Democracy in Europe

The EU’s economic crisis is in danger of becoming an endemic political crisis. Popular acquiescence – there was never enthusiasm – towards the European project is fracturing, as the citizens of the south realise that they never voted for austerity, those of the north that they never voted for bail outs; Eurosceptics harrumph around the Nordic fringes, recidivist authoritarianism looms on the other side of the erstwhile Iron Curtain.

Those whose careers hinge on the viability of the EU’s infrastructure (I am one of them) typically see in the tottering edifice an opportunity for it to accrete more and more of the paraphernalia of a liberal state – elected commission president, EU-wide political parties, direct tax-raising powers – as if the creation of more institutions will instil by osmosis a heightened popular consciousness.

This is juggernaut politics: there are 500m citizens on board, they may once have agreed to get on, and the only way to stop them getting off is to hurtle ever faster towards the technocrats’ utopia.

Here’s what I think needs to be done.

We assemble a very small committee of clever lawyers (because it has to be lawful), communications experts (it has to be understood) and elected politicians (it has to be pragmatic). The committee are given two months to draft a new EU constitution in a maximum of 10 pages: what the EU is for, its core values, and what it does.

Then we hold referenda in every Member State, plus the candidate countries for accession and whoever else is interested (Turkey, please), with one question: ‘Do you agree that your country should be a part of the EU on the basis of this draft constitution?’

For the states that vote in favour, their governments have a mandate to negotiate a new treaty – details of banking union, Eurobonds, fiscal union, austerity, abolish shuttles to the Parliament’s wasteful clone in Strasbourg, elected commissioners, whatever.  The treaty needs then to be  then ratified according to state constitutions, so popular referendum or parliamentary vote.  For those that vote no, EU can offers them a free trade agreement.

If we don’t do something like this, then the disconnect with citizens is going to get bigger and bigger. Believers in the EU should have the courage of testing their arguments on the crucible of public opinion, instead of presenting an endless series of faits accomplis.  Otherwise it won’t be a question of ‘more Europe’, but rather more far right, who put the blame on outsiders – Eurocrats, immigrants, Muslims, gypsies, homosexuals, and other easy targets for the frustrated and the ignorant. Democracy, abandoned to the voices of reaction, could itself then subvert justice and freedom.

Update. On 26 April Jürgen Habermas gave a lecture at Leuven on a similar theme. He said that the tacit popular consent to the political elite’s construction of the EU edifice was now fracturing because the promised prosperity was no longer a given.  He situates the current crisis as the latest in a continuum where social insecurity was a function of modernity. ‘Under the pressure of these reciprocal functional dependencies [due to an accelerated functional differentiation of society in the 19th century] the older forms of social integration broke down and led to the rise of class antagonisms which were finally contained only within the extended forms of political integration of the nation state.’ Solidarity was the necessary response, a concept rooted in class struggles, the 18th century revolutionary construct of fraternité, and religious notions of a universal community of believers. ‘The socially uprooted journeyman, workers, employees, and day laborers were supposed to form an alliance beyond the systematically generated competitive relations on the labour market.’ While these class tensions were constrained by the formation of democratic nation states, and after the 2 world wars by welfare states, the new crisis is precipitated by ‘the explosive pressure of economic interdependencies that now tacitly permeate national borders. Systemic constraints again shatter the established relations of solidarity and compel us to reconstruct the challenged forms of political integration of the nation state.

So Germany had better bail out Greece, and for that matter, the UK should open its ports to Bulgarians, because in the maelstrom of globalised capitalism they could be calling a lifeline themselves one day soon.