Democratization can’t save Europe

Despite the myriad problems currently facing the European Union, democratization is not the answer. Rather, the EU's elites need to improve -- and power has to be taken away from the periphery.

Published on 11 July 2011 at 14:56

Europe's political elites are a pathetic sight at the moment, from their contradictory reactions to the rebellions in the Arab world to their timid handling of the euro crisis. Either they persist in doing nothing or they flee from one falsehood to the next, all in the expectation that this will enable them to gain control over the markets. Now that the European elites have had to produce proof of their long-held claim that Europe is a capable player on the global political and economic stage, they have done nothing but flounder. And because they refuse to believe that this is the case, they celebrate every stumbling move as the salvation of Europe and the euro. The poor image Europe is currently projecting is largely the result of the impotence of its elites.

In light of this failure of the elites, it is hardly surprising that we are hearing renewed calls for the democratization of Europe. Suddenly, the people are expected to fix what the elites have botched. Since they are already being asked to pay for the problems caused by the elites, many believe that the people should have more say in how and by whom Europe is controlled.

As reasonable as this might sound, by no means does it make as much sense as it seems at first glance. Even after the democratization of Europe, the elites in Brussels and Strasbourg will still be in charge. The only option available to the European people, to the extent that they can be referred to as such, would be to react to obvious failure by voting their leaders out of office -- and to vote an opposing elite to take their place. Whether this would fundamentally change anything is open to question.

Brussels, also the capital of Belgium, is particularly well suited to show that democracy does not automatically lead to the installation of capable elites. Since last summer's elections, Belgium's political parties have been unable to form a functioning new government. Belgium's democracy suffers from ethnic quotas and political parceling. It has long been incapable of reaching the most basic decisions. And, now, not even compromises are feasible.

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Playing a reckless game

It is to be feared that a more extensive democratization of Europe would lead to a very similar situation because Europe is at least as diverse as Belgium on national and economic issues. Pushing for the democratization of Europe is akin to playing a reckless game that can quickly lead to European disintegration. Those who see democratization as a logical reaction to the crisis may not even be aware of this risk. They see democratization as an automatic reflex in response to the crisis. But democracy needs the kinds of conditions that do not exist in Europe today.

Europe was a project of the elites from the very beginning, but with the proviso that democratization would happen at the next available opportunity. Although Europe has had its share of Cairo moments throughout the history of the European Union -- moments when the time seemed right for more democratization -- the opportunity was never equally favorable throughout the entire union. And because an overall majority is not sufficient in this Europe, and convincing majorities would have been necessary in all member states, these opportunities were wasted. But the elites are not particularly proactive by nature, and they hesitated and took a wait-and-see approach -- an approach that was and still is partly a result of the institutional framework within which they operate. Not surprisingly, the few attempts to bring more democracy to Europe were half-hearted at best.

Another contributing factor was the relative lack of confidence among voters. And elections to the European Parliament, which has been chosen directly by the European population since the late 1970s, have done little to assuage this skepticism: Voter turnout is notoriously low and those who do vote tend to favor populists in disproportionately high numbers. The European population has never been and still is not a European people.

Elites are keeping Europe together

Those in favor of democratization respond that such a process is the only way to create a European people. This may be correct in principle, but it also requires the existence of both socioeconomic and political-cultural conditions that are certainly not in place at the moment, as is all too evident in the growing mistrust among Europeans during the euro crisis. Those who support democratization now are strengthening the centrifugal forces in Europe. Despite all mistakes and ineptitudes, it is the elites who are keeping Europe together. Rather than thinking about democratization, then, should we not be looking at ways to improve the capabilities of the elites instead?

The main problem of a constituted Europe is that power triggers centrifugal forces the minute the glow of economic prosperity begins to fade. A political and economic player that requires growth and cannot handle disturbances is not fit to survive in the 21st century. Such an actor is a problem and not the solution. Thus, the current crisis must be viewed as an appeal to transform Europe in such a way that it will produce better elites and give these elites more latitude to take action. This amounts to an amendment of the Lisbon Treaty, and it encompasses the painful thought that a smaller but more effective Europe is better than a larger Europe whose citizens view it with sullen indifference at best.

Hence, the central theme for the rebuilding of Europe is that the centrifugal forces arising from the ongoing sovereignty claims of the member states and the socioeconomic and cultural differences among the individual regions will not only be curbed, but will also be transformed into centripetal forces. In other words, Europe needs a strong and powerful center -- or it will fail.

A situation in which a country like Greece, whose economic output comprises between 2 percent and 2.5 percent of that of the entire euro zone, can imperil the European economy and drag the European common currency to the brink of failure reveals serious design flaws in the political constitution. Complaints about the fraudulent machinations of the Greeks during their accession to the euro zone, Greece's administrative deficiencies (the country doesn't even have a nationwide land registry office) and the lack of discipline and commitment within portions of the Greek population are a sideshow at best. The real problem is that all these problems were known about 10 years ago -- and that no consequences were drawn from this knowledge. Read second part of this article at Spiegel Online International...

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