This week, Britain’s Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, struck down Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament. By far the most revealing comment on Johnson’s defeat was that of Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent Belgian member of the European Parliament, who said that he hoped never again to hear from any Brexit proponent that the European Union was undemocratic. But it is difficult to say which is more remarkable, Verhofstadt’s logic or his conception of democracy.
Even if it were true beyond doubt that Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament was illegal and even undemocratic, it would not follow that the EU was democratic and therefore rightly immune from any criticism that it is undemocratic. If one country is a dictatorship, it does not prevent another from being one.
But it is Verhofstadt’s somewhat strange view of what democracy means that Europeans themselves should be worried about. Britain is not normally ruled by direct democracy, which would be almost impossible—but Parliament itself, by an immense majority of 80 percent, voluntarily called for a referendum on the issue of Britain’s EU membership, on the understanding that the government would abide by the result. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, ever since then, the same Parliament that called the referendum has done everything possible to oppose, obstruct, delay, dilute, or straightforwardly annul the implementation of the result, which was unexpected. The leader of a major political party, the Liberal Democrats, has said that if a second referendum were to take place, she would accept the result only if it were in the direction that she favored—that of remaining in the EU. War is peace, freedom is slavery, and liberal democracy is the unopposed rule of the leader.
Verhofstadt has, in effect, sided with those who have striven might and main to overturn the result of a vote that no one can deny was democratic while simultaneously trying to cover themselves in the mantle of democracy. In other words, true democracy is the rule of the right-thinking, and the purpose of a referendum anywhere in Europe is—as it was under Napoleon III—to provide legitimation for a decision that has already been taken. By comparison with those who have attempted, and are still attempting, to obstruct Brexit in Britain, General Augusto Pinochet—the late Chilean dictator—was a democrat. When he lost a plebiscite, he stood down. Verhofstadt prefers as democrats those who, like the British Members of Parliament in the middle of a political impasse, refuse to hold elections in case the electorate gets the answer wrong again.
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