Far away Brussels

José M. de Areilza. Professor of European Union Law and Vice-Dean of the Legal Department. Instituto de Empresa

25 April 2005

The first European referendum held in Spain has been subjected to varied political and territorial interpretations.

Our country does not have a referendum culture. Perhaps this is why, in the recent referendum of February 20 on the new European Constitution, each party supporting the Yes vote assumes victory as its own and blames the others for the No vote or abstentions. Those who defend the No in turn include the high abstention in their vote count and so forth.

But perhaps one idea can emerge from these different interpretations: it is very difficult to explain European integration to citizens, arouse their interest and encourage them to vote - whether for elections to the European Parliament or in a referendum of this significance, a crucial moment in the political integration of Europe.

Parties and the media have gone to all lengths in recent weeks to explain the significance of the European Constitution in the context of an integration process in which, up until now, Spain has done very well. However, ignorance of the content of the new Magna Carta and the European rules remains enormous. Only 42 percent of the Spanish population eligible to vote did so - the lowest level of participation in referendums in democratic Spain. True, there was no real uncertainty about the result, but the problem was that no real interest in the matter was generated.

Growing complexity

In other words, we are governed to a large extent from Brussels, yet most of the population limits itself to professing a Europeanism that is diffuse and trusting. Even the political and business elites have a limited interest in understanding and taking part in the development of this new political community. Yet the European Union generates nearly half of Spain’s laws, and seriously conditions - when not completely deciding - the country's economic, social and environmental policies.

Probably, the reasons behind this lack of interest are twofold. On one hand is the unfortunate notion Spain is different, pointing to the the backward, irresponsible side of our national character. Spain arrived late to European integration, after a prolonged period of international isolation, and our civil society has still not sparked interest for European affairs - even less so for global debates. The level of foreign-language skills among our leaders is low. A good part of our national policy focuses exclusively on the regions, and the welfare which currently comes from forming part of a prosperous Union is just taken for granted.

On the other hand, we must recognize that the European Union is a complex entity that suffers from structural distance. The institutions are far away from its more than 450 million citizens. The system of governance in Brussels is not based on a state model, nor does it seek to base itself on social concepts similar to those of a national democracy - a reality that does not exist in Europe. This sui generis political direction of the Union is actually a good thing: since the 1950s the Community institutions have respected national identities as compatible with European integration. They have even tried to reinforce them as European integration has grown stronger and many powers have been transferred to Brussels. The problems is that with each enlargement and with continuous expansion of competences, Brussels becomes more complex. Transferring constitutional concepts of representation and participation to the European level becomes increasingly difficult. One example has been the controversial negotiation in the making of the European Constitution on how to distribute votes within the Council of Ministers of the European Union. In this Council, six most populated countries represent 75 percent of the population and the remaining 19 states, only 25 percent.

The paradox is that while the new European Constitution has not succeeded in simplifying decision-making, its mere existence as a project generates a process of trial and error that could allow us to reach this goal. In Spain, the European referendum campaign has been nothing more than a small step in this direction. There is still a long way to go for the full Europeanization of our political, economic and social debates.


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