The rejection of the constitutional treaty by the voters of France and the Netherlands gives the European Union a chance to reconsider its future.
Those in charge should realise that they have made a mistake.
Their hope was for an EU that was more efficient and more democratic. But there is a conflict between these two objectives.
Now it is possible to embark on a new journey that recognises this truth.
Martin Wolf Financial Times June 15 2005
At the Laeken summit in December 2001, which established the convention, the heads of governments of the EU "decided the Union was 'at a crossroads'.* They agreed it needed to become 'more democratic, more transparent and more efficient'."
The agreed text created 26 new legal bases for action by qualified majority voting.
It shifted decisions from unanimity to qualified majority voting in 17 areas
Every transfer of power from member states to the EU and every shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting makes decision-making less democratic. No amount of involvement of national parliaments in EU decisions can compensate.
In justifying these words, I note that many members of the European elite have a warped idea of democracy: in newly independent developing countries democracy too often meant one man, one vote, once; similarly, many devout Europeans think of democracy as one man, one vote, as often as needed to get the right result. Who decides the "right result"? The answer is: those who understand Europe's true interests.
This idea goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "general will" as an objective common good distinct from the interests or wishes of individuals. Only an impartial body could, he thought, identify this will. This view, central to the French idea of the state, finds expression in the powers of the European Commission. But this is paternalism, not democracy.
As Amartya Sen, the Nobel-laureate, pointed out in the Financial Times ("The diverse ancestry of democracy", June 12 2005), democracy is "government by discussion". Elections are only part of that discussion. A discussion that absorbs an elite of politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals and interests does occur at the European level. Its house newspaper is the FT. But there is no European-wide discussion that includes the public at large. Nor could there be in an EU with 460m people and 25 countries divided by history, culture, values and, above all, language.
The elite agree to policies they believe are right for their countries but dare not sell at home. They then implement those policies, while blaming the consequences on Brussels. This is not just undemocratic but also irresponsible.
This is the approach to organising the political life of Europe that met its Waterloo in the referendums. But the conflict between democracy and efficiency is an unavoidable dilemma of our age.
The rejection of the treaty is not a disaster. It is a reality check. If the making of a Europe-wide integrated political structure comes to a halt, so be it. What is needed are smaller circles and more decision-making by member states. This will be messy. But it is the only safe basis for European harmony and progress, in the long run.