‘Saying there’s a democratic deficit in Brussels is like saying there’s an oxygen deficit in space. There is no oxygen deficit, because there is no oxygen.’ These words have been uttered by Yanis Varoufakis on countless occasions since he was ousted from the Greek Finance Ministry in 2015; his recent book elaborates on this conclusion further. Hence the stated objective of the DiEM25 movement to bring democracy to the ailing integration process, in the name of which they recently said they will go so far as to run candidates in European elections. Varoufakis’ is an important note to stress when discussing a problem which has been festering at the heart of the European Project for decades now. While the so-called democratic deficit became glaringly clear to many commentators in the 1990s, only in recent years has its symptoms proved deadly to the cause of European peace and unification. The point Varoufakis is trying to make however is that, to say democracy is deficient in Brussels is to utterly understate the crime. Rather, democracy has never been at the centre of the European construct, and as such has only been an obstacle to negotiate in the minds of the men in power who built it. As Brussels has acquired more power, this fact has only become more evident in the way Europe has dealt with challenges against it, and more present in the minds of its citizens. The problem exploded in the wake of the Sovereign Debt Crisis, to the point that it can no longer be ignored. Left unchecked, it is now killing Europe.
It is no secret that Europe chose not to take the openly democratic route in the 1950s when it founded the entity that would later become the Union. Indeed, it chose to focus power in small institutions with specific mandates to manage sectors of industry in the European interest. Politics was kept low, responsibility, minimal. Power was focused but narrow. Democracy was not really part of the process but it was hoped that it needn’t be while things were run this way.
Running parallel to this was the ‘permissive consensus’. Again, the name does it an injustice. A consensus has to be at least developed and then maintained – this was not the case for the state affairs existing between 1957 and 1992. Instead, what could be seen was more of a blissful ignorance: we don’t really know what you are doing in Brussels but it doesn’t seem to be doing me much harm so I won’t ask. In opting for so-called ‘low-politics’, Brussels had shielded the impact of the bulk its activities from view. That which could be seen, like increased cross-border travel and trade, seemed benign. Of course, low-politics is a mirage of sorts. Like the distinction between economics and politics, it assumes there are issues which affect citizens less and hence, do not require their oversight or spark their interest, or are purely technical and beyond their understanding or right to influence. Certainly, we can assume some in Brussels believe the latter about the power they wield. It is clear why this is undemocratic. The rewriting of competition law and free movement of capital (now considered a constitutional right by the Court of Justice in Luxembourg) has deeply affected people’s lives. And yet where was the mandate for it?
It is not only the acceptance that technocrats can govern without the people’s consent, but that they should in some areas. The people should not be consulted, and the policies should not be discussed in a public forum. Most crucially, they cannot be rejected by the supposed bearer of sovereign power. Tony Benn’s 5 question answerable in a democracy are answered by no one, because no one is listening. Worse still, under the permissive consensus, no one felt they should be asked. What the permissive consensus was then, was the tacit understanding that there was no need to question the gaping hole at the centre of the EU. The shadow of a nonetheless absent people sat at the heart of the European construct, a constant reminder that the people in Brussels were accountable to no one, and had the mandate of no one. Those who awaited something to fill that hole quietly hoped that once it arrived it would retroactively authorise all the actions taken to get them there, and would continue to do so thereafter. Of course, this would never happen, for this was a black hole in Brussels, into which sovereignty was slowly being sucked, not to be seen again.
All these hopes and assumptions were blown away by the Maastricht Treaty. With the transformations planned for Europe set out in the document, it slowly became clear to a growing number of Europeans what had been happening all this time. That power had been quietly accumulating in Brussels, power which more and more infringed upon their everyday lives, despite the fact they had not given any explicit authorisation to this. ‘Europe’ was now aspiring to represent them on the world stage, act as the arbitrator of justice and internal affairs, and most crucially, take control of key areas of economic management. This was no longer regulation; this was politics. With a common currency, a common central bank and collectively enforced rules on fiscal policy, Europe was now taking responsibility for the failure or success of the macroeconomy. And yet the actual people in Brussels in custody of these responsibilities were still accountable to no one. It is here that the permissive consensus was revealed as a mirage. No longer was Europe for an increasing number of Europeans a benign process but a matter of politics and power. And even at the beginning, this group was confined to fairly obscure figures in the British Conservative Party and their like-minded friends in Denmark and elsewhere. However, the shift that Maastricht initiated was significant enough for the debate to begin on the nature of Europe’s legitimacy and the democratic foundations – or lack thereof.
The debate in question focused on two interrelated ideas; that of the constitution, and the dêmos. The relevance of a constitution was clear; if Europe is to have power, edging ever-closer to that of a sovereign state, then surely it needs a document representing its legitimacy, granted by the consent of its citizens. Naturally, many then looked to the treaties, asking if they were not sufficient enough to act as a legitimating document. After all, they had been drawn up by elected governments and their civil servants, and were then ratified by their parliaments or even through referenda. However, the answer to the question we already know. The Treaties are legitimate only so long as the nation-states are masters of them; so long as the institutions carried out narrow functions in the name of the common interest and in the service of the national states and peoples. Their legitimacy came from national constitutions, making the Union subordinate. This explanation no longer fit the reality however; on the issue of the eurozone in particular, the Union now had the responsibility to deliver real and wide-ranging results. It now had to make decisions more overtly political than at any time in its history. There was no legitimacy for such authority granted via the Treaties. This in mind, the defenders of the Treaties then switched tack to say that a constitution is only necessary for and can only be granted by a sovereign people. A dêmos. How can a constitution be written and signed if there is no dêmos, no democratic agent with the power to legitimise rule? Europe has no such agent. Therefore, there is no obligation for the European Institutions to request such legitimacy.
It is fairly clear that there is some faulty logic in this argument. Of course, it brings us back to the oft-asked question, ‘what comes first, the people, or the state?’ How do you know who ‘the people’ are, if there is no state to mark its boundaries? On the other hand, how can the state exist (legitimately), if there is no people to found it? History shows us that the answers to these questions are not as clear cut as we’d like. Especially in the context of today, national borders and their accompanying paraphernalia make it very difficult for any transnational people to materialise, at least, not one which would be recognisable in the context of any existing ‘peoples’. Nevertheless, bundling all the nations of Europe into a single basket and calling them a unified people seems a little illegitimate. For the people in power, there was a more important argument – where is this European people demanding a constitution? Why has no one tried to stop us, or called on us to do more? Surely, Europeans are not interested as something so anachronistic as a constitution.
The Laeken Convention, resulting ‘Constitutional Treaty’, and Lisbon Treaty after that seemed to prove the European elites’ point. The Convention process was far from democratic, and its result was twisted into a treaty anyway – the governments and their allied diplomats and technocrats still held all the power. When this method was rejected, the Lisbon Treaty was passed four years later and no one seemingly batted an eye, besides the apparently fringe eurosceptics. The whole episode seemed to reinforce the idea that Europe could not have a constitution because there was no dêmos to write it, and nor did it need one. Clearly Europeans were not interested in becoming a unified dêmos, nor were they ready nor feel obliged to provide Europe with any more democratic legitimacy than it already had. The hole in Europe’s heart was left again. However, this time, there were more people who could see it. Particularly, since the German Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe had made its most significant ruling yet on the subject, effectively a time bomb in the European Project. Already at Maastricht, it had ruled that European integration was going too far. With every treaty, it seemed to be edging further towards a state and accumulating more power. And yet this had no democratic legitimacy, and so the further it went, the more undemocratic it would become. The key point made however, was that the formation of a European dêmos was impossible, therefore Europe could never have a legitimate enough foundation for it to become a state, and therefore it could not acquire the sovereign powers of a state. With this, the Court placed a limit on integration – it drew a line in the sand. Any further than some indeterminate point in the future, and the German Court would pull the plug. Arguments against this have come from all sides, mainly from the Jean-Claude Piris crowd (once Director-General of the Council’s Legal Service), that Europe is not a state (which the Court recognised) and therefore it cannot be held to the standards of a state. Naturally, from lawyers we can expect legalistic arguments, but nevertheless, countless political scientists have jumped on this same bandwagon. They have all ignored the fact that it entirely misses the point, which is that Europe is acquiring the powers of a state without any of the democratic legitimacy of a liberal democratic state. A more interesting counter-argument came from J.H.H. Weiler, who argued that the Court has made a fatal mistake in declaring a European dêmos impossible. In doing so, it has shamefully undermined European integration. For what if the elements of a dêmos were to form, or be created, through citizens’ efforts? What if the attempt was made, for the sake of this Union, and the belief that it is crucial to the peace and prosperity of this continent?
By Lisbon, the Court had sharpened its barbs towards the European Treaties to unprecedented levels. In effect, whereas before the Court had conceded that Europe remained within democratic boundaries, by 2009 it had begun to press on them. What had changed? Well, something which certainly had changed was that the eurozone was now fully operational. Having experienced almost a full decade of running seemingly fine, in 2008 the Financial Crisis brought the optimism felt in Brussels and Frankfurt to an end. Whether this is what prompted the German Court to run out of patience with the technocrats in Brussels, I’m unsure. However, certainly we can say that as the eurozone can passed through the gauntlet of the past seven years, it has only become more authoritarian. Quoting Wolfgang Schäuble from Varoufakis’ first Eurogroup meeting would be enough to demonstrate this (‘elections can’t be allowed to change anything’), however, there are many more examples. Prime Ministers being ousted and replaced by technocratic ‘caretaker governments’, bullying of states like Ireland and Cyprus into carrying out the ECB’s wishes, the writing of economic programmes in offices in Brussels and then ramming the through parliaments without amendments; the list goes on. In all of this time, the Parliament’s influence over the governing of the eurozone has shrunk. The draconian rules have become more stringent (2012 Fiscal Compact), and the Commission, the body closest to becoming an accountable government, has been side-lined in favour of the Eurogroup and Eurogroup Working Group. Greece has been made an example of, so that larger states Spain and Italy don’t get ideas. The powers Europe has assumed over national governments in economic affairs is unprecedented. The level of authoritarianism is astounding. Does anyone know who Thomas Wieser is? Undoubtedly few, and yet he is, as leader of the Eurogroup Working Group, the man in charge of much Eurozone policy and in particular the Greek recovery programme. Democratic controls have slowly increased over the Commission since 1992, but in response, power has shifted from there into even darker and more obscure corridors.
It is at this point that we find ourselves, 25 years after the singing of Maastricht. Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Spanish radical Podemos Party, wrote in 2014 that the Spanish state was experiencing a period of crisis, where its foundations had begun to crumble away. Certainly, this is true of the European Union; it cannot and will not survive as we know it. The criticisms of academics have now entered into mainstream political discourse. The German Court has ruled further integration along this path illegal. The eurozone is becoming ever-more dysfunctional and authoritarian. The method chosen to begin integration – of technocratic institutions being given a narrow but effective mandate of power to fulfil certain tasks – was supposed to be abandoned long ago. It was not supposed to continue on endlessly until those institutions gained the sovereign power of a state. How would the hole at the centre of the construction ever be filled if Europe became more and more distant from its citizens?
The renowned essayist and historian Perry Anderson noted in 2007 that, given that we’ve seen this pattern in history before, where states are removed from their citizens and can only be brought under their control by forging a united will, a single dêmos, and enforcing that will upon the state institutions. To him at that point, in the aftermath of the disastrous Laeken experiment, the likelihood of the formation of a European dêmos seemed rather slim. However, that is the goal which DiEM25 has effectively set itself, in trying to bring democracy to Europe. More than anything else which could affect the state of affairs in this Union, from a change in economic policy, to a reconfiguration of institutions, to transfers of competences or further national oversight, the most significant change would be the creation of a fledgling European dêmos, willing to assert its will against Brussels from each and every member-state. The defining aspect of a dêmos, as opposed to a people or population, is that it has the capacity to mobilise itself with the intent to achieving political objectives, by impressing itself through civic means on the institutions of state. It has to be able to capture those institutions and direct them to its ends. It does this through the media, through demonstrations, marches, discussions and – these days, most significantly – through elections. Therefore, I support DiEM25’s recent decision to begin running in elections across the Union. It has already begun to exploit modern technologies to create discussion and activity online and in public, in the media and in theatres and halls across Europe. Now it must give that movement and its objectives electoral expression. Admittedly, I did not think it would put itself forward for this role so quickly. Like Jean Monnet’s Action Committee for the United States of Europe, I thought it would try to use existing parties and have them rally around the DiEM25 programme. But Srećko Horvat, Lorenzo Marsili, Varoufakis and the rest of us are more radical than that. And no doubt we will ally with existing parties where possible. However, one of the core principles of DiEM25 is self-mobilisation. We, as European citizens, must take matters into our own hands, and not expect others to continually do it for us. We’ve seen the result of that over the past 30 years. We aim to put the dêmos back into European democracy, and to do that, we must run as a united, transnational and European force, willing to show Brussels we mean business, and we’re coming to get our democracy back.