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Rethinking Europe's democratic crisis

Is democracy a luxury good which the global and European economy simply cannot afford – at least, given the exceptional character of the current euro crisis?
Paulina Tambakaki
24 November 2011

It has been argued that the euro-crisis and the events unfolding during the past week raise some serious questions about democracy in the member states of the European Union. The reason behind these questions is the formation of governments headed by technocrats (first in Greece, and now in Italy) following the forced removal of prime ministers viewed, suddenly, as weak and spineless. 

In contrast with the popularly elected regimes they replace – slow and feeble in the eyes of the people and the international community – technocratic governments have undertaken a speedy response to the crisis, a way of reassuring the markets that something is being done to tackle economic uncertainty.  More importantly, technocratic governments embody the promise of consensus, rationality, expertise and stability – all criteria presented as key to averting global recession, preventing the collapse of the euro, and securing the very survival of the European Union. What is portrayed as altogether less crucial in averting these catastrophic scenarios is democracy –understood as popular input and legitimacy.

And here is precisely where the quandary surfaces for the European Union. If the survival of the euro and Europe requires speed and consensus, whatever the cost for democracy, then perhaps there is very little space for democracy in the European Union (or at least, as implicit in the very notion of membership in the European Union).

Of course, the argument for a democratic deficit in Europe is not new. Popular input into European affairs has always been a missing component of the European unification project – portrayed as an undertaking driven by an elite. However, there is a difference which present arguments are quick to capture. The difference is in the undertone. Whereas in the not too distant past, what was at issue was the lack of popular input  – the de facto absence of engagement with European processes on the part of its peoples, confirmed by one Eurobarometer poll after another - today it is the role of democracy recast as surplus which is the issue. Or at least, this is what European policy makers point towards with the issuing of ultimatums and the rushed adoption of ever-stronger neoliberal stratagems. What they spell out is that democracy is a luxury good which the global and European economy simply cannot afford – at least not given the exceptional character of the moment. The euro crisis then touches on this most febrile of questions. Might it be the case that democracy is simply incompatible with a supranational, non-state entity such as the European Union?

To be sure, it can be argued that the way one understands democracy ultimately shapes the response to the ‘incompatibility question’. However, as soon as we move onto the terrain of democracy, and examine the different positions involved, we notice a curious convergence. Both the proponents and opponents of representative democracy agree that what is currently happening in Europe in terms of democracy is simply ‘unacceptable’, to use the word of one commentator on Newsnight. Of course, their reasons differ. For the proponents of ‘real democracy’, who measure contemporary democracies against the Athenian ideal of self-rule, which involves having a direct say in the affairs of government, the problem is that European peoples (and even more so Greeks) have not willed the austerity measures imposed by Brussels. And this lack of say by the constituent power, a lack of ‘sovereign will’ behind the neo-liberal measures adopted, reveals, in turn, that Europe and democracy (much like representative democracy for that matter) are incompatible.

Although it is perplexing in this context why the referendum proposed by the Papandreou government in Greece was greeted with such horror by the Greek left. By contrast, for those content with institutions of representation and the party system, the problem is not the absence of grassroots involvement and support – which is precisely the problem for the proponents of direct democracy. Rather, it is the delay of elections, the main mechanism for conferring democratic legitimacy, which widens the gap between Europe (with its dictates) and democracy. Since elections have been the first casualty of the euro-crisis – given the hurried formation of interim technocratic governments.

This curious convergence of opinion among proponents and opponents of representative democracy (an interesting division that has itself only emerged since the summer) confirms the suspicion that democracy is under challenge on the continent – or at least, it confirms the feeling that the euro crisis raises serious enough questions about democracy as to doubt the compatibility between an elite-driven Union and a people-driven democratic process.

Yet in another reading, this curious convergence points perhaps to something else. That the euro-crisis does not open up questions about democracy in itself (at least, not directly and not immediately). Instead, it foregrounds questions, first and foremost, about the sovereignty of the nation-state - which European member states have uncomfortably transferred to Brussels; and only secondly, about democracy.

The reason why the sovereignty of the nation-state (and not democracy) re-emerges and takes centre stage in the face of the euro crisis is straightforward. States like Italy, and even more so Greece, have to consent not just to external interference in the way in which they run their economy (which they have already consented to through membership in the euro) at the price of popular support for their elected governments. But importantly, they have also to consent to immediate and visible interference in their internal affairs. This visibility of the interference, its public staging, worrying to European eyes, is precisely what leads to the confusion of questions about national sovereignty with questions of democracy – or to be more precise, with questions about national democracy.

Indeed, references to the ‘nation’ and the ‘national’ are telling in present debates. They confirm that the problem has less to do with democracy, and more to do with national sovereignty. To see this, we need only reread the familiar argument through a ‘national’ lens (dominant in the Greek press for instance). It goes something like this: if Greeks (and Italians), the unquestionable constituent power, cannot decide for themselves, and they cannot immediately elect their representatives, then there is certainly a problem with democracy (as a result of membership in Europe). But is it really a problem with democracy per se, or is it a problem with the sovereignty of the nation state, visibly undermined as a result of the euro-crisis.

Certainly, it can be argued that the link between democracy and the nation is so intimate as to be impossible to distinguish between. However, it is one thing to affirm a connection between two conceptually separate entities, the nation and the body politic, and quite another to take the two as interchangeable, and then infer from this that the European Union undermines democracy. This is far too familiar, and far too predictable.  

For one more time,‘postnational’ Europe stumbles against the ‘nation’ and its prefixes – the nation-state, national sovereignty, national democracy. More worryingly, the implication of this situation, which drives us to conflate questions of nation-state sovereignty with democracy, is that it obscures the really worrisome development  - the hailing of the forced removal of unpopular, yet popularly elected, representatives as if this were a token democratic victory.

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