Euro referendum highlights need for reevaluation of European integration

Last week, the voters of Denmark overwhelmingly voted against adopting the European Union’s (EU) single currency, the euro, in a national referendum. In Denmark, the political, media and economic establishments unified in a taxpayer-supported campaign to convince the people to vote for the euro, but they still failed. The campaign leading up to the referendum brought to light a seemingly obvious, but previously silenced notion – that the people of Europe perhaps do not want a federal European super-state at this time.

Over the past decade, since the Maastrich Treaty of 1992, Western Europe’s political leaders have put the region on a fast-track path towards integration. They hastily arranged plans for full economic integration, centered on a single European currency, the euro, managed by the new European Central Bank.

A referendum was a logical choice, one would think: in a democracy, to decide an issue so central to national identity as a change in currency, it’s only right to put it up for a direct vote to the people. Yet only the Danes were given the opportunity to vote in a referendum on switching to the European currency. No other EU government asked its people for consent to plow ahead with the euro or other risky ventures into political union. And, Denmark’s response was a strong and emphatic nej. This should tell European leaders something: slow down, quickly.

The creation and development of the EU has been largely undemocratic: political elites, obsessed with a vague conception of “pan-Europeanism,” put together, behind closed doors, plans that basically destroyed the sovereignty of their individual states. They drafted treaties that took away rights over economic and social policy from their respective governments, handing over power to a large, bloated and distant bureaucracy that has been the subject of many corruption scandals in recent years. “Harmonization” became a catchphrase as social, economic and even political policies became standardized, erasing national distinctions. Since the mid-1990s, EU states have ceded key sovereign powers over to the European Commission on a wide variety of policy issues, from the management of social welfare programs to the implementation of budgetary, tax-related and more general monetary policies. Now, Brussels envisions a Europe that “speaks and acts with one voice” in the world, where EU states cede the ultimate scions of nationhood, diplomacy and military, to a larger European authority. The fundamental problem with the EU’s rapid integration is essentially that the people now have much less control over their lives because of a growing “eurocentralization.”

Before the implementation of the euro last year, most western Europeans didn’t really seem to care about EU policy and economic integration. They figured that it was something far-removed from their lives that regulated very broad economic issues, without interfering too much with state control over policy implementation. Consequently, in this environment of EU-complacency, EU leaders pushed ahead with rapid moves towards further unity and integration, without consulting their seemingly indifferent people. Even I, in this paper, once lauded the benefits of the euro as a harbinger for European economic success. However, like most people, I only interpreted the European Union and its policies economically, failing to see its implications for national identity, sovereignty and popular democracy.

The Danish rejection of the euro and the debate surrounding it, though, have profoundly changed the nature of discussion over the future of the EU from pure economics to a political and cultural debate. As the pro-EU London paper, The Guardian, asserted this weekend: “There was a strong element of nationality as Danes asked themselves a question beginning to be asked elsewhere in Europe: who are we and what control do we want to exercise over our own destinies?”

As average Europeans experience firsthand the effects of a centralized bureaucracy over which they had no input in creating, frustrations will arise (and are just beginning too, as the Danes have showed us).

The principle flaw in the rush to integrate Europe has been the obscenely anti-democratic method in which it was achieved. Pan-European political elites, captive to business interests, decided to eliminate centuries of ingrained independent state control over social, economic and political policy in underhanded meetings. From forcing French farmers to change centuries-old agricultural methods to jeopardizing generous Scandinavian healthcare systems to having the audacity to swiftly eliminate currencies – a staple for national identity – that have been around for a millennium. The people were never consulted; they were never asked to vote on these issues. Political leaders unified with corporate interests and mainstream media to laud the new Europe, yet never quite explained the details to their constituencies.

The EU right now finds itself in a precarious situation – integration has advanced quickly and impulsively, with the people just now realizing that their leaders have seriously compromised their democracies and ceded control over vital public policies to a far-flung, un-elected bureaucracy. To placate their publics, EU leaders must halt integration immediately and reevaluate the nature of their program to assimilate Europe and erase centuries-old national distinctiveness and self-governance in just a few short years. Europe’s speedy integration, especially when done undemocratically in strongly democratic societies, is both thoughtless and dangerous. Hopefully, the impact of the Danish referendum has spelled this out clearly to European elites.