It would be easy for politicians simply to blame voters for saying “no, nej, nee and non” in referendums held on successive proposals for EU reform. But a closer examination of the reasons why the Danish, French, Dutch and Irish all said “no” reveals striking similarities. The Danes rejected the Maastricht treaty in 1992 out of concern that the proposed citizenship of the EU would replace their national citizenship. The main reason for the Dutch electorate “no” in 2005 to the proposed EU Constitution was alarm that it would replace their national constitution. The Irish result is thought to suggest that fear of the unknown played an important part.
Opponents of the various EU proposals have unscrupulously yet very successfully exploited these widespread anxieties. They have been able to argue that the EU would become a “superstate” – an undemocratic monster that threatened to be a modern-day version of Thomas Hobbes’ autocratic Leviathan. The Lisbon treaty’s proponents were unable to dispel these claims, and some of the more prominent “Yes” campaigners tried the counter-productive trick of threatening the voters with forecasts of doom and gloom. People sensed they were desperate and voted “no” in droves.
So now you don’t need a crystal ball to predict that the opponents of European integration will continue to have the upper hand so long as the European Council cannot refute their allegations. And why can’t they? It’s because they haven’t agreed on their answer yet.
The heads of state and government who make up the European Council are locked in debate about the “finalité” of the EU – which is another way of saying where Europe is heading in the long run. It is a debate that has raged since the dawn of European integration, and still nobody knows whether the process will end with a federation, some kind of a United States of Europe or a confederation where the nation state remains the ultimate source of sovereignty. The Treaty of Rome smoothed over these fundamental differences by saying the aim was to create an “ever closer union between the peoples of Europe.” This formula is enshrined in the preamble of the 1957 treaty, and has lasted miraculously well. Political scientists even talk about the “paradox of finalité,” a rather bewildering term which means that integration can only make progress as long as the end-goal is carefully left unsaid.
In practical terms, though, the concept of national sovereignty in Europe has already undergone a radical change. Individual states are too small to safeguard their national interests on their own. The EU has therefore become the necessary pre-condition for the survival of European states in the 21st century.
Perhaps more significant still, the EU today is not just made up of states but is composed of citizens too. In the beginning, individuals were subject to common European rules, and then their EU rights were gradually expanded. This was the foundation of a common citizenship in Europe which is in addition to – rather than instead of – national citizenship. The idea was formally introduced by the Maastricht Treaty and came to fruition during the following decade, notably through the charter of fundamental rights in 2000. When the charter was confirmed by the Lisbon Treaty, this form of citizenship became an essential component of the Union.
This combination of states and citizens in one organisation of governance is a new legal and political phenomenon; it breaks the mould of established international relations. Traditionally, citizens belong to states and only states cooperate in international organisations; citizens are excluded. But the citizens of EU member states are also granted citizenship of an international organisation; they are citizens of the European Union itself. The EU is therefore neither a federation nor a confederation. It creates a new entity in international law that may be described as a “union of citizens and member states.”
If EU leaders were to promote the Union in this light, they could start to dispel many of the fears expressed by the people of Ireland and elsewhere. They could explain that the Union does not replace member states, nor does it submerge them in a new superstate. It adds a new European perspective onto the world of tomorrow and grants people new rights, while fully respecting their own national identities. This conclusion would enable the Council to leave the “finalité” debate behind and to communicate the essence of the EU to its citizens in plain and simple terms. It might be their best option to resolve the dilemma created by the Irish “no”.