Democratising the EU in post democratic times

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The title of this blog entry is intentionally contradictory. Yet it encompasses the central challenge the European Union in facing.

To start, what are we supposed to do about democracy in the European Union, viewing democracy in the classical post-World War II consensus kind of way, where multi party representative democracy largely works?


Here there are essentially three options as I see it.

One option is to take apart the European Union, or severely restrict its scope, and return to national democracies as far as possible. This is the line defended by the likes of UKIP and FN, and is based upon the notion that democracy beyond the nation is neither possible nor desirable.

The second option is to seek to defend the European Union as a sort of functional übertechnocracy, trying to justify that this is a good thing on the basis of output rather than input legitimacy; this is the Charles Grant line.

The third option is to improve representative democracy at EU level, a process that started with election of the European Parliament in 1979 and has slowly proceeded since then, with the Spitzenkandidat process this year a step in this direction.

Each of those options of course has advantages and disadvantages. Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally favour the third option, and I actually have more sympathy for the first option than I do for the second as I believe in representative democracy and not technocracy, and that the European Union already does so much more than a classic international organisation that the point of possible return to technocracy has already passed. However anyone trying to work out where they stand on questions of the future of the European Union has to judge which of these camps they fall into.

The problem with all of the above then comes when we look at the everyday political situation in which we find ourselves. At the very least representative democracy, nationally, is suffering – turnouts are down, trust is down, party political membership is down (stats here). Colin Crouch’s post democracy thesis seems to fit this rather neatly (PDF here). It is also fair to argue that the very existence of the European Union is such a constraint on national political action that it hastens national post democracy, but conversely taking the example of a non-EU country  like Norway seems to demonstrate that the scope for action as a small independent state in a globalised world is not of much help either.

As Castells argues compellingly in Communication Power, increasing globalisation – especially of capital – is a major constraint on political action, and when this is coupled with post democracy and hollowed out political parties you end up with something approaching oligarchy politics. Add in Fukuyama’s end of history (i.e. the market won) and hence the de-ideologisation of politics, Piketty on the inexorable rise of inequality, and the rise of the internet and the ability of online politics to shine the light on the malevolence of political classes but not really yet build alternatives, and you have a perfect storm.

So then comes the issue: what is to be done?

Efforts to improve representative democracy at EU level must continue to be pursued, even if they deliver flawed results. To bemoan Juncker, or to replace him with someone with even less legitimacy than the little he enjoys from the Spitzenkandidat process, takes us towards option two above rather than option three. Representative politics ends up with parties or groupings within a parliament whether we like it or not, and group dynamics often mean ending up with undesirable individuals, but as Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except all others yet invented. We should not judge representative politics at EU level according to standards that the national level cannot achieve.

The plight of parties themselves needs more attention, with the emphasis being on improving openness of decision making and participation in the future. The Greens showed what can be done with an open primary to choose their Commission President candidates – all political parties need to do this in future, and to do this EU-wide. The internet means we can participate in more organisations, but less often and and less intensively; pressure groups have begun to understand this, but few classical political parties have begun the process of opening up. I would also like to see EU-wide election lists for the European Parliament although I remain cautious about a direct election of the Commission President (do we want an EU equivalent of Hollande or Obama?)

What needs doing at what level also needs to be assessed, and this assessment needs to encompass both the EU level, and states, and this question is political as much as it is constitutional. This is the reason I favour independence for Scotland and for Catalonia, and – in principle – I am fine with it for any region where there is a clear rationale and clear advantages. As finance and business are increasingly global, this can in part be balanced by radical decentralisation of the things that politics can still decisively control (education, health, social security), and if that means the end of states as we know them, so be it.

As Angela Merkel so often says, the EU is 8% of the world’s population, 25% of world GDP, and yet has 50% of the world’s social spending. If Europeans are to shape how globalisation works, and to defend the social market economy that is so central to how Europeans live, the choice, as I see it, is stark – make sure that view of the world can be defended. Because there is no hope that individual European countries, without the EU, can possibly manage that.

In short, it is a matter of democratising and legitimising the EU, or face inexorable decline.

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5 comments

  1. Mathias Darmell

    Hi Jon! Thank you for a great post. Most have been said already so I will keep it short ( a specialty of mine ).

    Like I often express in discussions about EU future: EU have outgrown integouvermentalism.

    One of the most important democratic reforms needed is to separate national representation from national gouverments. Elected directly by the voters in every member-state in separate elections.

  2. Paolo

    Jon, a few thoughts:

    1) obviously, option 3 is the only way to go. Option 1 would slowly (or maybe even rapidly) bring the continent to decline and irrelevance or, worse, to where we were 100 years ago. Option 2 has reached its limit. Turning point was the creation of the Euro, although this has become clear to many only now. The EU, and the Eurozone in particular, are now regulating so vital aspects of people’s life and affect national sovereignty so deeply that rule by a technocracy, instructed by representatives of member states (and de facto by the hegemonic member state/s) is not tenable for much longer.

    2) option 3 in itself is not sufficient. What we need is not only to increase the democratic legitimacy of the European governance, but also the ability to deliver. In fact today we have an “executive deficit” as much as we have a “democratic deficit”, or even more. Increasing instruments/structures of democratic legitimacy, without improving visibly the ability of the EU, or the Eurozone, to act and deliver, would not bring much result in terms of people’s support and maybe could even lead to frustration and backslash. Addressing EU (or Eurozone) ability to deliver means giving it full power of economic policy making (in essence, independent power to tax & spend), creating a single foreign security and defense policy, and reforming the executive structures so that the executive powers are concentrated into the institution that can be ultimately be accountable directly and/or indirectly to the European people – and this is where the increase of democratic legitimacy and the increase of executive effectiveness become one and the same thing obviously.

    3) I think we should challenge the whole concept of post democracy. This is the ideology of a continent in decline, with national political structures and political parties in decline, largely at the margins of the world balance of power, with economies in decline because fragmented in a world of continental powers and great transformations. All this is the result of Europe division. But this is not structural. An effective and democratic federal Europe can reverse this trend. That’s why it is democracy in itself, at least in Europe, that is at stake today in the making (or not) of a united and federal Europe.

    4) all this, both the democratic deficit and the executive deficit (the latter even more) can only be addressed in the Eurozone. That is the core where the need is most pressing because of the contradictions and challenges created by the Euro. This certainly brings additional complexities, but it also makes the project more achievable. This means, for instance, in terms of democratic legitimacy, address the issue of how a subset of the EP, or a new chamber, can act as parliament of the Eurozone. And in terms of executive effectiveness, it means progress to a fiscal and economic union of the Eurozone. Which brings the question of who will be the government, ie whether the Commission can evolve into it, while maintaining its current role for the current EU, or a new body is needed. But this is for another post!

    Thanks for encouraging us to make a step back from our routines and think to the broader picture.

  3. Ralf Grahn

    Since you’re discussing what should be done, Jon, instead of what, if anything, 28 member states with veto rights can agree on and ratify, we might as well step back for a few basic questions.

    * Instead of the rights of states, ask what a European polity should be able to achieve for its citizens in a turbulent world.

    * If you come to the conclusion that the eurozone or wider EU of today should be able to promote the security and prosperity of its citizens in an effenctive manner, you may find that ensuring fundamental rights, economic policy and a real budget, foreign policy and a European defence etc. could lead to better outcomes.

    * Significant powers can, as I see it, be based only on popular sovereignty, real representative democracy with a European government.

    * Given the diversity of Europe, I think a proportional system of representation is best suited. This means a parliamentary system, probably with coalition governments. Therefore, symbolic, but potentially conflicting centres of power, such as directly elected presidents are not the way to go.

    * The power, vested in the people, and the fundamental rights, would be enshrined in a Constitution, meaning that the Kompetenz-Kompetenz belongs to the Parliament as the representative of their will. (The establishment of such a European republic would need the consent of the populations entering, since this is a great qualittive leap.)

    * Within a European republic various forms of participation, including participatory democracy, are possible, but I would be careful about nailing them down at constitutional level.

  4. Jakob P

    What do you mean by “radical decentralisation of social security and healthcare?” To me that is the biggest intellectual challenge for a post-national European project. You can only choose two otherwise you risk abuse:

    – Freedom to live and work where you like
    – Unhindered immediate access to healthcare/welfare where you live/work.
    – Decentralised (i.e. diverging levels of) healthcare/social security coverage.

  5. Jan

    Good overview and very valid categorisation into the three schools of thinking.

    The bottom of the problem is that you need a high level of confidence to give away powers (to Europe) in any polity. Most national politicians dont have this confidence, or cant maintain confidence and momentum over a longer period of time. Merkel is one obvious exception. But reforming the EU with the leaders of all the other big countries (IT, UK, FR) as constantly weak is impossible.
    I would also add that most of the problems you raise and which correlate to (national) confidence are issues that need to tackled domestically. The EU can only do so much about structural reforms with a long-term impact (lowering debt, labour market dynamics, future-proof pension systems). And as long as these are not tackled, we will see strong anti-immigration feelings and we will also see that partly correlated (and in my eyes more serious) increase of inequality. I would actually argue that the increase of inequality is the biggest challenges for advanced, democratic welfare economies. As long as more and more people feel that they dont count anymore in our European socities, all politics, national as well as EU is doomed.
    Whatever federal Europe we all like, the key is creating a new sense of opportunity for individuals and I believe much of that has to do with national politics.