On Europe, vote, vote and vote again

The European Union has always been an elite project. This was so from its earliest postwar beginnings, when the rule of cool, rational technocrats seemed infinitely preferable to the hot-blooded mass movements led by Hitler and Mussolini. The greatest advocates of European unity (think of the late Roy Jenkins or of Peter Mandelson) have never been populists by nature or inclination, and European institutions have always suffered from a lack of democratic accountability. Europe, it could be said, has been a success in almost every respect except the political. Socially and culturally, most Britons feel more European than ever, being more likely to spend a weekend in Perpignan than in Harrogate. Many could name the best restaurants in Barcelona and the best clubs in Rome, recommend truffle suppliers in rural France, tell you who is performing in Lisbon, and give the latest placings in the Bundesliga. But they could not name their MEP or remember the date of the European elections.

Polls may suggest public unease about Europe but, as the Tories know to their cost, there is no depth or passion to it. If the movement for European unity lacks a mass popular following, so does the Eurosceptic movement. Even Tony Blair's decision to hold a referendum on the EU constitution may well be seen as just another result of elite preoccupations, remote and largely incomprehensible to normal people. "The referendum will, delightfully, split the Conservatives," writes Gerald Kaufman. But what, Mr Kaufman's Manchester constituents may ask, has that to do with us? The more curmudgeonly among them may wonder why their opinion should be sought on this not very exciting matter when it was ignored over the Iraq war, about which they really did care.

Yet Mr Blair is surely right to call a referendum. The new constitution may, as ministers argued until recently, be just a "tidying-up exercise" but it tidies up, for example, the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, neither of which was ever put to the popular vote. It may seem absurd to hold plebiscites on complex international agreements that most people will never bother to read. But the EU, if it is to survive at all, is a project for which consent needs to be constantly renewed for the very simple reason that its treaties and directives, once made, move almost entirely outside democratic control. The EU's democratic deficit lies not so much in the powers of the sceptics' chief bogeyman, the Commission in Brussels, which is at least susceptible to the influence of elected national governments, as in the powers of the European Court in Luxembourg, which decides what the Union's laws actually mean. The court has the power, among other things, to overrule national legislation if it believes that it will conflict with EU treaties. Because much of its work is in the form of advice given before new laws are framed, the court's influence is almost entirely hidden and it is wholly unaccountable. European judges, unlike their national state counterparts, do not have to contend with powerful legislators who may counteract their rulings with new laws, including limits on the courts' powers. And unlike the US Supreme Court judges, their appointments are not even subject to confirmation by an elected body.

In other words, the EU requires the peoples of Europe to put enormous trust in ruling elites - and is doing so at precisely the time when, as Kieron O'Hara points out (page 27), trust is draining away from elites of all descriptions. The only elite that still commands any respect and attention is the media/ entertainment elite: musicians, film stars, TV presenters, footballers and so on. And while some national politicians try to become, so to speak, associate members of that elite, it is hard to see how EU leaders, with their largely technical and legalistic preoccupations and their difficulties in conveying them to 25 different countries, can hope to do so.

Mr Blair wants Britain's position in Europe to be resolved "once and for all". But such a final resolution is not and should not be possible in Britain or any other EU state. In 1975, Britain voted decisively to stay in Europe; yet by the 1980s, Labour had decided again that it wanted to leave. Mr Blair himself believes that, when it comes to health or education services, people are no longer prepared to trust professional elites and want a guaranteed right of exit. Why should he expect the political elite to be exempt? Over the past decade or so, from Maastricht onwards, the European elites have learned to seek periodic consent from their peoples and to modify their ambitions accordingly. The plebiscite, for all its shortcomings and for all its unsavoury history, may be the only way to preserve the EU's democratic legitimacy.

A million saved is a million forgot

We must be thankful to Justice Christopher Elwen for having Joyti De-Laurey, the City secretary who stole £4.5m from her bosses, taken immediately into custody, though she will not be sentenced until June. If she remained at large, who knows how many more unfortunate Goldman Sachs executives might be cheated out of the odd million or so. De-Laurey stole money unnoticed for 14 months. Then one executive, Scott Mead, "came home late from a business dinner" and decided (as one does at that time of night) to donate £1m to Harvard, only to find his bank balance "surprisingly low". Eight-figure earnings are hard to keep track of, and one is relieved to learn that this was a savings account and Mr Mead had another to pay for groceries. Nobody should feel at all resentful that Goldman Sachs has fully compensated him and will claim the cost from insurance, probably leading to higher premiums for the rest of us.