Can Europe Make It?

Greece’s election: filling Europe’s democratic void

The election is vital because at stake are two broader EU problems: the absence of a right to organise substantive opposition, and the de-democratisation of political decision-making.

Mathew Lawrence
24 January 2015

Eleftheria Arvanitaki sings in protest at public broadcaster shutdown. Panayis Chrysovergis/Demotix. All rights reserved.During Greece’s struggle for self-determination its motto rallied democrats across Europe to its cause: ‘Eleftheria!’ – ‘Freedom!’

Almost two hundred years later, Europe’s eyes are once again turned to Greece. However, where once the cause was liberty from the Ottoman Empire, the issue at stake in Sunday’s election is whether Greece will elect a government willing and able to renegotiate its debt package and in doing so allow it to reclaim a greater degree of economic and political control over its future.

For in their attempts to save the euro, European policy-makers have progressively overridden the national democracies of the debtor states of the Eurozone and imposed macroeconomic policies upon them without democratic legitimacy. The election is vital then, not just for its economic implications, but because the issues at stake reflect two broader problems with the EU’s institutional design: the absence of a right to organise substantive opposition within the European polity and the de-democratisation of political decision-making processes, felt most acutely in southern Europe.  Without addressing them, the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ will remain entrenched.

Of course, as the EU has evolved and expanded in both its size and competencies, it has added representative and participatory trappings in an attempt to democratically legitimate its growing authority. The directly elected European Parliament now has the power of co-decision over EU legislation. Similarly, though it cannot generate an executive, arguably the newly adopted ‘Spitzenkanditaten’ system points in that direction. Meanwhile, there are national channels for democracy in the EU, albeit indirectly. For example, the elected heads of state or government of the EU's member states form the majority of the European Council, which in turn defines the EU's general political direction and priorities. Clearly then, there remains room for national discretion within the EU’s decision-making structures.

Yet a democratic void remains at its centre; decision-making processes within the EU are still only very weakly accountable to European electorates and many of its institutions are deliberately insulated from democratic pressures. One of the most striking yet little stressed examples of this – and unique among polities claiming to be democratic - is the inability to organise a fundamental aspect of democratic life: opposition.

As Peter Mair has argued, ‘we are afforded the right to be represented in Europe, even if it is sometimes difficult to work out when and how this representative link functions; but we are not afforded the right to organise opposition within the European polity.’ 

For example, as the EU is presently organised, presenting an alternative policy agenda from that pursued by the Council or Commission is not realistically possible. Voters cannot directly choose between opposing candidates at the executive level, nor between alternative policy agendas for the future direction of the EU. Opposition to the existence of the EU itself is of course possible and regularly reflected in the results of European Parliament elections; substantive and constructive opposition to the policy direction of the EU is not, with no government-opposition nexus existing. This is important, for an absence of opposition means a loss of voice, with democratic contest hollowed out and EU governance substantively de-democratised in the process. Opposition to the existence of the EU itself is of course possible and regularly reflected in the results of European Parliament elections; substantive and constructive opposition to the policy direction of the EU is not.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament – supposedly the principle vehicle for the democratisation of the EU – exemplifies the limits of EU democracy in its current form. It is of course directly elected, though it is a so-called ‘second order’ election across Europe, as reflected in its low participation rates.

However, the Parliament only has powers of co-decision; it can amend but not propose, and ultimate decisions rest with the Council and the Commission. Furthermore, the Commission and the Council dominate the policy process throughout, with Parliament rarely inhibiting the legislative process.  For example, a majority of EU legislation is still passed under the consultation procedure, for which the European Parliament has only minimal powers of delay.

Similarly, on the EU budget, it can only amend lines that are categorized as ‘non-compulsory expenditure’. The divorce between electoral input into the EU through the Parliament and the EU’s policy output therefore is weak, with the preferences of European citizens offering little formal constraint or mandate for the decisions of the EU. The result is a worrying democratic void, the weakening of the EU’s legitimacy and, contributing in part, surging populism across the continent.

Debtor states

The most striking example of the de-democratising effect of the EU is, of course, found in the debtor states of the Eurozone. In an effort to sustain the Euro and convince ‘the markets’ of its solvency, it has erected a political economy regime that has progressively neutralised nation-state democracies across southern Europe.  The European Semester System (2010), the Euro Plus Pact (2011) and the Fiscal Compact (2012) have steadily eroded the ability of debtor nations within the Eurozone to control their tax and spend decisions, the very stuff of democratic government. 

To oversee this, the Commission has been granted comprehensive powers of economic surveillance and enforcement through EU legislation, particularly the Six Pack (2011) and the Two Pack (2013). Through these measures, national economic sovereignty has been sacrificed on the altar of the Euro in southern Europe, and with it, very substantially, their democracies. Of course, joining a monetary union necessarily involves losing some form of sovereignty. However, crucially there has not been a corresponding growth in formal forms of democratic accountability within the Eurozone’s structures, with subsequently little opportunity to contest its policy direction.

The economic and distributional implication of the new euro regime for these countries is severe. To be sure, national governments retain some discretion over the macroeconomic direction of their country and the EU is clearly not the only force that inhibits the capacity of nation-states to pursue particular agendas. Nonetheless, as Fritz Scharpf has recently expertly articulated, the implications of recent EU decision-making is clear for debtor states in the Eurozone: it requires a policy of constant downward pressures on wages and public spending, both to support export-led growth in economic downswings, and conversely to limit the growth of external deficits during upswings.

As is evident across southern Europe, such a regime institutionalises a destructive cycle of competitive internal devaluation, that in turn prompts further wage and fiscal restraint as a response. The result: the Eurozone is locked in a deflationary spiral, both economic and democratic, with power gravitating further away from democratic institutions and the labour force and towards de-politicised governance structures and capital holders. As Claus Offe argues, then, ‘the euro has rendered European democratic capitalism more capitalist and less democratic.’ (Offe, 2015)

Why the Greek election is such an opportunity  

The Greek election offers an opportunity to begin breaking out of this iron cage. In seeking to renegotiate its debt package, Syriza and others are searching for greater fiscal and economic breathing space, which would lessen the damaging cycle of Greek austerity and potentially allow Greece out of its deflationary spiral. 

However, even if successful, such a renegotiation would not change the terms of the broader post-crisis settlement – the Compact and the Six Pack in particular – as these are not the terms of an individual national bailout. More broadly then, the EU and the political economy of the Eurozone require further reform to allow for more substantive forms of opposition within its governance structures and greater democratic control over the continent’s economic institutions.  the EU and the political economy of the Eurozone require further reform to allow for more substantive forms of opposition within its governance structures and greater democratic control over the continent’s economic institutions. 

This is critical for Europe’s future. Coordinated decision-making within the European sphere is clearly set to advance in the future; what is less clear is whether that process will be accompanied by more substantive forms of European democracy and accountability.

The traditional responses to the democratic weaknesses of Europe – further committing ourselves towards the Habermasian goal of constructing a genuine European demos – is simply unfeasible and not an answer to this trend. Nor will a retreat to populist nationalism or unaccountable technocratic federalism provide a sustainable answer.

As Thomas Piketty and Pierre Rosanvallon among others have argued, a revived and democratised EU remains vital if we are to ‘regain control of and effectively regulate 21st century globalised financial capitalism.’ Working out how to revive the democratic right to oppose within the EU’s governing structures amidst a Europe of divergent nations, beginning in Greece this Sunday, might be an effective start to that revival. 

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