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The un-European

Gavin Hewitt | 18:44 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

As a student of American history, I was always intrigued by the House Committee on Un-American activities.

The search for disloyalty. The taint of being a dissenter. The fear of subversives.

The list of spies brandished by Joseph McCarthy, the Senator from Wisconsin. McCarthyism had its roots in the paranoid strain of American politics.

Senator Joe McCarthy 10 March 1959

I was reminded of this when I heard Jean-Claude Juncker, the Chairman of the Euro-Group, brand German thinking as un-European.
His ire had been stirred by Berlin's quick rejection of his advocacy of euro-bonds.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that Mr Juncker is seeking to expose those he deems disloyal to the European project. His appeal, I suspect, was to "solidarity". But to be labelled un-European is not a light jab.

The German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as quoted by the think-tank Open Europe, asked "is it European to bend the EU treaties and break the bail-out plan?"

And that is the difficulty in assessing who is the good European. The longer the crisis in the eurozone defies solution the more deep-seated the tensions that emerge.

The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, recently opined that Euroscepticism led to war. Extreme nationalism, of course, has resulted in terrible European tragedies. But Euroscepticism?

His comments came just days after David Cameron had declared himself a Eurosceptic in Brussels. On clarification, President van Rompuy was referring to those who were against the EU.

The fact is there are different visions of what makes for a "good European". Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, recently scolded the Bundesbank for being opposed to European integration.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (November 2010)

At the same time he said it was a mistake for some of the peripheral countries to join the euro in 1999. It raises the interesting question as to whether those who pushed for the wider eurozone were the "good Europeans" or those who pointed out the risks of such different countries sharing monetary union.

It is part of the culture of Brussels that people are labelled as either with the project or against it. More often it is just that people have different visions for Europe.

But, as I say, these various comments reflect anxiety and tension.

All of this was in the Brussels buzz on the day when Greenpeace and Avaaz handed in a petition signed by over a million people under the new citizen's initiative.

One of the reforms embedded in the Lisbon treaty was to close the "democratic deficit" by enabling citizens to collect over one million signatures and so exercise the right to put forward initiatives.

Avaaz and Greenpeace had collected the signatures to back a halt to genetically-modified crops until safety testing is made thorough, independent and scientific.

The legislative process for the citizens' initiative has not yet been finalised and this particular petition may well fail but there is a wider issue at stake here.

This act of direct democracy must be treated seriously, according to the Greens. Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel said: "This is a massive step for European Democracy. The rapid response shows that citizens are excited to engage with this new democratic instrument to re-insert a democratic voice into EU policy."

Of course one million signatures does not guarantee the Commission will change its mind. But this will be an interesting area to watch.

Will these initiatives influence thinking? Consulting the people does not have a happy history in the EU. Negative votes on the Lisbon Treaty were side-stepped. Referendum is a dirty word for many officials; a process that at all costs must be avoided.

But the period of the citizens' initiative has arrived. All you need is a million signatures from across several states. Comissioner Dalli said: "I can assure you that there is a political will to listen to everybody and one million signatures is a voice that we should listen to."

Perhaps that will be one of the tests of being a good European.


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