The moment of truth has come. The Euro crisis has shown the limits of austerity, nation states, and the dictates of undemocratic institutions. Georgios Papandreou, Prime Minister of the country that has invented democracy, had the laudable reflex to put the issue back to the people: “The will of the people is binding”, he declared. How else could he justify the seemingly endless orgy of austerity, which has killed economic growth, jacked up unemployment, cut salaries and taken away the savings of private investors by a “voluntary” haircut. Going back to the source of democratic legitimacy and letting the people speak for themselves seems the right thing to do.
But Papandreou is wrong. The will of the Greek people cannot bind the rest of Europe’s citizens. Greece counts 11.4 million people, of which about half usually go to vote. However, the rest of the Euro Area counts 311.3 million, none of which has a right to vote. Yet, a Greek referendum will affect each and every citizen in the Euro Area and beyond. Where is democracy?
The problem is structural. Nation state democracy is incompatible with democracy at the European level. Why should the German Bundestag, representing 81.7 million citizens decide how much money is needed to save our currency? Or the Slovak Parliament for that matter (5.5 million). Nation state democracy in the European Union is the tyranny of national majorities that are a minority in Europe. What is needed is democracy by, for and through all of Europe’s citizens. European policies need to be authorized by all citizens, not just by some fraction. When policy decisions by one member state affect citizens in all other member states as well, it is no solution to let only a small part of them vote.
The debt crisis risks not only bringing the technocratic process of intergovernmental European integration to a halt, but it also invalidates the idea that only nation states can provide democratic legitimacy for European policies. The difficulties of the Slovak Parliament to ratify the enlargement of the EFSF, or the splitting of last week’s European Council meeting to allow the German Parliament to deliberate before the Chancellor could commit, have already made clear that this Europe cannot act with the efficiency needed to solve the crisis. The idea of a Greek referendum has now fully revealed the absurdity of letting a part make decisions for the whole.
Democracy has always been Europe’s Achilles heel. In the early days it may have been reasonable to construct “Europe” by a small group of enlightened leaders. The wounds and resentments of two World Wars were too deep to expect instant reconciliation between the peoples of Europe. But today’s world is different. The European Union provides a thick range of goods, services, benefits and disadvantages to each and every European citizen. These common European goods need to be managed effectively and citizens who are affected by how these goods are administrated must have the authority to decide whom they want to appoint to do so. Because European integration produces winners and loser, citizens must also be able to choose how benefits and advantages are to be distributed and how the winners should compensate the losers. The present intergovernmental system does not give them this democratic right.
Today, the Union is governed by national governments. They decide what to do with Europe’s public goods. They decide who wins and who loses out. They also decide which policy competences are to be delegated to European institutions like the Commission or the European Central Bank. Yet, national governments are often captured by special interests in their narrow constituencies. The negotiated deals between governments are always bundles of partial interests, which cannot be changed once they are agreed. Inevitably, these deals create winners and losers, and not surprisingly the losers are getting fed up with the idea that they will never be able to change policies. They will then oppose “Europe” as such. This is the humus on which Euro-skepticism grows.
It is time to rethink Europe. Europe’s common public goods belong to all Europeans. They affect all of them, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. In a modern democracy, citizens are the owners and principal of public goods and this gives them the authority to appoint a government as the agent with their efficient management. Hence, citizens are the sovereign, not states, and they have a common interest in controlling their government.
The solution to Europe’s problem of legitimacy is to set up a European government with clearly defined competences that is controlled by the European Parliament and responsible to all citizens. Policy making must be politicized, so that citizens have a choice. This will generate trans-European debates and European parties must formulate different policy proposals. It is this democratic process that unites human beings across nations, even if it splits them on ideological grounds.
It is often suggested that there can be no European democracy because there is no European people. But the nation as an imagined community is not in question; what matters is that citizens need a mechanism to formulate and express their political preferences with respect to very concrete issues, like how to deal with public debt in Euroland. The European people are those who are concerned and affected by the existence of European common goods.
It is now possible that Greece will blow up the European Monetary Union and with it the EU. But it is also possible that we seize the opportunity and establish a genuine democratic Europe, where European citizens take control of their lives. This must be the task of Europe’s left. As Francois Mitterrand once said: “The Right has only one objective: to keep power; our task is to give it back to you, the citizens”. In Europe, the Right wants to keep intergovernmentalism because it allows them to divide and rule. It is time this changes. Let us hope that after Europeans have carried euros to Athens, Giorgios Papandreou will bring democracy to Europe.