Can Europe Make It?

How European Union switchboard "demoicracy" works

The complexity of the changing nation-state under the duress of globalization is currently snagged on a simplistic drive to fast-forward the past, driven by the desire to stay local.

Lammert de Jong
4 March 2015
Nigel Farage takes part in European election debate, 2014.

Nigel Farage takes part in European election debate, 2014. Demoted/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.Skeptics discover European Union democratic deficits in many places, in Brussels, bureaucrats, in the absence of the European demos, in the European Parliament, or in elitist behavior. Unfortunately, all this talk--right or wrong—prevents our seeing promising democratic perspectives; a missed opportunity! We mustn’t forget to salute European democracy where it works.  

For instance, a cornerstone of European Union democracy is the public representation of all member-states in the Councils of the European Union, and for the Eurozone, a special council, which is labeled the Eurogroup, comprising the 19 ministers of finance of the Eurozone member-states. These Councils embody the democratic legitimacy of the member-states in the exercise of European governance. Nation-state ministers, states-people, shuttle back and forth between their respective states on the one hand and the Councils of the European Union in Brussels on the other, facilitating a multi-nation European switchboard demoicracy.

Take note of the hectic political traffic between Athens and the Eurogroup in Brussels. After the Greek elections brought the Syriza party to power, the new Greek government wanted to re-negotiate the terms (cuts and reforms) of the financial aid Greece is receiving, in line with the promises made during the election campaign. Eventually, the finance ministers of the Eurogroup must agree upon any Greece amendment, including those states (Spain, Portugal, Estonia etc.) that had committed themselves to implementing similar conditions attached to the loans they received, supervised by the so-called Troika (European Commission, ECB and IMF).

Out of respect for Greek sensibilities, the term Troika has now been replaced by a new euphemism, The Institutions. Easing the conditions of the Greek debt package would inevitably imply unequal treatment across the board, and possibly also at the expense of some Euro-member-states that suffer equally poor, or even worse, social conditions. The verdict is still out, and will most likely arrive gradually, in bits and pieces of incremental agreement. The negotiations on how to reconcile stark different claims will continue until--literally as a matter of course--an agreement has been reached. This incremental process of gradual change has become a signature of European demoicracythat is, a polity of demoi in the plural.        

The Councils are a democratic building block of European Union architecture, which is dramatically underexposed. They are generally perceived as a bureaucratic Brussels carrousel rather than a European Union process that articulates the input of the member-states in European legislation as well as the output in terms of national implementation.

If we wish to better understand the European switchboard demoicracy we must move beyond those seemingly ironclad tenets that have always distorted these arguments: democratic deficit; localism and globalism; one-nation-state or nation-state-democracy.

Democratic deficit

The European Union ‘democratic deficit’ raises much concern. A standard criticism is that ‘without a demos, there can be no democracy,’ from which it follows that the European Union’s democratic deficit is irreparable; a continental European nation is lacking and its democracy thereby foredoomed. Ad Verbrugge, a Dutch philosopher, argues that the European Union will always suffer from a Babylonian confusion because of its many languages: “The gulf with the people is by definition insurmountable. There is no shared public space and no sense of community.” He arrives at the ‘inevitable’ conclusion that a democratic European Union is an illusion, and suggests giving up: ‘Europe would do well to cherish the nation-state’ (Verbrugge, 52, 2014). [1]

On the other hand, the nation-state also confronts us with a gaping democratic deficit. The nation-state as the axiomatic basis of democracy is the subject of intense speculation. Is the nation still a home of likeminded people whose interests are protected by the democratic state? Is the will of the nation really the compass of the state? Or is the nation-state losing out to globalization, unable to redeem national citizenship in a global world currency? If democracy is some day to regain control of capitalism, Piketty asserts, “It must start by recognizing that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again (Piketty, 2014, 570).”[2] According to the French and American revolutions the people are the state and the state is the people.[3] But does this maxim still make sense when the power of the state continues to shrink, forcing people increasingly to ask who is in charge?

All over Europe, in the world of politics, media as well as academe, the nation-state paradigm has become a ‘hot’ issue, either in defense of its legacy, or criticized as an out-dated carcase that waits only to be incorporated into the European Union. This intransigent either-or divide does not leave much room for considering the debt of both sides to today’s nation-state. Nation-state democracy and a European Union democratic deficit are both subjected to a row between (dis-)believers, rather than any kind of  rational exchange on the impact of globalization, for better and worse.  

But the reality of democracy is multidimensional; it cannot be summed up with a single nation or demos denominator. Public power, politics and people’s engagement must intersect to make democracy work. Cheneval and Schimmelfennig (2012) argue that the EU is not fundamentally undemocratic; it simply needs to be judged by a different democratic standard than the model offered by the nation-state. A single European demos does not exist, and this has been the case since democracy was transformed from direct democracy in the Athens’s city-state to representative democracy in the territorial nation-state. Within the context of the European Union, it is necessarily a multi-nation demoicracy that is at work.

Stay local! Go global!

Democracy has local roots, which nurture a sense of citizenship. The disconnect between the nation as a home and the complexity of a global world hovers ominously over European Union democracy. The ‘nation’ divides localists and globalists, a divide between those who treasure the nation, to be defended against globalization on the one hand, and globalists who first and foremost embrace the whole of humanity, being world connectors on the other. Localists regard the European Union as a threat to the nation and national identity, while a globalist values European statehood as a more competent power in managing globalization. 

Localism is not a priori right or wrong. Those who embrace ‘local politics’ and ‘the power of the people’ are principally right. Voltaire’s Il faut cultiver notre jardin points out one’s responsibility to the things one loves. Participating in local democracy, in the neighborhood, municipality or city, growing your own green food and keeping your sidewalk clean, makes perfect sense. But at the same time localists need to be enlightened about the global condition of the locality. Pursuing clean air in the neighborhood is a good thing, and may make one feel good; but in conditions of unbridled worldwide pollution, local clean air does not make much difference. Local democracy requires public institutions that are attuned to the global conditions of today’s politics, if they are not to become parochial.    

Globalism also has various faces, some good, and some bad. Pikkety makes the case for a social European state in the twenty-first century dependent on a progressive tax on capital. This tax must necessarily be levied on a global scale in order to be effective. This would be a utopia, Pikkety admits, yet a useful utopia because it would set a standard for the long haul of enabling democracy to control capital. For now, a European wealth tax should be given a try. Without a transnational regimen of democratic and financial transparency, capital finds its way to tax havens elsewhere at the expense of the social state. The monumental legacy of the twentieth century European social state today, in the twenty-first century, requires a European Union transnational government to make it work (Pikkety, 214, 471- 492, 518).[4]

When public power is factored in, localism and globalism are not fundamental opposites. They go hand in hand. Democracy and citizens’ rights are anchored in the nation-state, yet take note, localists must consider the strength of their public institutions, not only with regards to the comforts of ‘home’ but also in respect of justice in the world at large, now, and for future generations. On the other hand, globalists who don’t recognize the nurturing experience of the locality have lost touch with the ‘nation’ that generates a sense of identity and engagement, empowering any citizenship. 

One-nation-state-democracy: forever true?

Euroskeptics tend to present nation-state democracy as an act of God, created at the dawn of human existence for eternity, with no viable alternatives on the horizon. But nation-states originated first in the Americas where the power of old time empires crumbled under revolutionary uprisings.[5] The Southern American continent, once ruled by Spain and Portugal, the peninsularis, split up in a surprising number of nation-states after having fought the Iberian colonizer. In Northern America thirteen British colonies liberated themselves from the British Empire, and established the United States of America. These revolutions established that colonized people can be endowed with power to create a meaningful world for themselves, becoming nation-state citizens, though not everyone. Indians and slaves were not included in the first generations of citizens in either of the Americas.  

The democratic nation-state, as we know it, developed alongside the French and American revolutions. The French revolution promulgated a nation of liberty, equality and fraternity, replacing men’s subordination to monarchy and church. The nation-state and its citizens were tied together in an imaginary stronghold upon which nation-state democracy was built. Over time, the nation-state-citizen triangle became a splendid paradigm of western liberal democracy; it served the ideals of dignity, freedom and the equality of people who had become citizens. The doctrine claimed that the state enables people to be in control of their fate. But is that still the case? And can we still assume that we live in homogeneous ‘one nations’ with common national cultures and shared values? If so, why is it that immigration, legal and illegal, has become framed as a paramount problem of so many modern day nations? And by the way, has anything really changed in this regard? Haven’t immigrants always, right back to bygone times, stayed, and become part of the nation.

Refurbishing the idea of ‘one nation’ that must stay local and free from foreign interference, has in our time become the preoccupation of the day. The complexity of the changing nation-state under the duress of globalization is currently snagged on a simplistic drive to fast-forward the past, driven by the desire to stay local. Nigel Farage, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), contends that Britain has sacrificed its independence to European bureaucrats who have let in a flood of immigrants and stolen the reins of power. UKIP’s 2014 campaign encouraged voters who believe in ‘local politics, the power of people, low taxes, pure administration, and an independent Great Britain’ to join them: ‘we will give you your country back.’ [6] British citizens are invited to believe that all politics is local, while UKIP and similar alliances know perfectly well the global challenges posed to today’s citizenship everywhere.

All over Europe, similar political parties have sprung up framing immigration as the most tangible threat to the nation as ‘home’. Reflexively the idea of the ‘nation’ has in many European countries been rewritten on the model of a collectivity of nativist shareholders. These qualifications determine those who have ‘earned’ the nation, and this is necessarily coupled with the exclusion of the ‘other.’ Even more divisive for the ‘nation’ is the Muslim ‘other’ who does not fit into the frame of the Judeo-Christian foundation of Europe. This conception of Europe excludes the Muslim as being a misfit. In Germany Thilo Sarazin warns that Germany abolishes itself (2010),[7] and a few years later Eric Zemmour rises to fame in France, describing this loss of the nation as a French suicide (2014).[8] In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders first drew our attention to the plight of ‘Henk and Ingrid,’ the proverbial Dutch couple that has lost home and hearth to foreign immigrants. And now, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Wilders exploits in full force the threat of an Islamic Caliphate, calling for the de-Islamisation of the Netherlands: “I told you so!”

Charlie Hebdo was a godsend for the staunch protagonists of the ‘one-nation-state’ forever true. At the same time, Charlie Hebdo’s impact tests the strength of the nation-state to respect the rights and opinions of others, upholding the constitutional guarantees that all citizens shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Will the nation be ready to withstand a nativist anti-Muslim backlash by reaching out: I’ll Ride With You![9] or the denial of citizens’ rights to ‘all those people’[10] ?

National democracy has never been in a perfect or finished state, whether it was limiting the right to vote to men only, founding suffrage on wealth and class, or excluding Jews. These days universal suffrage has become a defining quality of democratic states. However, the citizen’s basic right to vote is now challenged by the relevance of the national vote. Corporate business and financial markets have curtailed the power of the nation-state to such an extent that its citizens can no longer make believe that they are in control of their fate. The same applies to the equitable distribution of worldwide goods and resources, as well as the control of global threats such as pollution, climate change and epidemics.

An ardent believer in the nation-state’s guardianship of democracy may ask: “Why would any people who want to be in control of their fate in their own home open the doors and windows to [European] unelected, distant political masters whose interests and deliberations are unclear at best and insidious at worst?”[11] But this is the wrong question. The nation-state is wide open to powers it cannot control. Nation-state democracy no longer suffices to safeguard citizens’ rights against global interference.

The nation-state-citizenship triangle is no longer the best democratic fit for modern day statehood challenged by globalization. “We will give you your country back” is a false promise. All in all, the nation-state no longer offers a bastion for its citizens to protect and further the good life they seek; the nation-state’s promise to deliver these goods is no longer achievable. A nostalgic return to the one-nation-state is no alternative to European Union governance.

However, that said, the heavy-handedness of “There is No-Alternative” that European Union protagonists proclaim is equally shortsighted. This No-Alternative overlooks the fact that the European Union democratic architecture is in large part built on the foundations of the democratic nation-state. As Cheneval and Schimmelfennig state: “In a demoicracy, the national demoi are not only passive entities to be protected from European integration but active democratic subjects.” [12]

European Union’s switchboard demoicracy in operation 

Once again, take note of the recent vote of the Greek demos which has been misleadingly heralded as a possible new dawn for Europe, in which voters, ‘not markets and Brussels technocrats’, decide how the money flows and on what terms. In sum: Greek democracy versus Brussels and the Markets! [13] René Cuperus, a Dutch columnist, prematurely greeted the demise of national democracy: ‘Elections don’t matter any more in Europe.’[14] On the contrary, the feverish political buzz all over Europe indicates not only how much the Greek elections matter, but the Eurozone as well! Cuperus apparently does not recognize that the Eurogroup consists of representatives of democratic member-states whose job it is to legitimize European decision-making when it comes to competing claims in a multi-nation democratic process.

The Greek election stands out as a welcome wake up call to reconsider slash and burn packages of financial support. How does this play out? For quite some years the IMF has been backtracking on these conditional packages, which caused social destruction and economic stagnation. Will this experience trickle down into the deliberations of the Eurogroup? Or will an exception be made only for Greece, for social reasons? Or to prevent a Grexit?

How can the electoral promises of the new Greek government be reconciled with the conditions imposed on other states receiving aid? However unstructured this seems, these questions and their answers constitute European demoicracy at work, and that pretty much out in the open. According to the demoicracy template, the Greek claim has to be settled with the other demoi who are represented by their member-state governments on the European bench. As we write, the negotiations continue, back and forth, not among Brussels technocrats but as conducted by representatives of European member-states, who, in co-decision with the European Parliament, eventually arrive at a European decision.

The switchboard architecture of European Union governance is not a bizarre European carousel; on the contrary, it is a hallmark of democratic European governance that is rather underexposed. The democratic strength of the Councils is emboldened in the day-to-day interaction of states-people, the representatives of the national demoi. But of course, this European Union switchboard demoicracy is far from perfect. To cut straight to the heart of the matter, the European member-states display a poor sense of ownership in respect to the European Union. Too often they make themselves appear to be passive recipients of European Union governance, rather than being at the helm. European Union governance is not an external encroachment on national democracy but it is built on what exists of the democratic core of the nation-state. The so-called and exaggerated ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ can only come into existence when the European member-states are in-attentive. The European democratic deficit is to a large extent due to the lack of political engagement generated within the nation-states themselves. Strengthening the legitimacy of European governance requires massive political mobilization, and this will in itself integrate the European Union within the nation-state. 

The Scientific Counsel for Government Policy (WRR) in the Netherlands reported on “Europe in the Netherlands” concluding that Europe was rather unrepresented in Dutch politics and media.[15] Europe lacked political profiling. Commenting on the Dutch popular vote against the European Constitution in 2005, WRR stated that the Dutch political institutions had underestimated and not been prepared to handle the burgeoning politicization of Europe. The outcome caused bewilderment; Europe had taken Dutch politics by surprise! Interviewed by a Dutch newspaper in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, blamed the mainstream political parties in the Netherlands (Liberal, Christian and Socialist) for not taking a supportive stand on Europe. Instead, they had ben busy trying to imitate populist soundbites. These parties did not campaign for a European constitution in 2005 for fear of being associated with the European Union.[16]

The nation-state suffers a political deficit in regards to the European Union. What the political fabric of the nation-state needs is a European dimension to the entire democratic spectrum: parliament, political platforms, media, schools, online and in the buzz on the street. Those who love ‘their’ nation must articulate the existential interests of the member-states in European Union governance. Localists must bring the Union ‘home,’ not only for their own sake but also for a just world, for now and future generations. The European demoicratic switchboard, in short, needs upgrading to a true public institution, out in the open, and especially the European Council.

There is a lot of work to do in bringing Europe home to the nation-state. Europe’s integration into the member-states requires a refutation of the popular delusion that European rules and directives are foisted on member-states without debate. Instead, the engagement of the member-states in the formation of European governance deserves extensive public profiling.

Since the economic crisis, ‘Europe’ has been described as engaged in conquering the national public sphere, in the form of an over-bossy agency issuing directives and rules that the member-states have to follow on penalty of fines and disrepute.[17] This overlord image is false yet fatally effective in undermining public support. Meanwhile, the national publics remain grossly unenlightened about the extent that member-states are part and parcel of what’s coming out of Brussels. Some member-states are more engaged than others, just like national political parties. But this is exactly what should be covered in the media, to help mobilize the public. For instance, the European Semester regularly reports form Brussels on economic policy and reform of the member-states. This European Semester is public but hardly accessible for members of the public who wish to scrutinize the input of ‘their’ representatives. And meanwhile, national media paint the European Semester as a form of Brussels diktat, rather than the notes on a democratic process whose outcome will be determined and must be endorsed by the member-states, one by one.

The European democratic deficit is in large part due to member-states not showing their European character on their home turf.  It is no accident that those citizens aware of European governance increasingly demand political representation and accountability within the national political arena. Citizens must ensure that their interests are eventually publicly accounted for by their national representatives at home.[18] These are indispensable building blocks in the construction of the bridge to an ever-utopian European demos that recognizes its interconnection with national citizenship.[19]

On the input side the switchboard operation must be improved by a strong, and wherever possible, regulated engagement of national political actors (ministers, parliament, parties, media, critics, schools etc.), while on the output side, the representatives of the member-states, the state people, must find new ways of explaining that Europe is ‘about us.’ They must show European character in demonstrating proud (co-) ownership of European governance, accountable to the national publics, expressing loud and clear to their national audience: “We are the Union.

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[1] Verbrugge, Ad (2014) ‘Ontheemding en aarding. In: Thuis in de tijd.  Eds. Thierry Baudet & Geert Mak. Amsterdam: Prometheus*Bert Bakker, 2014.    

[2] Piketty, Thomas (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[3] Sassen, Saskia (2009) ‘The State and Globalization: Denationalized Participation and More Executive Powers.’ In: Schinkel (Ed.) 2009, pp. 36-57.

[4] Piketty, Thomas (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[5] Anderson, Benedict (1983) Imagined Communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Ondon & New York: Verso.

[6] Reckless-revolution': Britse anti-EU-partij scoort opnieuw. In: De Volkskrant, 21 November 1014.

[7] Sarazin, Thilo (2010) Deutschland schafft sich ab: Wie wir under Land aufs Spiel setzen.  DVA EBooks.

[8] Zemmour dépasse Trierweiler: les raisons d'un success. In: Le Figaro, 8 October 2014.

[9] Australians use # III RideWithYou Hashtag in Solidarity With Muslims During Sydney Siege. In: Time Magazine, 15 December 2014.

[10] The Constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, art. 1: All those in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstance. Discrimination because of religion, belief, political opinion, race, gender or any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.

[11] Comment by Anastassios Carayannis, September 12, 2012. On: Francis Cheneval& Frank Schimmelfennig, The EU is not fundamentally undemocratic; it simply needs to be judged by a different democratic standard than nation-states. In: London School of Economics and Political Science, 10th September 2012.

[12] Francis Cheneval & Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘The Case for Demoicracy in the European Union.’ In: Journal of Common Market Studies, JCMS 2013 Volume 51. Number 2. pp. 334-350.

[13] Andrew Higgens, ‘A Deal that Preserves Greece’s Place in the Eurozone, and Fiscal Restraints.’ In: The New York times, 21 February 2015.

[14] René Cuperus, ‘De disciplineringsunie.’ In: De Volkskrant, 23 February, 2015.

[15] Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid (WRR, 2007) Europe in the Netherlands. Amsterdam: University Press, 2007

[16] “Wij, de leiders van Europa hebben één grote fout gemaakt.” Interview with Jean Claude Juncker. In: De Volkskrant, 27 December 2014.  

[17] Expert bijeenkomst: Economische Coördinatie in de Europese Unie. De Vertegenwoordiging van de Europese Commissie in Nederland. Amsterdam, de Balie, 29 January 2015.

[18] WRR, 2007, p. 152.

[19] Taiye Salasi, Who am I? Who are you? When we speak of Nationality, What do we Mean? In: The New York Times, 4 December 2014.

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