Wolfgang Schäuble, 2013. Demotix/Gonçalo Silva. All rights reserved.The recent developments in European politics that followed the Greek election have shed light on an interesting aspect of the role of the German government within the EU political system. It would seem that the German government perceives itself as operating under a European mandate to defend the policy of austerity. Germany has not given any reason to doubt that this perception of itself is sincere. What remains less clear are the grounds supporting it.
In a recent exchange with his Greek counterpart in Berlin, Mr. Schäuble, the German Minister of Finance, pointed out that not only the Greek government is supported by democratic mandate but so are all other national governments. So much is true. What remains puzzling is that Mr. Schäuble remains convinced that the peoples of Europe have given a mandate for financial austerity, which is favored by the German government.
What gives Mr. Schäuble such certainty? For a start he cannot be referring to any mandate from the European Parliament, because Parliament was never asked to vote on the austerity measures. On the contrary Parliament has proclaimed the illegitimacy of the troika from the point of view of EU law. Alternatively he might be pointing at a mandate that was generated by the representatives of national governments at the level of EU institutions. But one would be hard pressed to describe as democratic any of the decisions taken within the existing organs of government representatives.
The undemocratic character of coordinated national government decisions as a way to ratify the measures reproduces an international law mechanism of agreement - that is, a mechanism based on mutual interest rather than on common adherence to a unified political structure. It is therefore lacking ab initio the elements of égalité and fraternité required for a decision-making structure whose outcomes are to apply, on grounds of political fairness, to all members of the common enterprise.
Moreover this slipping from a common polity basis to that of an international agreement obscures the fact that those taking part in the agreement are very far from being equally positioned: agreeing on the face of a violent bankruptcy, as Greece is currently asked to, could hardly qualify as a covenant between equals. The more the EU relies on such mechanisms the more it backslides to an alliance rather than evolving into political cooperation).
It is not unreasonable to demand a different threshold of legitimacy for policies that purport to bind everyone within the EU. Whether such policies require a full-blown democratic legitimacy is a question that is prior to the question about the EU being a mechanism of agreement between national governments or a genuine political community.
Conversely, to anticipate the nature of the EU as that of an agreement mechanism and then try, in line with this, to fashion an answer to the requisite level of legitimacy, would be hopelessly procrustean. The question about legitimacy is prior because it is invariant. It requires the same level of democratic legitimacy vis-à-vis all those who are bound by the relevant political decisions. In contrast the question about the nature of institutions is contextual. It asks us to interpret and design the European project in a manner that meets the invariant standard of democratic legitimacy.
There are several signs suggesting the need for a move toward a full-blown European polis. The recent increase of the powers of the EU parliament and its mandate to the President of the European Commission are just two notable examples. But we must do better. Every policy that purports to bind the peoples of Europe must be ultimately subjected to a European democratic mandate.
In this context the Greek questioning of the austerity mechanism should not be interpreted as a request for exemption from a democratic decision that binds everyone else. Rather it is better understood as an invitation to establish in the first place whether this (or any other) policy has met the threshold that is necessary for binding everyone in Europe.
The task at hand is very demanding and requires our readiness to reexamine the limitations of our institutions and preparedness to reshape them. It also shows that the democratic mandate of any national government might be insufficient for representing the peoples of Europe; this is so, even if this government – as is the case with Germany – happens to administer the financial might of Europe.