La Défense, Paris' financial district. Demotix/Theofor Frundt. All rights reserved.
As we all know, since the early Eighties a vast redistribution of wealth, in favour of the very rich, has taken place in the west. Less obvious is the fact that an equally conspicuous redistribution of political power has followed: from democratic institutions to financial and banking interests, mostly centred in the US and the UK, through deregulation, unchecked hegemony of the markets, with tax havens and even rating and accounting agencies at their disposal. As a consequence we have both less democracy and less equality in our part of the world.
Meanwhile, political parties have been discredited by their own faults and weaknesses, unrelentingly monitored by media (owned and often controlled by prevailing financial interests and ideologists), rising costs that make them more and more vulnerable to political lobbying, and above all, the powerlessness of the existing nation-states in Europe to which they belong. As the foreign minister of Poland likes to put it, “All European states are small. The difference is between those who know it and those who don’t”, or pretend they don’t. They have not given up a varying amount of sovereignty to Brussels, as they often like to claim, but to forces they cannot - or will not - control.
With the exception of the United States and the BRIC countries, no single nation state is big enough to affect global issues and to remain master in its own house. Office holders are held responsible for decisions or developments almost totally beyond their control. No European government – not even the German, as pointed out by Angela Merkel – has a voice that can be heard at a global level. A citizenship of half a billion is left without democratic representation in a world which, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is engaged in a slow and fitful transition from the Cold War that made at least some political institutions relevant, for better or worse, toward a multipolar structure that in the interim lacks almost any form of governance (governance is hardly what is provided by a Security Council whose permanent membership is a leftover of the Second World War, the G8 or even the G20).
Such a state of affairs is dramatically exposed by the crisis of the euro. A currency devoid of matching political institutions becomes a promising prey of the markets, led by financial - but not exclusively financial – interests, including many traditionally hostile to the euro and to the prospect of any further European integration.
Within the framework of the Atlantic Community, a unified Europe is seen as a powerful commercial and financial competitor, a potentially rival social model, a global player with considerable soft power and, as a consequence, latently hostile to military power and its supporting interests. President Obama’s multipolar and consequently pro-European views are real, but not abundantly self-evident, and they are certainly not shared by Wall Street and the Republicans, any more than by its City allies and subordinates - though fear of contagion of the euro crisis favours a more cautious attitude.
Che fare? What should be done? Both in terms of what Barbara Ward, many years ago, used to call ‘relevant utopias’ - but also when it comes to feasible steps in the same direction? While views such as those just stated have a fairly wide audience among mostly frustrated experts and policymakers, the outlook of their potential constituents is more confused, with a growing euroskeptic slant, especially in the countries that feel victimized by the strictures of the prevailing German version of European financial policies.
In these countries, where tax evasion is a major problem yet to be solved, the burden of austerity imposed from above falls upon the shoulders of those who have their taxes subtracted from their pay checks. Both North and South, people are mostly focused on, and resentful of what they see as the negative effects of the euro on their wallets.
It is important to fill this gap of communication and understanding, especially among protest movements often barking up the wrong trees, if not turning to a populist hatred of representative democracy. Therefore, what we don’t need is yet another think tank - there are plenty that reach approximately the same conclusions - but, at all available opportunities - a discussion unit, potentially a convenor, that can and does inspire a wider public mobilization.
An anti-austerity protester in Athens. Demotix/Yiorgos Doukanaris. All rights reserved.
To those who were active in the peace movements of the Eighties, END is a good model, but where are the CNDs? At this point, denunciation and indignation are still necessary ingredients in any public uprising, if only to attain a clearer understanding of what is happening to social justice and democratic representation in and of this part of the world (i.e. Europe). But the making or breaking point of such an initiative is its capacity to formulate common goals, consistent with its criticism of prevailing policies, in order to achieve real change.
A commitment to European democracy must be one of these common goals. It should stress the political and institutional nature of the present crisis by requests such as direct election of the next President of the European Commission; greater power to the European Parliament, elected on the basis of transnational political programmes; indeed a spirited defence and further development of Europe as a social and security model.
To meet the challenge of the present economic crisis, a few examples could help: certainly fiscally responsible policies, especially in countries riddled with tax evasion and waste - but not as an alternative to sustainable development; taxation of financial transactions; limitations on self-serving economic privileges, both in the private and public sectors (the outcome of the recent Swiss referendum is an interesting signal in this direction); the safeguard of natural and cultural resources as an essential part of the future European economy; the unification of European economic and fiscal policies; the separation of investment and commercial banking powers; Eurobonds; the ECB as a lender of last resort; multiple European rating agencies. These are all important priorities.
And in order to bring protest movements to bear on such policy goals, next year’s elections of the European Parliament and of the president of the European Commission provide an important opportunity without waiting for 27 governments to reform the Lisbon treaty or another constituent assembly to draft another European Constitution with the likelihood of producing yet another document disappointing to integrationists and equally irritating to skeptics and opponents.
The status quo is unacceptable to all. What else can anyone say of a technocratic Commission, negotiated in its leadership without any public debate, that increases the democratic deficit by surrogating its lack of legitimacy by regulating what should be decided locally, according to every principle of subsidiarity? What can one say about a Parliament slowly growing in influence but still hampered by procedures that routinely discourage participation from below? What is the use of a Council of Ministers paralyzed by rules of consensus as an outcome of prevailing national interests?
Yet, the election of the European Parliament could become politically significant if party programmes and candidacies were the outcome of a genuine transnational debate. A genuine challenge could be mounted if the leadership of the European Commission was achieved through democratic primaries, with European candidates of parties or party coalitions campaigning and being voted upon in the whole territory of the European Union, regardless of their nationality.
The Party of European Socialists (PES) is already moving in this direction, but hampering itself by letting national parties decide according to their own rules without admitting free, direct participation of citizens who are not party members - and by ignoring the possibility of building coalitions with likeminded parties on the basis of joint programmes.
A subsequent direct vote to choose between those selected by the primaries, as suggested by Commissioner Viviane Reding, could hardly be ignored by a Council of Ministers and by a Parliament that, according to existing treaties, have the right of proposal and ultimate choice. Whatever the outcome, a step forward in terms of democratic participation and legitimacy will have been achieved.