Most Europeans today can travel from Athens to Helsinki without a visa or changing currency, thanks to membership in the European Union (EU). In the current throes of the global economic crisis, the Euro zone is an enviable shelter to weather the storm. But 50 years after its creation, the EU can appear as hapless as Agamemnon waiting for a wind to blow his fleet to Troy. With campaigning now in full swing for the European Parliament elections in June — the largest supranational democratic endeavor ever — the EU is stalled, desperately in need of a few breaks to bring it back on course.

Why is it that the European Union finds itself stranded today, with so many of its visionary projects indefinitely on hold? After all, in various incarnations since 1957 the Union has guided the reconciliation of postwar Europe, and tutored both former right-wing and communist dictatorships to democracy. Economically, it’s brought unprecedented prosperity to the most remote and underdeveloped corners of its 27 member countries, in all nearly 500 million people — the world’s largest single market. Countries on Europe’s edges are queued up to relinquish sovereignty and conform to its globally unrivalled consumer standards, climate change targets, and anti-discrimination laws. This “soft power” of attraction has proven dramatically more effective in changing regimes than military might. So alluring is its model that countries in Africa, South America, and Asia all hope to duplicate it.

Yet today the EU is in a quandary. It has nearly doubled its size since 2003, and aspires to be a political and global geopolitical actor commensurate with its economic prowess. In order for it to act effectively — and expand further, for example, into the Balkans and Turkey — it must reconfigure its institutions and rules. This was the purpose of the constitutional treaty and its scaled-back successor, the Lisbon Treaty, both of which required ratification by all (now 27) member states. Where ratification took place in national parliaments, both treaties sailed through. But — a damning indictment — where the decisions were in the hands of the people, they were stopped cold.

Popular Sovereignty

In knock-down, drag-out national referenda, the citizens of France, the Netherlands, and Ireland expressed their legitimate frustration with the EU’s “democracy deficit” and non-transparency, voting down the historic treaties that would, paradoxically, have made the regional structure more democratic and transparent. These defeats neither signaled the EU’s disintegration nor the resurgence of ethnic nationalism, as is so often heralded most vocally and with premature schadenfreude in the United States. But they certainly dealt a setback to the European project and the alliance of left liberals, social democrats, greens, and citizen action groups that have expended tremendous energy to make the treaties the basis of a more progressive European Union.

Ignominiously, part of the blame for these defeats lies at the feet of Europe’s more radical left-wing factions — like Germany’s Left Party, the Greek communists, Attac, and Sinn Fein — that tapped into a highly disingenuous populism to help kill the treaties. In doing so, their “no” campaigns converged with those of right-wing nationalists and Euro-skeptical free-marketeers, who oppose the EU for all the wrong reasons. In the end, the leftist anti-Europe campaigners served foremost the interests of the nationalists by handing them their most spectacular victories ever over the European Union. Though imperfect, the treaties would have given left-of-center coalitions in the European Parliament and in the national states the best means ever to fight for a socially just, ecological, post-national Europe.

Since the vote in Ireland a year ago, the reform treaty has been amended and will be put to the Irish voters again in the fall after the European Parliament elections in June. Polls now show the Irish backing the treaty.

The travails of the reform treaties have been particularly painful to observe because one of their main purposes was simply to consolidate into a single legal entity the existing archipelago of legal precedent, rulings, and summit declarations that today define the European Union. Unlike the defeated 2005 constitution, the Lisbon Treaty isn’t referred to as a constitution. In this way, supporters counter the impression that the EU is morphing into some kind of European “superstate” — which was never the case to begin with. But the crown jewel remains the replacement of the cumbersome consensual decision-making (that allows one state to block all the others) with qualified majority voting in most areas. The treaty would also serve democratic legitimacy and parliamentary control by turning the directly elected European Parliament into a real law-making body. National governments would also gain more say in EU affairs. And last but not least, a genuine foreign minister (called the “High Representative”) endowed with new competencies and more clout would give Europeans greater say in global issues.

These measures and others go a long way toward addressing the paucity of democratic control over decision-making that has long plagued the EU. Despite broad support for integration, Europe’s citizens have increasingly felt that decisions affecting their lives were being made over their heads, according to laws they hadn’t approved. The EU’s democratic shortcomings had grown ever more conspicuous as membership and its competencies expanded. In a way unlike even 15 years ago, the EU today is involved in people’s lives, from human rights norms to potato chip ingredients. But the EU’s high-handed modus operandi had been to “act now and legitimate later.” Ire had been building for a long time, and the referenda were opportunities to vent it.

Rather than do the hard work of explaining the issues at hand, Europe’s leaders just assumed that the French, Dutch, and Irish voters would approve the referenda. Furthermore, the same political elite that benefits tremendously from the EU regularly employs it as a whipping boy for tactical domestic advantage. Because of this tepid support, anti-EU populists were able to make a little demagoguery go a long way. It is ultimately Europe’s mainstream parties — not some faceless (and actually quite small) bureaucracy in Brussels — that formulate and implement European policies, and must consult and engage their constituencies on these issues. But they have refused to take off their gloves for the EU in the same way that they scratch and claw for their own parties in any closely contested national election. This combination of lethargy and hypocrisy, together with the left-right alliance of populists, doomed the reform treaties and dug European policymakers a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

Progressive, Social Europe

The treaties’ troubles have had the tragic effect of delaying for years reforms that were among the most progressive in the history of pan-European politics. For example, if the treaty finally passes, the European Parliament will gain an array of new powers. For instance, the parliament would have full budgetary discretion, which will put it on an equal footing with the executive branch, the current locus of power run by the national states. And, among other issues, it will finally be able to take on the EU’s scandalous agricultural subsidies, the sacred cow of agribusiness giants France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Also, civil society and social movements will win a new voice through direct all-European “citizens’ initiatives.” These changes would constitute meaningful progress toward the creation of a Europe-wide public sphere and demos, the prerequisites for a real European politics.

This citizens’ initiative underscores the divide between the old-school leftist groups that block EU reform as a matter of “anti-capitalist, anti-militarist” principle and those that actually roll up their sleeves to change the institution. The bill was the brainchild of an array of NGOs and the European Green Party — an alliance of 31 Green parties, the co-president of which is Dany Cohn-Bendit. The Greens have come a long way since the 1980s when many of them excoriated the European Community as a “rich men’s club” and “Fortress Europe” (even though they still criticize its elitism and restrictive migration policies). Today, Europe’s Greens are among the most unwavering of European federalists and a fount of innovative ideas, like the sweeping Green New Deal package at the heart of their current campaign. “If it were only for the actions of the communist parties and their like, the European Parliament would still be where it was in 1979,” argues German Green European Parliament member Michael Cramer, who notes that these parties have voted against every stage of democratic reform since the parliament’s inception.

Another hard-fought victory of the pro-EU left is the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which covers a wide range of civil liberties including gay rights and data protection, and bans human cloning as well as the death penalty. For the first time ever, “social rights,” such as the right to work, are explicitly guaranteed in EU law, and there are now references to social solidarity, sustainable development, and the goal of full employment in a social market economy in the treaty, something that social democrats and democratic socialists had been pushing for years.

Even before the financial crisis hit, pro-Europe leftists had fought hard and successfully for a shift away from neoliberal trade philosophy. These changes were bitterly contested by big business lobbies and European leaders like Gordon Brown, who envision the European Union as one big, deregulated free trade zone with low taxes and flexible labor markets. In the Ireland referendum campaign, an English-born tycoon (with close contacts to Pentagon/arms industry) and Britain’s Europhobic Murdoch press mounted costly, pull-out-all-stops campaigns to sabotage ratification — calling the treaty “socialist.” Admittedly, the Lisbon Treaty won’t commit the EU to a social democratic economic model, but it will give socially minded parties a foothold to fight for one.

The fact that European citizens haven’t noticed these new provisions — and the long campaign that preceded them — is symptomatic of the feeble campaign waged by reform treaty proponents. Exit polls showed that one theme underlying much of the referenda “no” vote was anxiety over the social fallout of globalization. Yet in fact few, if any, populations boast better protection from globalization than those of the European Union (very often to the detriment of developing countries). But, especially in France, much of the no vote came from the ranks of the losers — and potential losers — in the structural shifts brought on by globalization, including the jobless, displaced workers, and those in hard-hit industrial sectors. Arguably, their votes could be interpreted as a cry for new social safety mechanisms to protect their ever-more-precarious situations, something the economic crisis has exacerbated. The proper response to these demands is to establish greater social rights, like those in the charter. The wrong response is to pander to anti-immigration sentiment or to block labor mobility, as left and right demagogues have. Had advocates pushed the new amendments more deftly or, even better, placed a new social policy at the very heart of the reform treaties, the message might have gotten through.

As for the EU’s role in the wider world, Europe already poses a convincing alternative to Washington when it comes to engaging globally, and buffed up structures will significantly increase its ability to do so. Although there is plenty of disunity among the Europeans on foreign affairs, as the Iraq War so painfully exposed, there is broad agreement on the preferred means of addressing the world’s problems. Multilateralism, respect for international law, and the value of conflict prevention and diplomacy are etched into the EU’s foreign affairs manifesto.

The Geopolitics of Europe

Americans often write off European foreign policy as a charade, too divided and militarily feeble to do anything. But this attitude is a mistake: The EU is already a key player in the greater European neighborhood, and even further afield in regions like the Middle East and Africa. The Lisbon Treaty’s provision of a full-time diplomatic corps and a de facto foreign minister straddling the EU’s executive and legislative branches would add enormously to that clout. Ironically, if foreign policy remains foremost the competence of Europe’s national states, it is the larger ones like Germany, Great Britain, and France that will dominate, leaving smaller countries like referenda naysayers Ireland and the Netherlands without any influence at all. One of the EU’s original purposes was to prevent exactly these kinds of shifting great power alliances from dictating policy at the expense of the smaller ones. As for the far left’s charges of militarism and NATO-toadying, the proposed pooling of military procurement would enable the national states to reduce their cumulative military spending. Likewise, the bolstering of security and defense policies would enhance the EU greatly in its relation to NATO by endowing it with the ability to act more effectively.

After the Czech Senate approved the Lisbon Treaty earlier this month, the next defining moment on the EU calendar is coming up soon. In early June, 375 million people are eligible to vote in elections to a European Parliament that, even without the Lisbon reforms, has long ceased to be the dressed-up debating club it once was. In fact, even with a conservative majority, the parliament’s most recent five-year term saw the passage of binding legislation significantly more progressive than that of the national states on climate, labor conditions, consumer protection, and other issues. Yet as the parliament’s size, scope, and powers have expanded, turnouts for its elections have steadily nosedived since the first in 1979. In 2004, only 45% of eligible EU voters went to the polls; from the 10 new member states, mostly former communist countries, just 26% turned out. The problem is that invariably, the European Parliament votes are employed to penalize national parties for unpopular domestic policies. The root of the problem is that there is no all-Europe discourse on these all-Europe issues; even the voting lists are national, based on the national parties with, say, only French politicians and French parties on the French slate. Should even fewer voters turn up in June than five years ago — or should the right and left populists score unexpectedly well — the result could cast a dark cloud over the ratification process and maybe even affect Ireland’s second referendum on Lisbon expected in October.

Even if worst-case scenarios transpire, including Lisbon’s defeat, the EU won’t collapse. It can shuffle along in its present creaky, cobbled-together form. But the result will be a less democratic, less socially aware, and less efficient EU than the rejected options. Notably, EU enlargement is one of the processes that will be hurt most, perhaps bogging down after Croatia’s accession in 2010. This would be a tremendous blow to Turkey and the other countries of the Balkans whose aspiration to join has been the driving force behind their sweeping reforms and recent stability.

Had national politicians done their PR work properly and made the EU’s case, the reform treaties would have almost certainly passed referenda in every country. Their biggest mistake was to circumvent the demos in the first place, opting against an all-European referendum on a single day in every EU country. In this model, passage of the treaty would have needed a double majority: the support of a majority of European citizens and a majority in the majority of member states. The constitution (or whatever it is called) would only come into force in those countries that approved it. The others would continue to cooperate and participate on economic and trade matters but not in the political union. Thus, unlike in the recent referenda, a no-vote would carry with it consequences. Ultimately, this is the much-discussed “two-track” or “multi-speed” solution, with different groups of countries cooperating at different levels, as is already the case with the euro.

This scenario implicitly contradicts the spirit of inclusion, compromise, and solidarity at the heart of the European project, and many Europe advocates have been reluctant to embrace it. But it could wind up being the lesser of evils.

Paul Hockenos is the editor of the global edition of Internationale Politik and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His most recent book is Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.