Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Springtime in Paris

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 30, 2005

Writes John Vinocur in the International Herald Tribune: "The EU can go nowhere, in its current phase, without the regenerated support of its voters, or a deep re-examination of its ambitions, largely pushed forward by elites - and ridiculously out of touch, we now know, with the electorate of its quintessential nation."

The proposed European Constitution, rejected by the French in a vote over the weekend, is likely to go down in flames as the Dutch and the British vote in the weeks ahead. And though headlines like the one in today's Globe and Mail proclaim that the result is a blow for European unity, the opposite is more likely true.

Because, ultimately, the vote this weekend wasn't about European unity, against which there is no real sentiment. As Kirstin Boomhall writes in the Times, "The French have never repudiated a 'European' cause in the past. That they have done so now demands deep contemplation."

No, it was a vote about what sort of unity Europe would enjoy. And this proposal wasn't the product of a political groundswell of opinion at all; it was, rather, the result of a process we have seen altogether too much of in recent years and one which has been rebuffed by voters every time they get the chance.

The Financial Times, surprisingly, hits closest to the mark: "What the debates in France and the Netherlands have demonstrated is a great desire among ordinary voters to have a real say on the future of the EU. They have not been properly consulted for far too long. The wrong reaction would be for EU leaders to retreat once more behind closed doors, call off the political process and try to save the parts of the treaty they like best in a constitutional fudge."

Though it will no doubt be depicted as something else in the world press, what voters in France rejected was the sort of thinking that produced the Lisbon agenda, a framework for economic development that, as Vinocur says, "a blueprint for Europe's economic conversion from statism to an openness that could challenge the United States."

The problem for framers of the European constitution is that Europeans - and most people, when they get the chance to say so - don't want to convert from the rights and freedoms inherent in what Vinocur calls 'statism' to the repression and corruption inherent in what Vinocur calls 'openness'.

The Independent editorializes: "They (the French voters) wanted a document that would be more 'left', more socialist, and a more explicit defence of workers' rights than the one they had before them. They dismissed the advice of those, such as their president, who insisted, rightly, that in these respects the treaty was no different from the documents to which France - and the other EU members - were already bound."

Had I been a voter in France, I too would have voted against the proposed constitution. I know this because, in very similar circumstances, in Canada, in 1992, I voted against a very similar document, the Charlottetown Accord. Like the European Constitution, the Accord was championed by the politicians, lauded by the press, and had the unequivocal support of business and commerce.

In Canada, as in Europe, we were promised that the Accord would lead to a new and distinctively Canadian confederation. And as in Canada, "many voters suspected exactly the opposite: that it would be used by faceless technocrats as a vehicle for bringing in the American free-market model. 'If you look at every sentence, every turn of phrase, practically every article has a mention of markets,' Anne-Marie Latremoliere, a 57-year-old graphic designer, said after casting a 'no' ballot. 'We want Europe to be a beautiful place,' she said, 'and this is certainly not it.'"

Some pundits are calling the French win, as they called the Canadian vote, an expression of the "rage of the disgruntled." The French press can scarcely contain itself, Le Monde calling the result "a masterpiece of masochism..." and le Figaro saying "everything is turned upside down." But in Europe, as was the case in Canada, some balance has been restored.

What needs to be understood - and understood clearly - is that the French vote is not an aberration, not, in fact, an unusual result, but a continuation of a sentiment expressed by the public at every opportunity. It is the same sentiment expressed by protesters during the famous pepper spray incident at APEC in Vancouver in 1997, the Battle of Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2001, and the ultimate failure of the WTO talks in Mexico in 2003.

How this resonates: "Good news from France, above all for workers and popular classes. The 'no' of the referendum was not a 'no' to Europe, but to this treaty which re-proposes the Maastricht model in part, without the possibility of expansive economic politics and common social politics, and in part European institutions lacking democratic basis," said the deputy speaker of the [Italian] Senate, Cesare Salvi. "The French referendum campaign, long and enthusiastic, saw a socialist and Left 'no' as the winner."

What, it seems to me, is happening is that people are beginning to grasp that the basic structures of our countries' governments and our world's government are fundamentally undemocratic.

We see where this is overtly so in places such as Ukraine and Georgia massive uprisings and overturning of rigged election results, a manifestation of a democratic will fostered, not by the supposed champions of democracy (who prefer to invade and impose some sort of Darwinian capitalism) but through the gentle and grassroots funding by people like George Soros.

We see where this is less conspicuously so, in the courtrooms and college campuses where the battle against punitive legislation such as the World Intellectual Property Organization treaties and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is being taken to the street through guerilla filesharing tactics, underground networks, activism and protest. Everywhere, it seems, that you look, the same issues arise, the same factions are aligned - the battle to create community wireless networks, the battle to unionize Walmart, the battle to preserve forests, the battle to feed children instead of bankers, the battle to end child labour... the list goes on and on.

Treaties like WTO, WIPO, Charlottetown, and the proposed European Constitution would put the corporations in power, the corporations who, at every turn, are trying to privatize, monetize and own our lands, our homes, our resources, our ideas, even (through today's corporate religion) our very souls. These are the people the treaties crafted in unelected boardrooms and private conferences would put into power.

And let's be very clear. These people are not democrats; indeed, at every turn they try to evade the will of the people. Witness the machinations Europeans were witness to this past year as at every twist and turn the legislation that would not die - European software patents - came back to life over and over again, appearing even, at one point, as part of fisheries legislation. At every turn, they favour closed door meetings to which the public - or even representatives of the public - are most definitely not invited.

When we read about agreements like NAFTA and WTO we hear about free and open trade. And when we read about WIPO we hear about fostering creativity and progress. But the opposite is true. In the name of fostering markets, these agreements limit the right of the people - as expressed through their governments - to do things like provide social services, enforce environmental regulations and protect human rights. Moreover, they provide corporations, in the form of actual or threatened lawsuits, the power of veto over such legislation, based on the principle that a loss of actual or potential profit must be compensated.

These agreements, in short, are massive abrogations of government powers to a corporate culture that is unrepresentative, undemocratic, and in its worst moments, repressive and dictatorial. It is a final cessation of power to a corporate culture that can already buy most of the legislation it wants, exercises almost unrestrained control over the media, and which is to dominant social and economic force of our time.

And they wanted the French voters to hand control over to these people?

I have said this before: a society cannot be considered to be democratic unless its institutions are democratic. And as our society moves more and more of its public good into ownership and governance in private hands, its institutions are becoming less and less democratic. The legal and economic frameworks being designed to implement this are, at every turn, being rejected by the voters. And yet still they press ahead, evidence not only of the sort of non-democracy we live in today but of the sort of soft totalitarianism we may expect in the future.

Against this stands only a smattering of activists: of long smeared and discredited trade unionists, of criminalized and vilified file sharers, of branded communist proponents of community networks, of vilified environmental activists, of imprisoned and silenced human rights activists, of unruly and unkempt anti-WTO and anti-war demonstrators, of patent-busting open source authors, of criminal trespassers, guerrilla gardeners, cryptologists, hackers and phreakers.

And today, the people of France.

There is and will be a new day dawning, a springtime in Paris, where the green hills ring with the sound of a free people. There is, and will be. Because, given even half a chance, the people will rise up, and make it so.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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