Democracy in a state of emergency: Greece, the EU and the eurozone debt crisis

Day after day, it is becoming clearer that the European Union has no intention of tackling its democratic deficit. It is time for the Union to realize it has failed Greece, European citizens and its own ideals - including democracy.

Golden Dawn supporters rally in Thessaloniki. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.Golden Dawn supporters rally in Thessaloniki. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.

If judged on its own claims, the European Union’s commitment to democracy is indisputable. Democracy is one of the key values on which the Union is based and one of the guiding principles of its international relations. Moreover, the EU is a club of democratic nation states – under the 1993 Copenhagen Criteria, prospective members must demonstrate their commitment to democracy, the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

Rhetoric aside, however, an oft-noted shortcoming of EU conditionality is that it loses its power when a country actually accedes to the Union. Take the carrot of membership away and the Union is left with precious few sticks with which to ensure continued compliance, short of the fairly drastic option of suspending the offending state’s voting rights. Consider Hungary, where President Victor Orban has caused consternation amongst liberals in his own country and in Brussels with new laws on the media and the judiciary amongst other things, that appear to contravene key liberal democratic tenets.

More vexing still is the proposition that the EU is not only incapable of arresting a member state’s democratic slide, but that its policies and institutions may actually contribute to it. Yet, Greece’s current predicament paints just such a scenario.

‘Our Constitution…is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the greatest number’. These words, taken from Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ funeral oration, opened the 2003 Draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. Although the quotation was removed from the final version of the EU’s Constitutional Treaty (and, for that matter, the project as a whole collapsed in 2005) it demonstrates how deeply the idea of democracy is embedded in EU elites’ conception of ‘Europeaness’. It is all the more ironic, then, that it is in Greece – the cradle of western civilization and democracy – that the EU’s democratic deficit is being most acutely felt. Since the onset of the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone, Greece’s urgent need for financial aid (the details of its third bailout package since May 2010 were hammered out on Monday) has seen the country reduced to a virtual protectorate of its ‘troika’ of creditors – the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

In fact, despite its stated commitment to the ideal of democracy, democratic principles have never played a large role in the organisation and functioning of the EU itself. On the contrary, the Union is often described as having a ‘democratic deficit’, which is broadly characterised by a mismatch between the input and output functions of government. The former, meaning the representative and participatory functions of government, still occur largely at the national and sub-national levels, European Parliament notwithstanding. The latter set of tasks, which refer to a government’s capacity to deliver substantive policy outcomes, have increasingly taken place at the European level, as the Union’s competences have expanded.

This democratic deficit-inducing mismatch has existed since the creation of the European Economic Community in 1958. Quite deliberately so, in fact, given the distrust of unchecked popular democracy that informed the founders of post-war European integration. As long as the then-EEC was largely engaged in microeconomic regulation and its activities did not touch the daily lives of most Europeans, the lack of direct European-level democracy was not very visible and, therefore, not very problematic. This all changed, however, with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. This treaty, which introduced Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and gave the EU its current name, marked the point at which the European project moved definitively beyond a common market to embrace a comprehensive political mission.

The new EU was a much greater presence in European citizens’ lives, but their ability to influence its political leadership and policy choices did not grow commensurately. The resultant popular frustration was accentuated by the almost universal pro-EU consensus amongst mainstream political parties in all the member states, which pushed disgruntled voters towards the left and right fringes of politics. The referendums on the Maastricht Treaty in Denmark and France showed how radical parties could harness anti-EU sentiment to their own advantage. The same phenomenon was evident in the Dutch and French referendums on the failed Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

And if Maastricht first unmasked the extent of the democratic deficit, then the sovereign debt crisis of the eurozone has magnified its consequences exponentially. Nowhere is this clearer than in Greece.

The rise in Greece of the extreme-right, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party is a particularly troubling example of electoral radicalisation in an EU member state. The party’s rise to prominence has been fuelled by Greece’s dire economic downturn, which itself is being compounded by the harsh austerity measures mandated by the troika. The hardship caused by austerity policies imposed from abroad has heightened Greek perceptions of a loss of control over their country and their destiny, creating a situation ripe for exploitation by extreme social and political movements. EU policies, up to and including the very decision to admit Greece into the currency union, are at least partly to blame for creating a situation in which the country is heavily indebted and perennially at a competitive disadvantage to more efficient and productive euro-states.

Golden Dawn – whose electoral platform included planting landmines on the Greek-Turkish border to deter illegal immigrants – captured almost seven percent of the vote in the inconclusive May 2012 legislative elections, entering the Greek national parliament for the first time with 21 seats. This was slightly reduced to wighteen seats following further elections in June. The party has continued to strengthen its position in Greek political and social life since those elections. Polling puts its support at around twelve percent of the electorate although its popularity is much higher amongst some sectors of society including, alarmingly, the police force. As a social movement as well as a political party, Golden Dawn has also become a much more visible presence on the streets, where its black-clad members mete out violence and intimidation to migrants and political opponents while offering social welfare and ‘security’ services to downtrodden Greeks.

One of the great hopes associated with the creation of the EU and the supranational delegation of powers that it entailed was that it would lock in liberal democratic reforms in post-war Europe. This hope was shared not only by the six founding states, but also by post-authoritarian Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s and 1980s, and the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. Instead, in the case of Greece, the faltering economy, the fragility of the centrist government coalition, social unrest and the rise of extremist political elements are all combining to produce an increasingly unstable and illiberal polity. The EU has not only failed to improve the situation, it has made it worse. Under such circumstances its rhetorical commitment to democracy begins to look hollow indeed. 

About the author

Nicole Scicluna is a postdoctoral fellow in social sciences at Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin. She researches on European integration and EU constitutionalism.