Thursday, June 02, 2005

Two Slaps for Joschka or the Question of Sovereignty

(With Update: What Balkenende Really Said)

Since with the overwhelming Dutch rejection of the EU “constitution-treaty” Joschka Fischer’s project for a “federal” European state has taken its second major hit in less than a week, it is perhaps an apt moment to have a closer look at just what Joschka Fischer proposed in his would-be seminal Humboldt University speech in which he coined the enigmatic expression “constitution-treaty” and promised that the hitherto unknown beast allegedly corresponding to it would provide the best way forward for the EU. The “constitution-treaty”, Mr. Fischer said, should serve to establish the necessary “division of sovereignty” between the “federal”, i.e. European institutions, and the national institutions of the member states. And he continued:

The clear determination of the competencies of the Union and the nation-states respectively in a European constitution-treaty should transfer the core sovereignties and what absolutely has to be regulated at European level to the Federation, whereas the rest would remain the regulatory competence of the nation-states.
[A full English translation of the Humboldt speech is found here, though I have retranslated from the original German here.] Note that in this supposed “division of sovereignty” all the “core sovereignties” go to the federal institutions, the nation-states being left merely with a “regulatory competence” and even then not an exclusive one. But a sovereign power does more than merely “regulate”. Since, moreover, it is presumably just the “core sovereignties” that define the sovereign, Fischer’s “division of sovereignty” is, in fact, a chimera. According to this so-called “division”, it is, in effect, just the federal institutions that are sovereign; the national ones are not.

I would suggest that in both France and the Netherlands, it is this “transfer” of “core sovereignties” to the European level – both inasmuch as the “constitution-treaty” would have continued the process and indeed inasmuch as such transfers (for instance, in the area of monetary policy) have already taken place – that above all mobilized voters to reject the treaty. And who can blame them? Even the most "convinced European”, after all, admits that the European institutions as currently constituted suffer from a “democracy deficit” – and that is putting it mildly. Why should the citizens of any of Europe’s nation-states accept further transfers of sovereignty to the European level until such time as this deficit has been eliminated? By refusing to do so, they are not merely defending national sovereignty. Inasmuch as their national institutions are subject to greater democratic control than the European ones - and, again, no one denies this premise - they are defending popular sovereignty. They are defending, in short, their democratic rights.

The anglophone msm seems intent on obscuring this fundamental issue - or perhaps indeed, the editors and reporters are themselves so contemptuous of democracy that they are not able to perceive it. Thus I was surprised in glancing at this morning's AP report on the Dutch referendum to read the following sentence with which it begins:

European leaders may have to scrap the proposed EU constitution after Dutch voters rejected it by a massive margin, voicing their concern over dwindling national identity in a rapidly expanding union and their distrust of increasingly powerful bureaucrats.

I am not entirely sure how identity can "dwindle", nor why it should be a problem if it does. This same trope of "defending identity" is often used also to explain French hostility to the European "federalist" project. But in fact in France essentially no one but academics and some so-called "far right" groupuscules make an issue of identity - or of French "identity" at any rate.

Further on in the same article, the AP even manages to quote Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende suggesting that the Dutch voters had expressed their "doubts" about "the Dutch identity" - which is presumably supposed to mean about the erosion of the same. This too struck me as odd and I asked a Dutch correspondent whether Balkenende had in fact said it. He responded:

I didn’t notice he was talking about 'identity'. What he was indeed talking about were 'concerns about the loss of sovereignty' (dutch: “zorg om het verlies van souvereiniteit”). The word ‘identity’ (dutch: ‘identiteit’) sometimes is used rather loosely, without its heavy connotations, but I don’t remember having heard Balkenende using this word and I find it difficult to imagine he did that, because normally, though he is not a brilliant speaker, he chooses his words quite carefully....The most important part of Balkenende’s message was about financial concerns and sovereignty . The Netherlands, contrary to France, are netto payers of the EU, and this, together with the lack of information and the incomprehensibility of the 500 (or so) pages “Constitution”, was among the most important reasons for voters to vote No (and not, as the AP-report has it, concerns about the freedom to continue our alledgedly liberal/libertarian policy on soft drugs, abortion, euthanasia or prostitution).

(Thanks much for your observations KvM!)

Update: What Balkenende Really Said

I have received confirmation from my Dutch correspondent that Balkenende did not speak of "identity", but indeed, as I suspected, of sovereignty.

He writes:

I just checked what Balkenende really said, and it was as I remembered. The relevant quote, incorrectly translated in the AP report, runs as follows in Dutch:

“Ik zal mijn Europese collega’s er op wijzen dat het Nederlands “nee” recht gedaan moet worden. Want wij begrijpen de zorgen van de Nederlanders over het verlies aan soevereiniteit; over het tempo van verandering, zonder dat burgers zich daarbij betrokken voelen; over onze financiële bijdrage. Daar moet ook in Europa rekening mee worden gehouden”.


“I will make clear to my European colleagues that the Dutch “no” should be respected. For we understand the concerns of the Dutch, about the loss of sovereignty, about the fast pace of change, without citizens feeling they have any part in it, about our financial contribution. This should be taken into account in Europe too.”

Nowhere mention of “identity”, let alone Dutch identity.

Readers of the AP report can get a misleading impression for yet another reason:

The Algemeen Dagblad daily said that the government “could not remain without facing consequences”. It’s true that the Algemeen Dagblad Daily said this, but according to a public opinion survey on this topic, carried out shortly after the referendum result, this was definitely not the opinion of the vast majority of Dutch voters.

Furthermore, if Gerry Elfferink and Harry van Bommel are cited, it should be kept in mind that the Socialist Party (“Socialistische Partij”), to which they belong, is not the Dutch equivalent of the German SPD or the British Labour Party. It’s fortunately a small political party (about 6% of the electorate), at the extreme left of the political spectrum, characterized by the usual warm feelings towards Palestinian terrorists, virulent anti-Americanism and hostility towards Israel. The much bigger, more moderate Dutch Labour Party (about 33% of the electorate) is called “Partij van de Arbeid” (PvdA). It is confusing that in Belgium there is also a PvdA, but there the PvdA is the extreme left fringe party and the more moderate Socialist Party is simply “Socialistische Partij”. In ignoring these fine distinctions, journalists abroad can give a completely distorted picture of the political situation in small countries like Holland or Belgium. Who cares?

Thanks KvM!