It came as a cruel surprise to EU Ambassador to Washington David O’Sullivan to find his name at the end of the list when foreign diplomats were called up to pay respects at former president George Bush Sr’s funeral in December.
As the longest serving ambassador in Washington, he had expected his name to be among the first called. This was not a slip-up. The State Department had degraded the EU delegation’s diplomatic status from member state to international organisation.
The difference between the two in the world of diplomacy is not small and the heads of EU diplomatic delegations throughout the world are unaccustomed to such treatment.
As a twist of the knife, the US State Department had not notified its European allies and their representatives of the downgrade beforehand.
But the world is changing. The EU is no longer that actor on the world stage sitting side-by-side with the heads of superpowers as though it were, itself, a superpower in the making, as was the case during the multilateral Middle East peace talks a quarter of a century ago and, more recently, during the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme.
Although, the delegation facing Iran across the table consisted of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (known as the P5+1), an EU representative was always present.
But now the EU has become an “international organisation” like dozens of others represented in Washington and there is no doubt that the decision to demote it originated in the White House — from President Donald Trump, personally.
A main reason for this is that the US does not want the EU to become a superpower. Another reason relates to the UK vote, on 2 June 2016, on the process known as “Brexit”.
The first reason is a reflection of a democracy crisis among Western powers.
The second is a manifestation of the crisis of democracy in the West, in particular.
Robert Kagan sums up the situation in his recent book, The Jungle Grows Back. “[A] profound and extended crisis of confidence besets the democratic world, even in the birthplace of modern democracy.
Liberal international institutions like the European Union, once considered the vanguard of a postmodern future, are now under assault from without and within.
In America, racial and tribal forces that have always been part of the ‘subterranean stream’ of American history have re-emerged to reshape politics and society… Today, a Counter-Enlightenment of surprising potency stirs in Moscow, Budapest, Beijing, Tehran and Cairo, in parts of Western Europe, and even in the nation that saved liberalism seventy-five years ago.”
The very makeup of democracy and liberalism, as it has evolved since the end of the Cold War and the declaration of “the end of History”, is coming under waves of attack, according to this viewpoint.
And nothing like Brexit illustrates it better. British democracy is the oldest democracy in the world. Dating back to the Magna Carta, it laid the foundations for “constitutional monarchy” and power vested in “representatives of the people”.
It was the British philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), who laid the theoretical foundations for the democratic ideal and its institutions based on rational thought, order and deliberation among representatives of diverse segments of the citizenry.
Locke, like other Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu, also cautioned against “the people” and “populism”, a warning that dates from the times of ancient Greek philosophers who recognised the essential danger the masses could pose to democracy itself.
Nevertheless, former prime minister David Cameron fell into the trap. In order to escape the pressures of “populist” politics, he called for a “popular” referendum at a time when the “people” were vulnerable to demagogic appeals.
Prime Minister Theresa May was not among the many conservatives of her party who supported Brexit. She was pro-remain. Yet, she was ready to take the responsibility to reach a deal with the EU that would sustain good will and make the separation as smooth as possible.
Making a deal was never going to be easy because of the many overlapping and intertwining interest between the two sides. Not only did she have to take into account EU positions but also the views and interests of the British people who had voted to remain, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But the vote on the deal that she had brought to parliament, which was prevented from the outset of having a say in whether to stay or leave, epitomised the dilemma that democracy now faces in Britain. The deal that May had put to a vote suffered an overwhelming defeat (438 against versus only 202 for).
That could not have occurred without an amazing convergence between those who had voted to remain in the EU and those who had voted to leave. Among the latter were the Brexiters who wanted to defeat the bill because that meant defeating an agreement that would retain quite a few ties with the EU.
Their positions are like Trump’s. They oppose any arrangement that transcends the nation state and hands a portion of national sovereignty to a supranational multilateral organisation.
Those in the opposition who opposed May’s deal felt that the vote would overturn the results of the Brexit referendum and open the doors to a new referendum in which the British people could express their realisation of what is truly in their interests.
When two opposites come together in this manner to reject a proposal put to vote in parliament for totally different reasons, democracy is in a big predicament.
What makes that vote all the more critical is that it was surrounded by a high degree of hypocrisy. Many of those who voted against Theresa May’s proposed deal with the EU returned the following day to collude to keep her in power.
Normally, in British parliamentary conventions, when parliament rejects a prime minister’s major policy proposal, especially with such an overwhelming defeat that May’s proposed EU deal sustained, the prime minister resigns.
May did not resign and the MPs who had charged her with every conceivable shortcoming and sin in the way she handled negotiations with Brussels were not willing to oust her because they were not prepared to embark on a new, costly and unpredictable general election.
At the time this article went to press, the British prime minister had not yet decided what step to take next apart from saying that she would invite all parties — the Conservatives who had voted against her deal, the Labour opposition and the other smaller parties — to talk.
So, it appears that a range of options remain on the table, including a “hard exit” from the EU without a deal, meaning a vicious and painful divorce and failure to apply the rules that “British democracy” had agreed to regarding commitment to the exit process in accordance with the provisions of Article 50 of the Lisbon Agreement. So, too, is the possibility of a second referendum which, in turn, would present another democratic predicament.
To take the question of Brexit back to the people, the majority of whom now oppose leaving the EU according to recent opinion polls, might resolve the impasse temporarily but it would not prevent a situation in which recourse to plebiscite becomes the rule rather than the exception when it comes to solving complex problems that the elected officials of parliament would be expected to handle.
After all, not too long from now “the people” could change its mind again.
The two predicaments above raise a third dilemma, which is that democratic systems are not very democratic in times of sharp polarisation. In all events, it appears that representational democracy was not cut out for this.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Brexit dilemma