Is the EU too big to be democratic?

The EU is more divided, diverse and polarised than the USA. But in the EU, the lines of tension are forming worryingly close to the political centre
Peter Baldwin
22 June 2010

Back in the days – let’s say 1932 just to pick a moment – when European politics were really polarized, the spectrum ran from Moscow-faithful communists at one extreme all the way to monarchists and fascists. During the same time, the US political spectrum spanned all the way from Republicans to Democrats, which is to say from what Europeans would call center right liberals to center left liberals. Neither extreme questioned the premises of democracy, neither sought the embrace of the state in a socialist fashion, or even – on the far left of American politics – in more than a very moderate quasi-social democratic manner. The answer to Sombart’s classic query, why is there no socialism in America, also served largely as the answer to its necessary pendant: why is there no fascism in America? American politics in the twentieth century was a model of consensus compared to the ideological extremes found across the Atlantic.

But no longer. Common wisdom has it that American politics have degenerated into a polarized stalemate, with the Tea-Party tail wagging the Republican dog and permitting no cooperation with an Obama-led Democratic party. Meanwhile, European politics have reached what is taken to be an amiable consensus – exemplified by the Tweedledum and -dee of the Clegg-Cameron continuum – comfortably to the left of the American political center of gravity, in agreement on a leading role for the state in most aspects of life, on a secularized indifference to religion (so long as it isn’t Islam) and a belief that efficiency, productivity and work are means not ends in themselves. From that vantage, the debate over health reform in the US, and politicians like Sarah Palin, must rightly seem slightly surreal.

But before we settle in with another comfortable trans-Atlantic dichotomy, let us look this horse in the mouth. We should not, for one, underestimate the polarization of European politics. Yes, debates over health care are a thing of the past. But what about other sensitive points on the European body politic, like immigration? In the US, the crowds are in the streets protesting against an Arizona law that would do only what is already standard operating procedure in every European nation (outside the UK at least), namely require foreigners to carry identification. Conversely, in many European nations political parties whose main plank is to limit and possibly even reverse immigration, mandate assimilation, restrict particular sartorial habits, and in other respects make life miserable for foreigners win double digit electoral support and in some cases prop up governments. Geert Wilders, leader of one such party which has just become the third largest in Holland, lives under police protection, moving between safe houses almost daily, in constant fear of assassination for his political views. In other words, European polarization over one of the main issues of modern politics is without comparison in the US.

What about other examples where American politics are, indeed, polarized compared to Europe? It is often the outcome of tensions within a large nation that perforce spans a broad variety of cultural and social differences. Take abortion. The reason usually offered in Europe for the vehemence of American debates is that religious fundamentalists are fighting a theological battle, while Europeans take a more secular approach. But in fact abortion remains an ongoing issue in the US because of a tension between liberal national legislation and more conservative local habits. US abortion law is significantly more expansive than what is found in most of Europe outside the Scandinavian fringe. If the US had a restrictive law, like that of Germany, it would provoke less controversy because there would be less to fight about.

But imagine for the moment that Scandinavian-style abortion practices became EU law, applicable even in the Mediterranean, not to mention Ireland, and ponder the outrage that would follow. This past March anti-abortion activists held mass protests in Spain because the government dared propose reforms to a system that currently allows abortion only in cases of rape, if a fetus is damaged or the mother’s health endangered – in other words a system that essentially does not permit abortion. The European consensus, if that is what it is, on abortion is achieved only by allowing each nation to legislate according to its own ethical preferences. It is a consensus made possible by avoiding a European-wide debate altogether, which is much the same situation as held in the US before Roe v Wade in 1973.

The seldom-noticed secret of comparisons across the Atlantic is that they set a continent-sized behemoth in relation to a series of small nations, some of which are downright dollhouse in magnitude. Naturally each of the smaller ones will seem more homogeneous, equal and unstratified than the large one. But if we perform the same exercise using instead US federal states and EU nations, the comparisons become much more what you would expect. Thus, for example, it is true that the US is as a whole more unequal than most European nations, measured as the ratio of richest quintile to the poorest. But if that comparison is broken into is component parts, it turns out that Wisconsin, say, is less stratified than France, Vermont less so that Greece, Ohio less than Italy, Alabama less than the UK and California less than Portugal.

Conversely, if you compare the EU as a whole (especially now with the new entrants) with the US, Europe is in some respects more diverse than America. Thus, the span of per capita income is wider between the poorest Western European country (Portugal) and the richest (Norway) than between the most impoverished US state (Mississippi) and the wealthiest (Connecticut). Life expectancies for men are wider between the best-performing European nation (Iceland) and the new EU arrivals than between the longest-living US state (Hawaii) and the shortest (Mississippi). Median income varies 3:1 between the Upper East Side and Fresno, but disposable income varies 4:1 between central London and the Ionian islands.

Size matters and the bigger the collectivity we are examining the more stratified and differentiated it will be. That is what the credit crisis and now the sovereign debt crisis has painfully been revealing to Europeans. The EU is larger, more differentiated and less an economic unit than anyone had to admit during prosperous times. Now that sacrifices are on the docket, the EU is pulling apart along its fault lines. The American machinery of economic homogenization, in contrast, has been churning along for the better part of a century. Perhaps not since the 1930s, when the deep south remained mired in poverty, have the economic contrasts been as stark within the US as they are now seen to be within Europe. And, of course, the US has a unified fiscal system to match its currency union. If Alabamans were running up huge debts on the Washington dime, paying few taxes, retiring early and expecting to be bailed out, EU and US responses to the crisis would be more comparable.

On both sides of the Atlantic political protest movements have arisen among the losers of the economic crisis who feel themselves betrayed by politics as usual. The Tea Party in the US unites middle-aged, middle-income men from across the party spectrum against what they think of as big government in DC. Similar movements are springing up in Europe against Brussels, the ECB, the IMF and the other alleged purveyors of misfortune. Anyone who thinks Sarah Palin is uniquely nuts has not had the pleasure of listening to Nigel Farage.

But the big and frightening difference is this: in the US the revolt is of the periphery against the powers at the center. They want out from the supposed Moloch, or so they claim. In Europe, however, it is the prosperous winners in the center who want to expel the losers at the periphery. It is as though Connecticut wanted to expunge Louisiana from the union – except that we fought a war precisely to avoid that. In the American case, the outcome is predictable. No one will be seceding. In the European instance, and especially with regard to the monetary union, however, all bets are off. When the Greeks want to stay, but on terms they can’t afford, and the Germans want them out and are unwilling to pay the price of homogenizing the continent, then a break-apart is a very real possibility.

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