Momentous times for democracy in Europe

EU summit held in Brussels over Greek financial crisis. Demotix/ Sander de Wilde. All rights rserved.We are living
through momentous times when both ideas – democracy and Europe – are at stake.
I want to argue that the future of Europe and the future of democracy are
inextricably linked and that this matters not only for us in Europe, but for
the world. What we will need in the rocky times ahead are critical thinkers who
can navigate the rocks.

There are two
stories I want to use to illustrate our troubled times. One, of course, is
Greece. At this very moment, European leaders are meeting (again!) to discuss
Greece. It could be the end, in the sense that if no deal is reached, there
will be a Greek default and this could easily lead to the unravelling of the
Eurozone and, for the time being, the European project – with hugely dangerous
consequences. Any more positive outcome is likely to prolong the Greek agony.
But the main point I want to make is that the outcome is more important for the
future of Europe than for the future of Greece. I do believe this is a turning
point (perhaps like the invasion of Iraq) when what is decided now will have
consequences that we will have to live with for a long time to come.

The other story
is in Spain and what happened in the recent elections in towns across the
country. Anyone in Barcelona at that time, whatever your reservations, had a
ringside seat in a democratic experiment – what seems to be a new form of
participatory politics linked to new forms of communication. Where does it go
from here? Is it the beginning of a new European spring? Or is it the beginning
of clashes, fragmentation, and division?

And there are
many other stories. We just had national elections in Britain. On the face of
it, this was a boring conservative victory. But actually it is the story of
insurgent parties of both left and right (the Scottish nationalists, the Welsh
nationalists, the Greens and the UK Independence Party) who drew the popular
vote away from the mainstream left.

Democracy today

In order to
make sense of these stories, I want to talk first about the meaning of
democracy and, second about the European project. Let me start with democracy.
What all these stories have in common is a pervasive distrust of the
traditional mainstream – La Casta as people say in Spain. A pervasive sense
that democracy as it is currently practiced is not working. ‘They call it
democracy but it isn’t’ was one of the slogans of the Indignados.

In thinking
about this problem, I find it useful to make a distinction, often made in
democratic theory, between formal and substantive democracy. Formal democracy
refers to the procedures and rules of democracy – elections, a rule of law,
human rights, constitutionalism and so on. Substantive democracy refers to
political equality, the ability of citizens to influence the decisions that
affect their lives – the ‘habits of the heart’ as De Tocqueville called it. It
parallels a distinction made by Joseph Schumpeter between democracy as a method
and democracy as an end in itself. For Schumpeter, democracy was a method of
selecting a government, which he likened to a steam engine. Nowadays, we
observe the procedures of democracy; it is a method of selecting a government.
But it is no longer an end, a way of bringing about meaningful participation.

The last three
decades have witnessed an astonishing spread of democracy – what Samuel
Huntington called the ‘third wave’ of democracy. It has had something to do
with globalisation. On the one hand, democracy as a method became a condition
for participation in the global system. Along with market reforms, donors and
international financial institutions demanded democratic reforms – formal
democracy became part of the so-called Washington consensus. On the other hand,
the growth of communications – Internet, videos, satellite TV, mobile phones, radio,
air travel – has made it very difficult to maintain closed societies; these
openings have facilitated new civic movements demanding substantive democracy.

When I was
young, most states were either under colonial rule or under dictatorships. Now
the opposite is the case – there are only a handful of illiberal regimes –
Russia, China, North Korea, the middle eastern oil states, Zimbabwe…But there
are many countries, including the so-called mature democracies, that suffer
from a democratic deficit – profound weaknesses of substantive democracy in our
ability to influence the decisions that affect our lives.   

What are the
reasons for this? They have partly to do with globalisation. Important decisions
that affect your life are no longer taken at national levels; they are taken in
Brussels, Washington DC, Zurich, the headquarters of multinational companies or
by young men in front of computers playing the money markets. However perfect
the procedures of democracy, voting at a national level will not make it
possible to influence the decisions that affect your life if the decisions are
taken elsewhere. Greece is a perfect example; the Greek people have voted over
and over again against austerity. But their creditors in Frankfurt and
elsewhere refuse to agree.

has also changed the very nature of the state. The growth of global finance in
relation to what used to be called the ‘real economy’ – the economy of
production involving people – has skewed incomes. We all know that you make
much more money from owning property – a house for example – nowadays than from
working. The same is true of governments. More and more governments are rentier
states whose revenue depends on external aid, borrowing, oil revenues or
finance. You may be familiar with the oil curse – the way in which reliance on
oil tends to produce a system of corruption upheld through control of the media
and the security services. I believe this applies to many states nowadays. My
own country Britain, for example, is now heavily dependent on the City of

globalisation is not the only reason. The erosion of substantive democracy also
has to do with what I call the sclerosis of the nation-state. There was a huge
growth of states during and after the Second World War. We tend to think of
globalisation as an abstract phenomenon that determines our lives. But of
course, it is a social construction. Globalisation was a way of getting around
the concentration of power represented by the state; it was the consequence of
human action, of people trying to escape the often rigid and paternalistic hold
of the state. This included the multinational companies who wanted freer
markets and civil society who wanted more peace and human rights.

The nation
state constrains democracy for many reasons. One is the legacy of the Cold War
– the deep state of intelligence services, police and military forces, revived
in the framework of counter-terror. Another is the entrenchment of bureaucracy,
the way rules and routines narrow the space for choice. Yet a third is the
technology of elections, the way the mainstream parties use polling and focus
groups in order to concentrate on winning the votes of a narrow band of swing
voters and how this means the loss of any grand narrative. The leaders’ debate
in Britain was a striking illustration of this. It involved three brilliant
women from the insurgent left parties (the Scottish nationalists, the Welsh
nationalists and the Greens) with big ideas about the future, three very wooden
over-rehearsed men from the three mainstream parties (Conservative, Labour and
a Liberal) and a supposedly down to earth man expressing the worst populist
prejudices (the United Kingdom Independence Party).

So I am saying
the problems of democracy have to do both with globalisation and the
nation-state. The answer is not to turn back globalisation – after all, the
state gave us war and fascism. But nor is the answer untamed globalisation.
This is where Europe comes in. So let me turn to Europe.

Where Europe comes in

The European
project after World War Two was a peace project. In the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, many great philosophers developed perpetual peace schemes
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill.

In many ways,
the construction of the European Union bears resemblance to the Kantian scheme,
which involved a combination of a permanent peace treaty, republican (or
formally democratic) constitutions, and cosmopolitan rights (e.g. human
rights). This scheme is not the construction of a super-state like the United
States, for example. Rather it is a new form of supra-national co-operation,
which restrains the worst characteristics of the nation-state – war,
imperialism and repression. The method of construction was economics. The
founders of the European Union thought that through what was known as 'low
politics', 'high politics' would follow – this was the so-called Monnet method named
after the French politician Jean Monnet.

For the first
three decades, the Monnet method seemed to work; it involved co-operation on
infrastructure, agriculture and regional assistance. But everything changed
after 1989. This was the heyday of the post-1968 social movements – what we
might call the cosmopolitans, who favoured peace and human rights and who
wanted to end the Cold War division of Europe. But it was also the heyday of a
new generation of neo-liberals, who made use of the left critique of the paternalism
and rigidity of the nation-state. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which established
the single market and the common currency, was a compromise between the cosmopolitans
and the neo-liberals, between the passionate Europeanism of Jacques Delors,
then the President of the European Commission, and the neo-liberalism of
Margaret Thatcher.

Many argued
that the single currency was a mistake. To establish a single currency without
a large central budget, without a fiscal union (for taxation and spending) and
without a political union was bound to lead to deep inequalities between
creditor and debtor nations, to social exclusion, fragmentation and
atomisation. But the late Ulrich Beck pointed out that it was not a mistake; it
was a deliberate continuation of the Monnet method. Precisely because it was an
impossible project, it created a vested interest in political union. In other
words those who agreed to the common currency knew that the project would
propel further integration. And this is where we are now.

We have reached
the point where low politics has to be translated into high politics. Europe
has to go forward to survive. It has to integrate further. It has to reverse
the rules about austerity. The alternative is dangerous disintegration. The
extreme cases of the combination of the legacy of authoritarianism and
globalisation are exemplified in the Middle East – Syria, Libya, Egypt, the
failed springs. We cannot insulate Europe from the fall-out of these crises as
we witness in the tragedies in the Mediterranean. But even more disturbingly,
similar combinations of criminality and sectarianism are developing in Europe
as a consequence of the economic crisis.

So what has to
happen if the European project is to be saved? What does it mean for democracy
and how could it happen?

A different Europe

The aim of the
European project should be to restore or build (perhaps we never had it)
substantive democracy. The aim is to make it possible for individuals to
influence the decisions that affect their lives. How can this be achieved? Yes
we need more democracy and accountability at European levels. But Brussels and
Strasbourg will always be remote. European and global levels are unlikely to be
the sites of active politics. What we need is the ability to take decisions at
local levels so that the hopes invested in new experiments in democracy, in the
Spanish towns, in Greece, or in the British periphery, are not constantly
thwarted. This used to be called subsidiarity.

This cannot be achieved through
building a European super-state and all that goes with it – surveillance,
borders and a military-industrial complex. Rather Europe has to become a new
model of global governance – not an instrument of globalisation as it is now,
but a mechanism for taming globalisation, for protecting local levels from the storms
of globalisation. Europe has to restrain global bads like financial speculation
or climate change, and promote global goods like solidarity, peace and human
rights in our neighbourhood and beyond. This might be expressed in a new sort
of fiscal union, with a new set of taxes aimed at global bads, like a tax on
financial speculation or on carbon, and spending on global goods like resource-saving
innovation, youth employment, peace-building or redistribution. 

Unless Europe
is transformed in this way, local efforts at democracy will be thwarted and
suppressed. But because of globalisation, they are unlikely to be better off
outside Europe. Moreover, the future of Europe is critical, not just for Europe
but for how we deal with global challenges.

So how might
this come about? Through lurching from crisis to crisis? What is striking about
the Greek crisis is the way in which the creditors and the European Commission
and many politicians especially in Germany are hardwired to equate reforms with
austerity. The Greeks are saying yes we know we need reforms – we need to cut
down on tax evasion, we need to end corruption, we need to democratise public
administration. We know we need reforms – we need to end the sclerosis of the
nation-state. But reforms cannot mean cuts in pensions, increasing the
precariousness of work, and declines in income that lead to even more debt.

Yet even though
this is said over and over again, the creditors and their political associates
don't seem to get it.

Nevertheless, this
debate about austerity and reforms is beginning to be reproduced in the media.
Indeed the solidarity shown by people all over Europe towards Greece perhaps
marks the beginning of a European public space. It is a debate we need to have
– how to reduce inequality, how to reduce unemployment and homelessness, how to
save the planet's resources, how to bring peace to the Middle East. How we get
out of the current impasse depends on our contribution to that debate.

We need to
recapture the European project, to take it back from the global market, to
reinstil the original values and more. That’s how we can construct institutions
that are different in kind – relevant for the world we live in. It is a huge

This piece was originally a speech made
to the 2015 IBEI graduation ceremony on June 22, 2015.

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