

But even when the problems seem to be of a technical nature like this, there is more than an argument of efficiency for the maintenance of a powerful public space. The point is that many people are affected and rights are contested. Without genuine democratic processes to jointly govern shared resources, legitimacy will always be missing.

Marketisation is the process of pretending that these resources - natural or social - can be shoe-horned into bilateral, market-based relations without destroying their essential characteristics. The great creative genius of the market is that when this approximation - it is always only an approximation - is good enough, it mobilises great human energies towards given goals; and the terrible destructive genius of the market is that when the approximation is not good enough, it it will destroy what is good with just the same level of efficiency.

Enzo was absolutely right to think of the commons - the essentially public - as being a very powerful way to frame the task of democracy. Just as an example, think of the financial crisis in this way: the underwriting of banking by society through "lenders of last resort" is a social common; it is in the gift of all of us together and can be part of oiling the wheels of prosperity. That's a good thing. But it was this common insurance which was abused by private interests - social guarantees of the financial sector were "over-fished" by the bankers in much the same way that the trawlermen of Europe have over-extended their power over our common oceans.

Democracy needs to be there, always ready to contain the excesses of narrow bilateralism. And civil society is not an accidental add-on to this; it is the essential fabric that is attentive to protecting public space at all its levels.

Fine. But what has all this got to do with Cameron's decision to veto Treaty extensions? Isn't this the behaviour of an arch-marketising nationalist throwing in the towel in the creation of a strong opposition to those forces? Yes - Cameron's reasons were probably exactly those: protect the City while pandering to his right. Irresistible, really. But the trouble is with the corollary - that because Cameron cannot be trusted, the Commission can be. Take the simplest, text-book case of the government of a commons - fisheries. Europe has destroyed fish stocks in our oceans and is busy trying to craft the same ecocide in the waters of poor West African states. The interests of one group has been horse-traded for another in complex deals between national sovereigns. The bill always gets paid by the least protected: the future, the commons, the public ...

So the Commission is the organisation to which we should impart much more power over our commons? It is not because marketisation destroys the public that the wrong political institutions cannot also destroy them. The fabric of democracy - of making a legitimate, trustworthy public space - must emerge out of civil society. And a Euro-civil society  hardly exists. To hand power over to an undemocratic Commission destroys the idea of a working, good, para-national Europe rather than strengthening it. This, I fear, was my answer to Niccolo's framing of the question: there is no force here to shape the renegotiation. There should be, and we should work to create one. But this is not a job that can be rushed.

Take even the most plausible of the three arguments I started with: "don't follow the money" and the impact the 17/23/26 might have on the regulation of the financial sector. At its heart is a commons - the social insurance of banks is something that can only be shared and collectively created. Society needs to get back in control of that commons and stop the private abuse we've seen so much of. But why should we think the Europe of 17/23/26 is going to manage that commons well? There is much more to the task than instituting a Tobin tax, whatever good arguments there may be for that. It is easy in these times to forget that  some of the work of financiers is good and much needed. China, we are told, will build 45 airports by 2015. All over the world, there are people who will be involved in good jobs building them. But these airports will pay for themselves over many years. So the sector that allows people to be paid now for work whose value will stretch over generations are doing something useful. And even if it's not rocket science, it is work that needs care, diligence, a grasp of detail, honesty, trustworthiness ... That is what the well-run commons of finance should aim to create -  a complex good that arises out of a delicate environment and has a social and collective element at its heart.

Britain, the US and "the nations" have certainly messed up the environment of sensible finance. But has Brussels given us any confidence that it can do the job? It not only has failed to give us that confidence, but the absence of a trans-European civil society makes me doubt that today it has the capacity to do so. And the absence of civil society capacity is not accidental, it is not just an oversight: it is deeply designed into what Charles Grant, writing for us last week, characterised as de Gaulle's Europe: sovereign nations jealous of power - or at least its trappings - have avoided the creation of a legitimate European whole; indeed, they have emptied it of legitimacy by everywhere possible making it the whipping-boy for unpopular decisions. This game - pretending to be powerful while dis'ing the source of actual power - is a recipe for the destruction of legitimacy. And now we reap. 

The task for anyone who wants the para-national to work is to build that civil society - to build it on real foundations - so that when we next get the opportunity to give it institutions and expanded power, we will be ready. I am sad we were not this time around. We need to take democratic control hyper-locally, regionally, nationally and trans-nationally before we can hope to build foundations fit for the European ideal.

 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram