It is quite amazing that the European Commission has never really addressed the question of European democracy. Neither a White Paper nor a Green Paper has been issued to reflect upon the concept of supranational democracy that has been under discussion since the very foundations of the European Community/Union. The issue of a democratic deficit pops up regularly but is never worked on consistently. The same observation is true for the European Parliament (EP) which seems to be much more interested in the matter of its twin location (Strasbourg/Brussels) than in the question how to push for more European democracy.
In the end, the crisis has swept away the discussions on European democracy like a hurricane. “The cost of non-Europe” may have been calculated but nobody has yet estimated the cost of non-democracy that is already helping to undermine public support for European integration.
Pressure to increase genuine democracy at a European level regularly emanates from outside the European institutions, through active citizens but also NGOs, intellectuals, philosophers, political scientists and other forces within civil society. So, in recent years, ideas have popped up such as the proposal to choose the Commission president through general elections, to abolish the Commission’s monopoly on the right to legislate by extending it to the EP, to establish a Eurozone Parliament, to adopt a European Constitution etc. At the European elections of 2014, mainstream political parties campaigned under a European ‘top candidate’ (Spitzenkandidat) and the Council had to give way by nominating the winner of the elections as Commission president. The hope that this enhanced personalisation would lead to higher turnout was, however, dashed.
It’s no coincidence that the Commission tends to favour technocratic solutions. The ECB works without any clear democratic control or supervision; the same goes for most of the European (regulatory) agencies. Even inside the legislative process the Commission pushes for technocratic methods involving so called experts chosen by itself, relying on the so called “comitology” process, hundreds of expert groups and advisory committees, most of them not very transparent. Sometimes, even the EP admits that this trend goes too far and tries to keep it under control.
But, for some years now, the Parliament – the so-called heartbeat of European democracy that should always side with those forces pushing for more democracy – has changed sides and voluntarily accepts quite undemocratic procedures: the habit of adopting European legislation in a single reading, in a trialogue between Commission, EP and Council behind closed doors – without taking into account comments from outside the European institutions. This is a clear setback for democracy.
In the past contentious legislation – like the services directive or liberalisation of ports – was broadly discussed in public thanks to the procedure of a first and then a second reading. Obviously, a public debate is only possible with a second reading. There is no convincing reason for speeding up procedures while throwing democracy overboard. Look at the services directive: Quite a number of demonstrations took place in Brussels, in Strasbourg and in other European cities, it played a role in election campaigns in Sweden and elsewhere, press coverage was pretty intensive compared to other European topics. Only TTIP has animated the general public to the same extent. The ideology of “better regulation” is one reason why the EP is cowed by the ridiculous accusation that its own democratic procedures are too slow. But there is simply no reason for sacrificing democracy on the altar of the free market, better regulation and competitiveness.
The new economic governance packages, starting with the Fiscal Treaty, followed by Six-Pack, Two-pack, European Semester, country specific recommendations and so on, are also procedures which are largely and consistently hidden from democratic scrutiny., They are based, for instance, on new rules such as reverse qualified majority voting (RQMV). The imposition of austerity, centralised economic governance etc. shows that mantras and doctrine (ordoliberalism, monetarism, competitiveness) take precedence over the search for democratic solutions. The EP is reduced to a mere spectator.
It is no wonder that the legitimacy of the European Union has been shrinking in recent years: trust in the EU swiftly slumped from 57% in 2007 to 31% only 5 years later. The impression of European citizens that “my voice counts” fell from 39% in 2004 to 26% in 2011. Opinion polls regularly find that the expectation that the EU will reduce unemployment is high and this hope is deceived just as often. Eurobarometer 82 states that a majority thinks that “the worst is still to come”.
The drop in legitimacy, the ever-declining participation rate in European elections with the lowest point reached in 2014 (just 42.6% compared to 61% in 1979) simply reflect real moves towards less democracy. Democracy is not regressing because turnout is shrinking. On the contrary, the reason for diminishing participation lies in the off-putting behaviour of EU institutions: a college of commissioners which, during the decade under President Barroso, focussed more and more on collaboration with consultancies, think tanks, lobbyists, expert groups etc. and was less and less interested in democratic debates, rejecting even a successful European citizens’ initiative.
Further elements contribute to the decline of European legitimacy:
- Wide-spread Eurospeak is not a language capable of bridging the gap between institutions and citizens: on the contrary.
- A European Parliament insulating itself from civil society intervention. When the EP adopts an ‘own initiative’ report – on, say, restructuring – the Commission simply rejects it without any convincing argument and the Parliament’s President meekly accepts that.
- The ECB’s recent move into an ivory tower, literally and symbolically: Unlike other central banks, it has no obligation to take employment into account in its policy-making and can’t finance Member States whereas the US Central Bank can buy US government bonds.
- The European Court of Justice hides in another ivory tower, shielding itself from public criticism of biased judgements giving precedence to “internal market and economic freedoms” over fundamental rights. National courts are, however, the scene of public discussion, demonstrations, struggles, mobilisations and constantly interact with society.
The question of democracy at a European level is highly complex: simply copy-pasting and transposing national institutions does not work. Most of the institutions are instead left hanging in the air and neither result from nor embody real European struggles and public debates. A European demos cannot just be conjured out of thin air.
At the start of the financial/economic crisis, neither the Commission nor the EP had a speaking role; this was left to some of the Member States. With the fiscal treaty, the Commission is again in the driving seat, but the EP is not even in the boat: the new economic policy has shoved the EP to one side.
Disastrous austerity policies have been imposed in the wake of the crisis (despite the fact that these measures threaten to turn the financial crisis into long-term stagnation and permanently high unemployment) without any public discussion, without any democratic legitimation other than the obvious fact that the governments at the European Council were chosen in general elections. At the same time, social policy ambitions have been substantially lowered towards ILO standards that are well below current European minimum standards; this too without any public debate.
Since the 2008 crash of Lehman Brothers, there has been a general tendency to put aside democratic procedures or to change them into pseudo-democratic processes: Most of the rescue packages adopted to defend the Euro emerged during the weekend, the “too big to fail” policy of bank rescue has become a permanent but barely discussed feature. The Troika is another structure living its own life in isolation from democratic procedures: an expert committee composed of representatives of the Commission, ECB and IMF – and no democratic oversight whatsoever.
The dispute settlement mechanism within the TTIP negotiations is just another attempt to create isolated institutions alongside the democratic procedures that prevail in the EU as well as in the USA. European company law, even after six years of crisis, continues to be based on the principle of shareholder value instead of sustainability and stakeholder participation.
Since the Greek elections, an interesting spectacle is taking place: A battle by an elected government to implement the promises it made in its election campaign. When Alexis Tsipras went to visit Angela Merkel in Berlin in March 2015, the question discussed in the media was if his government was allowed to help the poor or if the paying back of Greek debts takes precedence over ending Greek misery. The situation reminds one of George Papandreou announcing a referendum on the rescue plan in October 2011 – an idea quickly buried after Franco-German intervention. Democracy is of minor value compared to money – that was the lesson given by elected governments to another democratic government. Democracy still looks like democracy but it is becoming transformed more and more into a Potemkin village, with less and less real-terms democracy behind the nice façade or the trompe l’oeil.
Behind the conflict between national egoism and European self-interest there is an antagonism between national forces fighting for sovereign autonomy (building a broad coalition of national parliaments, social partners, NGOs etc.) and European forces (Eurocrats together with Eurojudges and Eurobankers) in unshakeable loyalty towards the European project as defined by themselves. This battle between national and European powers lay at the heart of the “empty seat” policy of De Gaulle as far back as 50 years ago. It is reflected in the rise of eurosceptic forces throughout Europe, both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum. This contradiction can only be dealt with by giving absolute priority to proper democratic intervention: only a democratic debate on the meaning and overarching objectives of the European project can enable the opponents to come together and fight it out. There are alternatives to the current model of European integration. Anti-globalization activists (“mouvement altermondialiste”) and Blockupy are right to target amongst other bodies the ECB which is seen as the symbolic incarnation of the “there is no alternative” policy (TINA). The bank sees itself as apolitical, its anti-austerity opponents view it as a decidedly political actor.
The checks and balances are not yet in place. No important decision should be able to pass under the democratic radar screen via its blind spots. In Member States it is normal practice that important decisions of the courts can be corrected by the legislative. But, at the European level, such a correction is extremely unlikely, because the hurdle of a unanimous treaty change is vertiginously high – it must be lowered. We are in unchartered territory here but condemned to find solutions to that dilemma.
Since the crisis, the Commission has tried to join forces with those neo-classical economists who would like to replace currency devaluation with wage adjustment; this would constitute an intrusion into collective bargaining territory by the state (or its agencies or expert groups on behalf of the Commission) and would finally destroy the autonomy of social partners. The mainstream economists’ vision is that the progress of wages is the main reason for macroeconomic imbalances and consequentially “independent” experts should monitor this wages development and give guidance – or instructions – to the social partners. However, wages can only play a minor part in macroeconomic balances. Other factors such as industrial policy, investment, research & innovation, infrastructure etc. are more important. The idea of including wage setting within the European Semester recalls the Soviet system in which Communist Party experts took over the job of trade unions and employer organisations. It’s another step towards restricting a well-functioning democracy.
Since the crisis, the legislative activity of the EP has fallen to an historic low while the number of non-legislative reports has reached new heights. The EP could play a proactive role pushing for more democracy and not only in relation to economic governance. There are many avenues one can choose to deliver more democracy, for instance making it a living thing inside factories and offices. Democracy at the workplace or industrial democracy are terms which can never be found in official documents of the EP or the European Commission. This silence on one of its important facets proves the absence of a clear-cut vision of European democracy. The same is true for social democracy, for a European social union.
As long as the proponents of European integration do not come up with a clear vision or at least some ideas on how to achieve democratic progress, the legitimacy of EU institutions and processes will further decline and the usual remedy of more and better communication will not help in avoiding the abyss. Better communication will soon be forgotten: who remembers for instance that 2013 was declared the year of European citizenship? What is really needed is a holistic approach to European democracy. It is high time to stop this fragile European democracy from being transformed into undemocratic ‘façadisme’, into democratic mimicry with a quasi-constitution, a quasi-parliament, a quasi-government, a quasi-court of justice, in other words: European democracy “light”.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments below.