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Europe’s democracy

In News on November 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm

European integration has always been an elite affair. From the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1951, which established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) to the negotiation of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the governments of the European Union member states have been clear in their message: European integration is a process to be nourished and protected by national governments and not to be endangered by grass-root politics and citizens’ unpredictable voting in referendums.

As European integration was primarily controlled by member states’ governments, their role has been empowered. Over the past thirty years, the ministers’ council meetings multiplied, the Heads of State gathered more often than not, in scheduled (four times a year) and extraordinary meetings (see recent Eurozone meetings) and effectively, national parliaments were gradually by-sided. At the same time, as interdependence between countries increases in a globalized world, European cooperation is strengthened and nowadays, more often than not, the important decisions are taken at European level rather than the national level, despite what the British political class and media insist on telling the Brits.

These developments combined have ultimately led to a situation whereby governments are empowered vis-à-vis national parliamentary procedures, and ultimately vis-à-vis their voters.[1] This means that the extent to which  European voters’ policy preferences (or part of them) reaches the final policy outcomes at European level effectively lies first, in the ability of the citizens to transmit their interests to governments and second, in the ability of the governments to negotiate these effectively in Europe. However, what happens if a government decides to U-turn on the political platform it was elected on, does not heed public opinion at home, and has a weak negotiating position among its European counterparts? Well, in a nutshell this country’s voters are in a gutter.

This is no other than the case of Greece at the moment. The current Socialist government (PASOK) came to power on an anti-corruption and economic reform platform, claiming that it would fight tax evasion and thus regain lost government revenues to implement reforms in the economy. It would promote transparency and public deliberation. Two years later, the government’s policies are so right-wing, that even the centre-right opposition party is reluctant to support them: under the EU-IMF bail-out package auspices, PASOK has implemented harsh austerity measures, has not fought tax evasion and has thrown the economy into a -5% recession. The debt is higher than it used to be in October 2009 when PASOK came to power, while the country’s target year for reaching a debt of 120% of GDP is 2020. It should be noted that the target is close to the original debt levels in October 2009, which was 128%.

In addition, over the past two years, the government gradually lost all of its negotiating cards (e.g. instead of threatening it would leave the euro two years ago, if no assistance was provided by Brussels, it is now being threatened by the EU that Greece will be thrown out of the eurozone), it missed the opportunity to be viewed as a reliable partner by its European counterparts (many measures of the first bail-out package have not yet been implemented) and in the end lost all of its credibility in Brussels. What is worse, at the moment, the Prime Minister is negotiating a “national unity” government, demanded by the EU to ensure that the second bail-out package (which includes a 50% haircut of the Greek debt) will be approved by Greece’s politicians.

The Greek people have been demonstrating since June (see Athens’ Indignant) and the polls show that the majority of Greeks are against a second bail-out, which in effect will plunge the country into a deeper recession with an uncertain end date. Unemployment is currently 15%, reaching 20% in the 18-30 age group, and as rich Greeks buy houses in London, the country’s youth migrates to greener pastures abroad.

Politics is a game and all parties involved realize this to a certain degree. All political parties tend to exaggerate their platforms prior to elections to some extent and often promise more than they deliver; all politicians change their positions following the elections, even if it is simply because of changes around them; Just like politicians change their policies after being elected, so will citizens bash them for doing so, even if they realize that a government cannot lower taxes and increase welfare benefits and improve the economy, all at the same.

However, what happens when a government departs so greatly from its original pre-election positions that legitimacy issues are raised? In any other part of the world, the answer would be, elections. However, what happens when this country is part of a European monetary system, like the Eurozone, that in effect blackmails the current government to a “government of national unity”, in return for a second bail-out, in an unprecedented breach of national sovereignty? And what happens when in addition, this second bail-out will force a whole nation to implement harsh measures imposed by elites, to remedy a grave economic situation that was created by the national elites’ decisions over the past thirty years? What are the options of such a people in this kind of Europe?

The European project was about peace and prosperity. In a divided Europe, it was about the freedom of the West, juxtaposed against the oppression of the East. In the post-communist Europe, and as East European countries joined the club, it became about political and economic freedom, about free-market economies and liberal democracies. When did democracy stop being part of the equation?

 


[1] This power shift from parliaments to governments in the national level would have been tolerable, were it matched by a respective power shift from governments to the European Parliament (EP) at the European level. However, despite MEPs’ laborious efforts, the EP remains often by-passed (see recent Eurozone deliberations), while citizens view European Parliaments as secondary.

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