On the face of it, the Danes' rejection of the euro in last Thursday's referendum is not a major setback for the European project as a whole. As happened after their initial rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, the Danish people will likely soon be given another chance to "vote correctly."
But the popular refusal to accept the single currency—and don't think for a moment that the result would any different in the European powerhouse, Germany, if they were given a chance to vote like this—does belie a deeper and more troubling trend in the European movement: the persistent gap between the Euro-architects and the general public.
Healthy ingredients, arrogant chef
The EU as a general concept is a good idea, and its overall goal of long-term peace and prosperity is supported by the vast majority of people right across the continent.
It is often overlooked how successful the EU has been in establishing itself over relatively few decades. Following a century of disastrous "big ideas" in Europe, it's quite amazing how well the "big idea" of the European project has caught on.
The devil is, of course, in the detail, as all the buzz about the euro makes clear.
The euro, at least in theory, is also not such a bad idea, and it even has quite tangible advantages that a variety of people and interests can get excited about, from big business to the humble tourist.
What has backfired in the Danish case is not the European ideal in general, or even the concept of a single currency in particular, but the overtly élitist approach of those at the fore of the European movement. People are rebelling against the inherently undemocratic institutions it has founded itself upon. People resent being told to "vote correctly."
The bottom against top-down
Despite their very real and impressive successes, the Europhile élites seem more out of touch with the public than ever. It's not just that people in Europe still find their national identities more compelling than their common European one (though this is certainly true); it's that they have not been convinced that giving up national sovereignty will bring more advantages than disadvantages.
The questions and criticisms raised by those opposed to the euro and those opposed to deeper union have struck a chord in numerous countries in Europe, both within the Union and without. Economists argue for and against the euro with little effect on public opinion, but when the critics start to point out how the loss of sovereignty is actually a transfer of power from elected to unelected institutions, the Europhiles are left with no strong counterargument. They can only fumble, trying to defend the authority of unelected bodies and unaccountable Euro-élites.
In an age of increasing scepticism toward politics, that's an approach that will only serve to confirm public suspicions rather than dispel them. The lack of confidence in the euro, both among the Danish people and in the money markets, suggests a lack of confidence in the European project in general.
People haven't been convinced, because those meant to be doing the convincing, the Europhile élite, have been consistently ignoring their duty to inform and educate the public as to their activities in Brussels and their obligation to give the people some level of bottom-up control over the process.
They've now lost the momentum; the very word "Brussels" has become throughout Europe, both East and West, a synonym for incomprehensible decision-making. What should be sold as an historic opportunity for millions has come off looking like wasted millions for opportunists.
This issue is deeper than the euro, of course, and it stretches into the most important task facing the European continent today: that other "big project," Eastward enlargement.
The eurozone is not the EU, and a setback to the euro project is not necessarily a disaster for the European project in general. But if confidence in the EU is waning, then enlargement is certainly at risk, and that puts peace and prosperity in Europe at risk.
The Europhobes have won an important battle, but the war goes on, and if the Europhiles were to take this setback as a lesson and add greater openness and some democratic mechanisms to their effort, they would go a long way to restoring their own credibility and the momentum of the European project in general.
People need to feel a part of these processes; the days of driving everything from the top with no openness or input from the public are over. And be assured this is every bit as true for the candidate countries as it is for the member states.
EU gurus and the West in general make a critically incorrect assumption if they think they can always rely on pro-EU sentiment in the East. The attitude up to this point has generally been "well, they're poor, so they'll always want in," but the arrogance of that approach only serves to annoy people in candidate countries and, worryingly, undermines the position of local Europhile politicians.
The "Brussels knows best" attitude, as witnessed in the EU's hopelessly misguided reaction to Haider, is disturbing to more than just the Eurosceptics within the Union. There is serious scepticism in the old East; people still need to be convinced Brussels has something in it for them, especially after some very intense battles over agricultural trade and delay after delay after delay on enlargement.
The EU is losing its credibility in the East, and not just for its distance from the public. People have been starting to think twice about the honesty of the EU negotiators, and even more so after Verheugen's recent gaffe—and the gaffe there was not necessarily what he said but his naive assumption that no one outside Germany would read his words or care about them.
We are all left with a fair question: it's been 11 years, why aren't any of these countries in yet?
People's real fears and legitimate concerns need to be properly addressed at the European level, and if more democratic mechanisms need to be introduced to bring this about, then let's have them introduced (giving the popularly elected European Parliament more powers would be a good start). If EU leaders take the same élitist approach to enlargement as they have been taking with the euro, the entire process will lack credibility and be in danger of collapse. And Europe will be threatened with a truly disturbing level of instability.
Editor-in-Chief, Central Europe Review
29 September 2000
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