Can Europe Make It?

Europe’s unfinished democracy

Old Europe is disaggregating. The new Europe, which has long been a reality in the mind of many European citizens, is waiting for its constitution, one that will effectively take us into the future.

Ulrike Guerot Robert Menasse
19 May 2014
Flickr/Oscar Rasson. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Oscar Rasson. Some rights reserved.

European integration is yesterday’s word; European democracy tomorrow's. The problem is not ‘more or less’ European integration, as most of the current EP-campaign rhetoric between the defenders of Europe and the ‘populist’ makes believe. The problem is that Europe, the Eurozone, is monetarily fully and economically deeply integrated, but has no democracy. For the euro is an orphan currency, a transnational currency without transnational democracy. That is what hurts Europe today.

To be sure: the European Union is legitimate in a legal sense; all the treaties and contracts which constitute the institutional fabrics of European governance have been passed by votes and referenda at some moment or another. But European citizens don’t perceive them as intuitively democratic, because the so-called sui generis structure of the EU’s triangular setup - where most political energy is spent in institutional fights between the EP, the Council and the Commission - barely allows political opposition, let allow the reversibility of policy choices. You can vote all you want; you’ll get the same Europe!

There is no discursive space for those who want Europe, but different policies. Who wants a political turn-around, needs to be against the system. This is, in essence, what fuels the current success of the populists – left and right – because politics is about options, not rubber stamping. T.I.N.A. (there is no alternative) sucks – but whereas the mainstream features Tina, the populists pose the right questions... and provide the wrong answers.

At conferences about Europe, again and again you hear that Europe is caught in a catch-22: the EU system is untenable but cannot be reformed. Where a political solution is unachievable, the technocratic structures prevail, and the discontent not only of the citizens but also of the officials in Brussels grows. The latter now openly say that the EU does not work any more – or won’t for much longer - and that Europe has been creeping for some time towards disintegration.

A Europe for all 

"We thought democracy is about participation but actually it is about equality", Pierre Rosanvallon writes. Form follows function: where the EU offers formal democracy, EU citizens request democratic content - a social Europe. Where functional democracy is hollowed out by formal principles, the populist vengeance is just around the corner. For democracy is seen not merely in the formal functioning of its institutions, but also as about the organization of cultural and socio-economic bodies, which form deeply enrooted fabrics of societal living.

The debate should be about whether (and how) a post-national, democratic Europe could be a defendable aim for political voluntarism: politically, economically and culturally. The question is whether reconstituting Europe, the Eurozone, differently, could be the solution to the global threats to democracy that one can observe these days.

To be sure: the actual threats to representative democracy today take many forms and are not just a problem for Europe. There are at least four of these, the first being the paradigm shift from democracy to efficiency. The subordination of politics to the demands of efficient capital exploitation and the maximisation of profit, even when this destroys human livelihoods, by definition systematically sucks out any meaning from democracy, even more so when such politics are organised so as to still provide democratic legitimacy for this exploitation.

The second threat involves the social question. Democracy is not guaranteed by the abstract right of political participation but by equal opportunities, which make participation possible. Sociologists have long known that sections of the middle class are fearful of social relegation, that their votes in elections are intended to show their anger and deliver a warning, and that this can end up in them voting against their objective interests. Also long known is that the poor don’t go to the polls any more because the bottom fifth in society have ceased to believe that their vote has any influence on politics. 

The third threat lies in the political economy of the internet, including the effects of its perverted use by the NSA (National Security Agency) and its counterparts elsewhere, the ramifications of which regarding representative democracy have yet to be fully understood.

The last point concerns something demographically determined, namely the political disempowerment of European youth, whose role in the formation of a European future is slipping from our fingers. Their futures are being betrayed. The proportion of young voters (18-25) supporting Europe's populist parties is high, for Orban and Le Pen, Lucke and Wilders offer an 'alternative'. This fiction, in the desolate institutional maze of European crisis management, seeks to find its way into a disillusioned public sphere. To believe that the votes for Marine Le Pen will again quickly drop from 25 to only 6 or 8 percent simply because at some point the French GDP will grow by 1 percent is naïve. And as Thomas Piketty tells us, growth is no longer with us anyway.

European demoIcracy 

“More Europe" is a hackneyed phrase, and “better communication” a useless concept if the political elites are not ready to say what “more Europe” means, but are instead fearful of convincingly pleading the case for an innovative, consequential and post-national political concept – for a democratic Europe.

This Europe would need to be about inventing European demoIcracy - with a capital 'I'. It would be about organising a European civil society and giving it a voice in the European system. It would be about de-homogenising national discourse and the creation of a space for transnational discussion and policy-making. When it concerns the euro crisis, energy policy or crime, focusing on German, French, Finnish or Portuguese opinion is hardly relevant – and (wrongly) presupposes national homogeneity. 

The insistence on this fiction of national interests within post-national development produces an unproductive contradiction, which cannot lead to any reasonable synthesis. The voice of civil society and the interests of citizens usually lose out. Multinational companies use this in that they exploit the advantages of the single market and at the same time seek to duck paying tax by playing national governments against each other to the detriment of European citizens, who are held captive in the narrow prison-cells of national identity and a social-political straitjacket.

They are thus unable to defend themselves from the costs of this game, against which they rebel rightly but with no prospect of success, being disenfranchised. At the same time rich French people change their citizenship and become Belgians in order to evade the wealth tax in their own country. It would be hard to find a more vivid example of how the concept of nation can be perverted.

It is essential to recognise that in this way national democracy cannot function any longer, but that European democracy cannot function yet. Everything hinges on the one important question for the year 2014, which must be put to all European citizens, not to the nation states: are we ready and willing, on the basis of equal EU citizenship, to develop a truly democratic, that is, a consistently post-national Europe? Are we ready, for example, to seriously discuss – for the Eurozone first - a European unemployment insurance system? Or universally-applicable European industrial relations that match the way the European supply chain works? Are we ready to talk about a common tax system, and harmonise our socio-economic perameters?

Unproductive contradiction

At present Europe is forced into economic, country-to-country comparisons. On the question of a transfer union a distinction is made, often with chauvinistic overtones, between donor and recipient, or northern and southern countries. And yet not all of Germany is rich, and not all of Greece or Italy is poor. If we could only learn to understand Euroland as an aggregated economy, which it has always been anyway, it would then be possible to consider transfer systems which would establish a fiscal equalisation scheme from one (always privileged) centre to an economic (always disadvantaged) periphery, or (transnationally) from urban to rural regions, afflicted as these are with infrastructural problems throughout Europe. 

The whole concept of import and export within the Eurozone is also misleading - but it nevertheless affects current discussions about trade imbalance. We don't really weigh up and compare exports between the German Länder of Hessen and Brandenburg for example – why should we, say, look at exchanges between Germany and Spain this way? All statistics, always, have shown that Europe is but one giant market, and that borders are superbly ignored by economic ties. But this has yet to evolve into a political macro-economy with collaborative control and taxation. There is indeed a legal single currency in 18 countries, but it coexists with national account systems and national budgets that are subject to the sovereignty of the national parliaments. This is a sterile contradiction which can produce only one thing: crisis! 

Euroland has been a single market for a long time now, but this reality is not reflected in the socio-political sphere of national parliaments and national public spending. A Europe-wide unemployment insurance would be a solution matching the way things are developing: underlying this is the idea of an indirect, brokered financial transfer not based on borders; this would, besides, have the effect of creating a sense of identity.

In the present structure of European governance – held back by the nation-state approach – the national economies of the Eurozone must compete against each other with an eye on, for example, productivity, exports or growth. The flaw in the structure of European governance up till now has been that individual countries are supposed to comply with detailed macro-economic goals, with relative freedom as to how to reach these goals. But in the absence of a properly regulated, even playing-field on tax or socio-political regulations (for example) in the Eurozone, this system cannot work. 

Democratic governance is key

Where European democracy is emasculated, the populists triumph. The predicted surge in Eurosceptic MEPs after the 22-25 May Euro elections – along with an increase in the number of parties represented in the European parliament - could lead to nearly Weimar conditions and inefficiency in the EP. This will give grist to the mill of those who say that the EP is not a proper parliament. “Let’s abolish the EP” is not only the call of British diplomats, whose role and power is already a thorn in the side of the EP. Germans jurists also frowned upon the EP during recent deliberations at the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe: it was seriously proposed that the Deutsche Bundestag could mutate into the ‘Congress’ for the entire Eurozone. The scandalous aspect of this proposal will be even more obvious to non-Germans. 

Drawing from the latest Franco-German suggestions of Glienicker and the Eiffel group, together with the convincing memorandum for a political union by the French economist, Thomas Piketty, here is a concept for a viable European future. It starts with the Eurozone, but other EU member states could join in stages.

A common fiscal policy is introduced in the Eurozone, with a Eurozone budget (ca. 3-7 percent of the Eurozone GDP) that goes well beyond the present one, which is extracted from the infrastructural and cohesion fund of the EU in transfer payments. Fiscal redistribution is launched alongside the European unemployment insurance, which acts as an automatic stabiliser. The shell construction of a European executive authority would be placed opposite a strong European legislative body.

The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) could become the embryo of a European Finance Ministry and a Eurozone parliament would get the legislative right to take initiatives and oversee the budget. The “permanent President of the Eurogroup” evoked in this Franco-German paper, could be seen as a future European Treasurer, or European Finance Minister, who would manage the Eurozone budget. Thus European democracy would finally exist horizontally (a European legislative body vs. a European executive body) and no longer vertically: nation state vs. Europe.

The Eurozone could act as a powerful magnet for other EU countries and these could in time join this new Euro-democracy. The democratic system of the Eurozone would move in the direction of a division of powers à la Montesquieu. Whoever thinks this is building castles in the air should look at the September 2012 Westerwelle Report on the future of Europe.

The Commission would have to be developed into a future Euro-government, as described already in 1994 in the Schäuble-Lamers document. At the same time, its (neutral) functions regarding economic competition in the EU would have to be separated from its political functions. The Commission would be divided up into single Ministries (and simultaneously reduced in size), which can arise from the present Directorates-General: a Ministry for Foreign Affairs (the current EEAD), a Trade Ministry, a Ministry for Development, a Ministry for Agriculture, a Ministry for Energy, a Ministry for Cyber Communications etc.

Only in this way can political decisions be clearly assigned. The individual Ministries could represent the ruling coalition of the European Parliament, and political lines of demarcation would become visible. Today, Commissioners are perceived as mere national representatives, who in addition to their own perimeter get involved in matters that are in direct contradiction to the “national interests” of their country. This is the reason why most of the proposals coming from the Commission feel undemocratic. 

History happens largely by default and not as a result of ‘grand bargains’. But it is high time to think about which way we want the European idea to develop in the twenty-first century. We must dare to make a new European beginning, as the current system is running out of steam. We must set our hopes on a new European Constitutional Convention - or, better, a constituent assembly - in which European citizens, over and above the heads of their national delegates, can directly participate via an elaborate system of representation. The formation of a European res publica must come from civil society.

In this century, we will hopefully be spared the ‘big crash’, which again and again in history has marked a break between epochs. But there is no doubt that the creeping disintegration of old Europe has already been under way for some time. The new Europe, which has long been a reality in the consciousness of many European citizens, is waiting for its constitution, one that will effectively take it into the future.

This is an excerpt from an essay entitled "Europe's choice" by Ulrike Guérot and Robert Menasse. It is available here.

Read more from our European elections coverage here.

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