European democracy debated on the Acropolis

Article published on July 3, 2008
community published
Article published on July 3, 2008
The Greek newspapers’ comments about the referendum that took place in Ireland last week are very critical indeed. Let’s have a look at a selection of stinging headlines e.g. “Death in Ireland”, “Referendums create prejudices against Europe’s political health”… Am I deceived by the non-objective selection of articles?
Are the political tendencies of the newspapers I have read responsible for this very negative impression? Anyway, so far in all the articles I have found, journalists denounced but didn’t understand what really happened on Friday the 13th June 2008 when The Irish were asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the ratification of the Lisbon treaty.

Some of the Greek journalists firstly tried to find out the reasons for such a result. A reporter for Makedonia underlines the fact that “a lot of Irish people were very angry because of the pessimistic and heavy handed way of talking by many of the pro-‘yes’ politicians, either Irish or foreigners, and especially Bernard Kouchner, the current French foreign affairs minister. Two days before the vote had begun, he officially expressed that a negative result to this referendum would have shown Ireland’s un-gratitude towards the European Union. In the same newspaper, a journalist quotes Irish catholic voters’ fear of being forced to accept the legalization of abortions in Europe. Other reasons for rejecting the treaty were expressed by Irish businessmen who don’t want to loose their very interesting tax system, or by Irish sheep farmers who are convinced that Brussels prefers to support South-American meat rather than Irish sheep. acropole Despite these efforts to explain the result, the Spinthourakis journalist wrote a scathing article, in which he puts forward his opinion of how incomprehensible the situation is: “The current Irish situation is a paradox: When they entered into the European Community 36 years ago, they were very enthusiastic. After their participation in the E.C. they gained a higher standard of living, but on the other hand they began to express doubts about what they really wanted to do in Europe” (see To Vima). In the 15th June edition of Eleftherotypia, Valia Kaïmaki reminds us that Ireland have already asked not to participate in the Rights’ Charter, nor the common legal or internal policies. Do they want more than that? The journalist concludes her article in the same way: “Now, Europe will be exclusively managed by Brussels until a new treaty is constituted. And Brussels will reinforce its pressure like prohibiting red tuna fishing or promoting the 68 hours working week. This will be more difficult to live with for Europeans, more difficult than with the Lisbon treaty applications”. In the 17th June edition of Kathimerini, Kostas Fafoutis underlines some potential running problems for the E.U: “As a result of the Lisbon treaty being rejected, the European Union will remain a big economic market without rules, and politicians will give up trying to apply common policies”. Thus all the Greek media has pointed the finger at Ireland as the guilty one. It is responsible for the European political development process breakdown, in the name of defending its specific situation, advantages and rights that were not in danger by the Lisbon treaty. Some articles also express the need for The Irish to “pay” for what they have done: “Countries which vote against the treaty shouldn’t be allowed to be represented in the Commission. They should remain as a European institutional member with the same rights and duties, but without being able to participate to the European executive system. Europe has to go on without them. Democracy also means responsibilities…”, Nikos Konstantara claims in Kathimerini.

Beyond these critical articles one could also read some hard-hitting journalism about the referendum idea itself. “International agreements and treaties are complex by nature and they can not be approved with a referendum”, underlines Spintourakis in To Vima edition, quoting a European diplomat. According to Paschos Mandravelis in Kathimerini “ organizing a referendum always means taking a risk (…). To agree on something of this nature needs intense political debates and the ability to compromise. These compromises are a necessity but the voters ignore them, or don’t want to know them. But there is the reason of the treaties and agreement complexity, because it takes a lot of reading and explaining… That’s why it’s so easy to criticize an agreement.” In some articles, European democracy system is severely called into question: “Paradox in a democracy. Here is a system in which each vote has an equal value and which is supposed to serve the majority; but the reality is different because very often the minority imposes its will against the majority. And this is supposed to be democratic. (…) For example, the 3 million voters in Ireland have more importance in Europe’s future than 500 million others Europeans”, Nikos Konstantara writes in Kathimerini. Many analysts have developed the same idea, based on the result of this last referendum but also on the French and Dutch referendum results in 2005: “Referendums are just a way for people to express all their objections against current governments during the time of the vote” (see Makedonia, 15/06), “It’s certain that the result of a referendum depends more on the political context at that moment than of the very subject itself” (see Kathimerini, 17/06).

But why are Greek journalists so interested in this subject? If you glance at the local political scene, the idea of organizing a referendum has been defended by Yorgos Papandreou, leader of the socialist party (PASOK). The parliament has been asked to ratify the treaty, which is now done. Another important socialist leader, Kostas Simitis, who was also the Prime Minister of the country a few years ago, opposed himself clearly to the referendum idea. Consequently, he has been fired from the Socialist parliamentary group (see Kathimerini, the 17th June). However, according to Kostas Fafoutis, the idea was nothing but stupid: “When a Parliament votes for a treaty, i.e. when people don’t have a direct influence on the ratification of it, it confirms the lack of democracy in the Europe construction. (…) We have to admit that the elite “State coup” has sometimes helped the European ideal to progress and become a reality. But nothing can justify the deafening silence and the lack of treaty debates in Greece”. Yorgos Papandreou is accused of having fired K. Simitis only because he wanted revenge regarding some internal political problems in PASOK. But he defended himself in a long interview in the newspaper Ta Nea on the 17th June: “Europe’s future can not be decided only by the elite, we shouldn’t be afraid of giving the citizens a voice. We defend the treaty even if we don’t consider it is perfect. For a long time we have listened to discussions about the lack of democracy in Europe. Our duty is to wake up the citizens, to reinforce their power by letting them express their ideas and participate in the European construction. Europe’s unification can and must be done with the people and not against them.”