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The elephants in Europe’s room

7 August 2019

Books | Is more democracy the solution to the eurozone’s malaise?

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More democracy needed? European parliamentary staff preparing for the election of a new president on 3 July. European Parliament/CC-BY-4.0 © European Union 2019

More democracy needed? European parliamentary staff preparing for the election of a new president on 3 July. European Parliament/CC-BY-4.0 © European Union 2019

How to Democratize Europe?
By Stéphanie Hennette, Thomas Piketty, Guillaume Sacriste and Antoine Vauchez | Harvard University Press | $48.99 | 224 pages


The authors of this book — who include Thomas Piketty, best known for his blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century — have no doubt: the European project is in crisis and much of the blame lies in the democratic deficit at the heart of Europe’s governing institutions.

What they propose is a treaty to democratise the governance of the euro area. Its key feature would be a parliamentary assembly composed largely of deputies from existing national parliaments, supplemented by representatives of Europe’s various institutions and, not least, the European parliament. The assembly’s main function would be to increase the transparency and accountability of those institutions, which tend to escape serious scrutiny or to act in what is effectively an unaccountable manner. They include the ensemble of subterranean groups and committees that have caused so many headaches for, among others, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

More generally, the authors are keen to push the idea of the European Union as the guarantor of “solidarity,” which is code for measures designed to tackle inequality and environmental protection and protect workers’ rights. At one level, it’s all very laudable. Who could possibly be against greater democratisation, greater accountability, and lots more goodies for hard-pressed European citizens? Well, quite a few of us, it seems.

The elephant in the room of this bien pensant and largely Europhile discussion is Brexit and the rise of populism across the European mainland, and with it a deepening scepticism about the virtues of the “European project,” however it’s articulated. We can perhaps forgive the authors for not taking on board recent populist developments — many of the more eye-catching have taken place since the discussions that led to the book — but their near silence on the Brexit referendum of 2016 is more striking. Perhaps their view is that the British vote is too idiosyncratic to merit a great deal of comment, or perhaps that it is too soon to see how other European countries will react.

Whatever the case, the danger is clear: in dealing with what we think are the causes of the “crisis” — in this case a lack of “solidarity” and of institutional mechanisms to render governing processes more transparent — we ignore the perhaps more glaring issue of the growing alienation of citizens from the European Union and its institutions more broadly. Do we really think that those British citizens who voted to leave the EU would have been convinced otherwise by the promise of another European assembly? Do we think they would have been impressed by the argument that more of Britain’s financial contribution to the EU should be used in the name of social justice to help provide infrastructure in Romania or Croatia?

That has to be doubtful, to say the least. And what goes for British Eurosceptics goes as well for citizens in France, Italy and elsewhere. The point is that there are few votes in the core European countries for increasing and widening the EU’s powers, no matter what its institutional configuration or how accountable those acting at this level are.

So one of the key problems about this book is its premise: that the answer to the “crisis” of the EU is to broaden and deepen democracy at the European level. Such a postulate may be an article of faith among left-leaning intellectuals on the European mainland, but this doesn’t in and of itself make it correct, and I write as one of those Guardian-reading commentators myself. What seems apparent, rather, is that there is no great desire for a “European project” as an endpoint to which our efforts should be directed.

A project implies something to be completed or finalised. It implies that we need some collaborative approach to bring about a better state of affairs. Without agreement on what the European project is aiming to create, questions about institutions and processes are just so much detail. We can only really decide whether we’ve got the right institutions, and by extension whether a European assembly is going to be an enhancement, once we have some sort of consensus concerning what Europe can and should be doing.

Over the past decade the elites’ self-confidence about where European integration is taking us has taken a major hit. The causes are multiple, and not easy to remedy with institutional innovation. The global financial crisis rocked confidence in market solutions, transnational flows of funds, and open markets. The austerity measures adopted by many countries also backfired in the sense that it was ordinary citizens who bore their brunt while banks were bailed out and wealth protected. The refugee crisis of 2015 exposed significant differences between national elites, in terms both of how they perceived that turn of events and of how well prepared they were for a mass inflow of refugees. Brexit, the Italian and Swedish elections of 2018, and the strengthening of the far right in Spain and Greece sounded further alarms.

While the elites might be in favour of greater integration, more porous borders, and a multicultural intermingling of peoples and cultures, many citizens are not. Maybe they will be; but until they are, the idea of a Europe built on a transnational solidarity of a kind that can sustain a further strengthening of the power of European institutions seems like an overstretch.

So if the answer to the crisis of the EU is not an expansion of the powers and accountability of European governance, what is? I think the answer is at once prosaic and counterintuitive. The EU should continue to play the role of a supranational regulatory body that brings countries together for specific purposes, purposes that individual countries self-evidently can’t achieve in isolation. If there is a powerful argument for Europe then it arises from the need for continent-wide environmental regulation, measures to combat climate change, and minimum standards for food imports, pharmaceutical products, toys and suchlike. Europe can provide a bulwark against the less desirable facets of globalisation, including the erosion of the rights of workers and the forced opening up of healthcare, schooling and other services to the market, and can promote and protect important sites of historical and cultural interest.

If this sounds a lot like what the EU does already, then to a large extent this represents an endorsement of a rather unheralded facet of the “European project,” if we can bear the title.

At another level, though, what is left out is just as important as what is left in. This book is full of an expressed and sometimes latent desire for a levelling of the playing field, structural adjustment policies, massive shifts in resources to fund infrastructure across the union, “solidarity” and so on. Its authors particularly want to leverage the fact of monetary integration via the euro into the realm of fiscal harmonisation and standardisation — or, in plain English, to set tax rates for citizens and corporations at the EU level.

This, I suspect, is where elite social democratic sentiment departs from mainstream citizen intuition. What has become evident over the last couple of years is that fewer citizens are feeling overly generous towards their European neighbours. Recession, austerity and the chill breezes of precarity, automation and zero-hour contracts have concentrated minds on maintaining the social compact between citizens at the local and national level but less so at the European level.

Would it be such a bad thing if we ceased to think of Europe as being borne along on a teleological process of integration, expansion and improvement? Clearly the authors of this book believe it would be, but I tend to think that the price for salvaging the European Union may well be the opposite: greater parsimony with respect to its form, function and destiny. A more compact, less integrationist EU would not be a failure of the “European project” but rather its realisation in terms that most citizens would find acceptable. •

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