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Posts tagged with: Federalism

Democratising the EU in post democratic times


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.

So Martin Schulz, are you, or are you not, a federalist?

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament and wannabe Commission President, was on BBC World’s Hard Talk yesterday (4th December 2013), and used the following words:

You used the term that I am a European federalist. I have never in my life used it that I am a European federalist.

Here’s the video of it, timed to start at the right moment:

Here is Martin Schulz being interviewed on The Daily Politics of the BBC, on 14th September 2012, and he uses the following words:

The Members of the European Parliament are, with a broad majority, European federalists, like myself.

He also goes on to say that he would go further than José Manuel Barroso did – Barroso had called for a ‘federation of nation states’.

Embedding the BBC video doesn’t work, so click the screenshot and you will be taken to the video on the BBC’s site:
Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 20.54.36

So then Martin, which one is it? Are you a federalist or not?

(Note: this case was pointed out to me in this tweet by Paolo Vacca – he deserves all the credit for the story!)

Why I won’t vote for a federalist political party

I have been repeatedly criticised on Twitter this morning by @PaulMBrady65 for saying I am a federalist, but refusing to vote for a federalist party in European elections. Here is a quick explanation why (I can’t easily get the nuance into 140 character tweets).

As a starting point, my commitment to federalism is not in question. I spent 6 years as a volunteer (including two years as President) in the Young European Federalists campaigning for federalism.

But the crux of the issue is what federalism is. For me it is a governmental structure, a way of organising the balance of powers between different levels of government. That is important, but federalism absolutely does not give answers to everyday political questions to do with economic growth, environment, foreign policy, social policy etc. In short, federalism is not an adequate and political ideology, and for me some sort of ideology is a pre-requisite for a political party.

I would of course like it if political forces of the left, centre and right were to espouse federalism too, in addition to everything else they espouse, but a party that makes federalism – a governance structure – its central ideology is not a party that I am going to vote for.

Declan Ganley

I was in the audience for Declan Ganley’s presentation at RUSI in London yesterday. It was one of the most interesting and civilised debates about EU matters I have attended in London in recent times. If you’re interested to hear what Ganley said the full film is here:

For people in Irish politics Ganley is undoubtedly a pain. Here’s a rich, British born businessman, who swoons into the Irish-EU debate and helps mastermind a no to the Treaty of Lisbon. Ganley’s motives and background are subject to some question – see more on the Wikipedia page about him.

But I’m not Irish and I am not in the referendum campaign about the Fiscal Compact Treaty, so I can take Ganley’s world at face value, and there is a lot of value in Ganley’s words. The gist is as follows: that the breakup of the Eurozone will lead to the breakup of the EU, and could lead to conflict – especially in the Balkans. The alternative is further political, federal union, and that is the way the EU must advance. In this context the Fiscal Compact and the ESM Treaty are wrong, in that they try to solve the problems of the Eurozone through technocratic solutions alone, and indeed these solutions – essentially bad banking debt being loaded onto states and taxpayers – are wrong. He is also scathing about the dire quality of leadership in mainstream politics in most EU Member States.

There are aspects of Ganley’s positions I disagree with – he’s opposed to CCCTB and tax harmonisation for example, but this is because essentially he’s in favour of free markets. He’s someone from the right side of politics and I am not. Also some of his explanations of how legislative initiative should be removed from the European Commission, and how a bicameral legislature could be organised, are not adequately developed.

But, in essence, debate about the future of the EU needs people like Declan Ganley. He advocates radical and uncomfortable reforms of the EU as the only way out of the Eurozone debt crisis. He is neither a pro-European nor a Eurosceptic in the classic sense. He poses complicated questions that urgently need answers, and he’s starting to propose some answers of his own.

Put your prejudices about Ganley to one side, and listen to his words. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Even if the EU became a functioning representative democracy tomorrow it’s not going to solve its ills

What do you do when one of the fundamental things you’ve believed in for years, have spent ages working towards, is actually not anywhere near as desirable as you previously thought?

That’s basically the predicament I find myself in these days, and it’s not a very pleasant place to be.

The old federalist argument, repeated ad infinitum at Ventotene, drawing on Spinelli’s manifesto, is that the nation state is broken and only supranational democratic structures in Europe (a European federation) can fix it.

That’s all very well if your systems of representative democracy work OK, but what if they don’t? What if political parties are tired and hollowed out, and beholden to narrow interests and are in awe of the power of the markets? With election turnouts decreasing? With messy multi-party compromises, and leaders ready to ditch the few principles they once had? Why should we expect leadership to be any more enlightened at EU level than is the case nationally just now?

Make the EU a representative democracy in the classical sense (government contingent on a majority in parliament, executive proposes legislation that the legislature approves and amends, parties run in elections etc.) tomorrow, and we’re just going to replicate all the disfunction on a continent wide scale.

But – conversely – the alternatives are worse. We cannot rely on the illegitimate technocracy of the past that has lacked citizen involvement and democratic control. Equally direct democracy is not the answer, as I am yet to see a fair and partial referendum campaign. And – with the world faced with an economic crisis and the impending damage of runaway climate change – it’s not as if we don’t need political solutions to our many problems, and with so many of these being cross-border in nature, it’s not as if we can do away with the supranational institutions we have.

Where, please, out of any of this, is there any small sliver of optimism?

On the wrong side every time

Agh, today is painful. I’m a republican, atheist, anti-nationalist, and there’s a royal wedding going on, people sing god save the queen, and British flags are everywhere.

Which got me thinking: which of my political views are actually similar to those of more than 50% of the British population?

I believe in democracy and the rule of law, and a majority probably do too. A majority probably also oppose the death penalty. There should be a market economy, and few would argue for an alternative. But what else?

I’m an outspoken atheist, and I’m also determinedly against religious schools. I dislike the monarchy and would abolish it tomorrow if I could. I despise nationalism and have little tolerance for the concept of the nation state – politics needs to solve problems where the problems are, not according to backward notions of identity or statehood. I’m a federalist, and that applies to all levels – so at the same time more power to local authorities and more power to the EU and internationally too. I’m a vegetarian (logically should be vegan if it were practical), try to be green, cycle and take the train, dislike the motorcar and the plane. I don’t think what class you are should ever be remotely important. I believe in equality between men and women. I dislike the idea of marriage. I support proportional representation. I think speaking foreign languages is vital. I would increase development aid. Prison is to help people, not punish them. I am OK with more immigration to the UK.

Does more than 50% of the UK population agree with any of those things? I think not…

[UPDATE – 1600]
Seems my assumption on the death penalty was wrong, as Martin rather bluntly points out in the comments. So there’s another one where I don’t agree with the majority point of view.

[UPDATE – 7.5.2011]
Oh, and I don’t actually mind that much about Scottish independence either. They will still be in the EU, we’ll still trade with them freely, so what’s the problem? OK, oil negotiations might be hell, but seriously, does it matter?

European federalism – never more necessary, yet never has the prospect looked so distant

Essentially journalists, politicians, bloggers and the general public have two frames of reference when talking about the European Union. Either it’s talked about in terms similar to the descriptions used for international organisations (the UN, NATO) or in terms similar to states.

Take for example the question of whether the EU is adequately democratic. Compare the level of democratic accountability in the EU, where the European Parliament has rather little scope to shape the major issues of the day, and that in a state in the developed world, and the answer is clear – the EU suffers from a democratic deficit. Compare the EU to NATO or the UN and – unique among international organisations – it does have a democratically elected parliament, so it’s far, far ahead of those organisations.

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Enough of the tiresome pro-European vs. Eurosceptic fight

Am I a pro-European? A pro-EU person? A Eurosceptic? An EU-sceptic? A Europhile? An EU-phile? A Europe-phile? A Europhobe? An EU-phobe?

I don’t know. Does anyone really know? Does anyone actually think about these terms?

In UK discourse about the EU it’s all too simple to throw in the terms ‘pro-European’ and ‘Eurosceptic’ without thinking twice about it. Take this blog post from The Fabians’ Next Left blog, and a follow up. They even throw it into event invites (para 12). The Fabians are supposed to be a think tank, but lazy vocabulary afflicts them too, with pro-European and Eurosceptic used with gay abandon.

So here’s my critique, and a sort-of way forward.

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