Referendum: Poll prayer: Europe must vote

23 August 2012 – De Morgen (Brussels)

An essential corollary of monetary and fiscal union, the political union discussed by European leaders and the Constitution that goes with it, cannot be legitimate unless it can be achieved democratically. To achieve this, it must be put to pan-European consultation, according to a Flemish writer.

Europe is struggling with three massive problems that we can summarise as liquidity, solvency and legitimacy. Liquidity concerns the manner in which we keep Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland afloat. The challenge is to avert a situation in which the governments of those countries wake up one morning unable to fulfil their financial obligations.

That was also the message of ECB Chairman Mario Draghi during his press conference earlier this month, in which he explicitly stated that the ECB has the necessary firepower and the will to use it. But if the truth be said, creating extra hundreds of billions of euros to temporarily save countries from bankruptcy was never the main stumbling block.

The complication is that the problem countries have become hopeless debtors to which no-one is prepared to lend money under acceptable conditions. That lost solvency is the second problem. Fact is that some €2,500 billion of excess debt has to be removed from the euro system. Until we find a solution, our financial sector is virtually bankrupt. German banks still have claims on southern Europe to the tune of €500 billion! French banks are even more exposed. And the claims of those banks are in part also the claims of the individuals who have put their savings into those banks.

Returning confidence

However the situation develops, the debt crisis will impose much hardship on European citizens in the years ahead. Firstly through the effect of balancing measures, as there is no point in pursuing debt reduction if one allows countries to continue to run a deficit. Add to this the pain resulting from the gradual lowering of the current excessive debt.

This arduous process would obviously be made easier by sustained economic growth, backed by some inflation, but growth requires confidence. Confidence in the future, as we enjoyed during most of the years following World War II. Restoring that confidence and creating willingness among citizens to work significantly harder for less income is only possible with a high level of political legitimacy. Our politicians require a democratic mandate, subject to renewal every five years.

They must receive that mandate from and for the entire eurozone. In other words, the European Union, or at least the eurozone, must become a political union. That union will then have the final say on all budgets of the lower governments. Within that strict framework, countries and regions would still have the freedom to levy taxes or increase payments. Indeed, no less than a true state reform is being called for!

"Post-democratic bureaucracy”

The German constitution, however, explicitly prohibits the transfer of such powers. Various German politicians have recently launched a call for a referendum, albeit with various degrees of enthusiasm. By doing so, they are backing the ideas expressed by the 83-year old philosopher Jürgen Habermas, whose booklet La Constitution de l'Europe (Gallimard) is now also available in French bookstores.

A constitution, in the interpretation of Habermas, stands both for construction and charter. According to Habermas, we must avoid seeing the hopeful European project being changed into its exact reverse, namely a “post-democratic bureaucracy”, which is judged oppressive and hostile by the people of Europe.

We must once again make Europe a positive project. Habermas regards Europe as an indispensable component of a world that we as ethically aware citizens must continue to improve. If we fail to save Europe, what then remains of the other cosmopolitan ambitions such as universal human rights?

A referendum in Germany appears to be on the cards. It could, according to Der Spiegel, take three forms: a vote on the changing of the German constitution, a vote on the latest European decisions (fiscal compact and ESM, the European Stability Mechanism) or a referendum throughout Europe on far-reaching Treaty amendments.

In short, a referendum on the new democratic constitution of our continent. Who here is prepared to lead the way? Let us start with a petition.

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom

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