i am well aware that the one thing that is anything but scarce on the web is commentary. still, i sometimes feel that current events cannot remain uncommented
whenever this is the case, this commentary will appear here
europe? i don't know
europe? i don't know...
we, the citizens of the european union, have united for the better - says the berlin declaration, signed to celebrate the eu's 50th anniversary. we, the citizens… but what have we, the citizens, to say about this europe? frankly, citizens have been a recent discovery, and a rare species, in european politics. the brussels hallways are resounding with the voices of specialists, experts, technocrats, scientists, and hundreds of advisors. europe, so much is common knowledge, is complicated. too complicated for us. when asked about european politics, citizens are almost certain to say "i don't know" at least once in their first 50 words. we cannot understand, and only under utmost difficulty judge, what europe is doing. and from all sides, voices join this choir: politicians love to talk of european technocracy, which is responsible for everything we dislike and can't understand. brussels correspondents cultivate their own jargon, never failing to mention how much they had to simplify that complicated matter
for us to understand. and it is even true: reading the commission's press reports is both boring and confusing. discovering their full meaning often requires a glossary, a recent copy of who-is-who, and the last weeks' editions of the financial times. i have myself studied europe for many years, and i do not understand many things the eu does. most politicians in den haag, london, athens and warsaw don't. consequently, we, the citizens, have to trust the specialists - wise women and men who have the knowledge we lack. don't we?
at a second thought, i cannot say i understand the details of the healthcare reforms recently decided in germany, of which i happen to be a citizen. it is something about changing the competition in the health sector. that is all i know. yet, i would not have the slightest problem to say what i think of this reform. just as most of my colleagues in amsterdam would have little difficulty to take positions on the dutch engagement in afghanistan. is their opinion less justified if they don't fully understand the situation there? i think, we should normalize our understanding of europe. yes, eu politics is complicated, but so is dutch politics. actually, it is more complicated in many respects - some of the most sensitive policy areas are still in the hands of national politics. and just as national politics, most european decisions can be boiled down to simple ideas and trade offs: climate protection is not more important than the interests of the european car manufacturers. national governments should not
raise protectionist barriers. consumers should always be able to know what is in the products they buy, even if that is costly for the producers. one can agree or disagree with these ideas without knowing much about the details. just as one is able to judge whether one likes national tax cuts for big enterprises, or sending soldiers to iraq. nobody would require you to read the relevant united nations resolutions before giving an opinion.
yes, there are many beliefs people base their opinions on that are not entirely correct. some are even outright false. but this is democracy: everybody is entitled to have an opinion. and if everyone's opinion counts, politics has an interest in providing everyone with good information. why should europe bother if the people don't know what the treaties are about, if they can disregard them anyway in the end - aided by governments as well as opposition parties in putting national bargaining before democratic decisions. currently, the belief that europe is too complicated to judge effectively protects brussels from the will of the people. everything the people say is interpreted by wise women and men in important offices, and who stress that people simply didn't understand. nobody would accept this to happen at home. imagine j p balkenende saying after a lost election: well, but i will stay in office, because the people who voted the other way didn't understand my policies. their voice doesn't really count.
many people complain that european politics does not take them seriously. the real issue is, i think, that we don't take our opinions seriously ourselves. if we, the people want europe to dance our way, we have to start trusting our own judgements. we have to say what we think, and not start every second sentence with "i don't know". if we allow others to disqualify our opinions, we surrender the most important claim we can make in europe: we, the people of the european union have a right to democratically decide what kind of europe we want!
p.s.: we live in a situation when popular euroscepticism is on the rise, the european constitution has fallen by the hand of the people, and new initiatives from brussels are met with widespread opposition. calling for the voice of the people in this situation may easily lead to further setbacks in european integration. yet i believe it is the only chance we have to save europe: euroscepticism lives precisely because europe does not react to the wishes of the people. not few people rejected the constitution because they felt disregarded in the process. despite all the expectable opposition - if europe took people seriously, and could demonstrate to its citizens that it responds to the will of the public, many of europe problems could be overcome. and if then still a majority of europeans says no, then this is democracy.
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