EU doesn't need more democracy, but a new permissive consensus

Clearly, across Europe democracy is hijacked by populist eurosceptics. Like hyenas and vultures, they gang up in ever greater number, foretasting the feast on a morbidly wounded EU. In France, Francois Hollande did not win the French presidential elections; Nicolas Sarkozy lost them. But certainly not to the French socialist candidate. He fell prey to the far-right eurosceptic Marine Le Pen and her Front National. And in Greece the two dominant pro-EU parties fell prey to the marginal eurosceptic forces. The Pyrrhic success of Nea Democratia to increase its nominal parliamentary representation vis-a-vis PASOK from the previous elections is largely a result of a strategic vote by the pro-European voters in the country who judged the party and its leader, Antonis Samaras, as a better front runner against the eurosceptic extremist parties. In Finland, the NCP and the Social Democrats lost to the True Finns in the 2011 elections, and the Dutch government fell recently after the eurosceptic Geert Wilders withdrew his support for the Mark Ruttes' minority government.

Politicians are wrong to deal with the current EU crisis by seeking financial remedies. The current euro-malaise is a symptom of an illness, not the illness itself. The real illness of Europe is called democracy. I am hardly the exception of thinking this way. But I imagine to be in the minority of those who differ from the widespread view that it is the "democratic deficit" that causes the crisis. Not too little democracy, but too much of it is in the bottom of it all. Today's European Union survival path increasingly passes through greater political and fiscal federalization - a process that must be seen through the prism of nation-building dynamics. If nation-building history teaches us anything, however, it is that democracy is not the answer, but could very well be the problem.

Historically, nation-building has always been a project undertaken by elites. It is not, and despite the widespread misperceptions has never been, a spontaneous bottom-up process. If anything, nations have come into existence despite the desires of the myriad small and incoherent groups and their narrowly defined interests, which were later united into nations. The frequently cited 19th century exclamation by Massimo d'Azeglio "We made Italy, now we must create Italians" is all but exception in that trend. United States, for example, did not become either a coherent state, or a functioning regional power, until it went through a nasty civil war that forged a common national identity along with a forced legitimacy of the federal power institutions, and gave the foundations of the contemporary American historical myth. In some cases, overarching common identity comes slowly or not at all, as the popular support for the separatist Lega Nord in Italy, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in Spain, Scottish Nationalist Party and other separatist movements across Europe unequivocally demonstrate today. And the Old Continent is not alone. The long list of separatist movements in Canada includes a multitude of Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia independence organizations, and the United States' own exhaustive list of secessionist groups is at least as long and diverse as the list of European separatists themselves. If today, under the consolidated auspices of western democracy, these forces seem to us so antagonistic, imagine what a potent force they must have been at the time of forging the contemporary nations. Had democracy been the guiding principle, or one of the leading factors, during the nation-formation processes, not many "nation-states" would have existed today.

How this all relates to today's ills of the European crisis? EU is today in a limbo state. In the years after the 1983 Solemn Declaration, perhaps sometimes between the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht, the EU-elites lost control of the integration process. Back then, they still had a choice of sticking with a more secure, purely intergovernmental, and rather limited in its options, scope and outreach international entity over risking it with a more insecure, and rather federalist but vague sui generis entity. The elites chose the latter. Yet, they refused to accept responsibility for their choice, hiding behind the veil of "democratization," despite that there was nothing inherently "democratic" about the European Community in the past. Twenty years after Maastricht democracy is considered one of the defining element of the future EU, whatever it is. The Copenhagen Criteria, celebrated by some as the greatest democratization endeavor of all times, was all together an ill conceptualized and badly applied tool for keeping the Eastern European and Turkey invaders at the gates. Its subtle message was that if all members are democratic, so must be the EU itself. But the genie of democracy was let out of the bottle already, and showed no sign of wanting to go back in. The Copenhagen Criteria, however, outlived its initial purpose, spilled over other aspects of the political discourse and has now come back to bite the Euro-elites in an unexpected way. In retrospect, the real weapon of choice of the pro-integrationist elites must have been not democracy, but "permissive consensus" - a principle not to get the voters too involved in the European matters, while forging ahead behind huis clos. This tool of integration was available to the elites' disposal since the 1950s, but willingly or not, was let go sometime after the SEA.

The solution to the contemporary crisis, on which perhaps not only the future of the euro, but also of the EU as a whole hinges, is to go ahead with greater federalization, along with all contiguous political, monetary and fiscal centralization that comes with it. Because, if 20-25 years ago there was still a way for reversal to a more modest, intergovernmental kind of custom union, today this option is no longer on the table. The generational shift that has occurred since the end of the Cold war makes this reversal impossible. And there is a high risk of new intra-European conflicts, which judging by the venomous speech coming today from ordinary Greeks and Germans, has all the prerequisites to become the basis of a new hatred-driven fault-line to cement the new North-South divide of the EU.

Not only the EU today has little alternative, but to forge ahead with federal integration, but it has to do it at an unprecedented scale and speed. The problem with the euro is due to the very nature of a common currency operating in conjunction with total lack of united and centrally enforced fiscal policy. The 17 Eurozone members face different realities when it comes to borrowing, spending and growth. Yet, they have to deal with their individual challenges constrained by a common currency. They don't have the ammunitions of devaluation and inflation to fight the predatory practices of market attacks at their disposal, the way these tools are available to non Eurozone members. This is, indeed, the crux at the Spain case, but also in the cases of Italy, Ireland and Portugal. One can argue that France will soon be in the same group, too. The Greek case is even more severe than that, but the same principle is embedded into its current panopticum of troubles. One solution is to issue common Eurobonds to balance the distribution of debt among the Eurozone members. But such mega-financial equalization would bring benefits to those at the periphery, at cost to those in the center. There is nothing undemocratic in this solution. However, if democracy is to be the deciding mechanism here, then we know what the answer of the fiscally disciplined, mainly German-speaking voters would be, don't we? Forced austerity and fiscal discipline is the alternative solution, favored by Germany and its allies. But in this case we don't even have to guess the answer of the most-affected - Greece, Spain and Italy at least. It suffice to take a quick look at the past year elections and the number of failed governments across EU to find an unequivocal answer to that. Incumbent pro-European elites across the EU have predictably committed electoral hecatomb by defending pro-European, politically and economically responsible, but electorally unsustainable positions.

Governing pro-European elites did not only fall victim to the austerity backlash. They were engulfed by the rising tidal wave of ever harder euroscepticism. Over the past year the issue of Europe crossed the threshold of a critical moment and became salient electoral topic of first order. But make no mistake - euroscepticism is not a new ideological divide; it is just a new disguise of an old electoral strategy of reckless populism. Recent research shows that euroscepticism is not some sort of principle, ideologically driven cleavage, but a populist facemask behind which rational unscrupulous marginal political actors hide their bid for power. As such, European integration becomes eurosceptics' preferred battlefield - in fact, the only one on which they can fight and potentially win. And the criticism against the European institutions lacking democratic underpinning is their preferred choice of weapons.

The big question then is how to forge ahead with an integration that will bring EU closer to federal political entity at times when the voters across the continent are opposed to it for its democratic deficit, and using democracy to strike it down? The answer is - keep democracy out of this process. Voters across EU are national citizens and have deeply ingrained loyalty to their own states before being Europeans and caring about United Europe. Their national identity is so strong, it will prevail over any commitment to United Europe. It is a falacy to claim that a European demos must precede a United Europe. Give it enough time under the right structural conditions and it will emerge on its own. Nationalism has marked the historical evolution of states for the past 200 years way too deeply to try to replace it by substituting a national identity with a pan-European.

In the aftermath of the past two and a half years, the reason why this is the case must now be apparent to all: the benefits at EU-level come at some individual cost for each member. The feeling of efficiency contradict the feeling of fairness, and this is felt down to the individual voters. This is a clear representation of Olson's classical collective action problem - a dynamic that takes place on both, national and pan-European level. At a national level, voters want to rip the benefits of United Europe, but don't want to pay the price. In the case of Greece, the voters would like to both go on diet to lose weight and not give up their Epicurean meals. According to latest polls, over 70% of Greek voters support their country's membership in EU and support its participation in the Eurozone. But, paradoxically, they did not vote that way. And at EU-level, member-states want economic growth, stability and functioning Eurozone, but, paradoxically, they keep breaking every promise over the past 20 years for fiscal responsibility. One only has to look at the tragic destiny of the Stability Pact (which gradually became Stability and Growth Pact, until was quietly abandoned), but evidence abound for any point of time over the past 30+ years, and not only in time of recession (see the latest Economist here).

Waiting for a "common" pan-European identity to emerge, in order to become the basis for a truly European demos is reminiscent to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Those, who point to the role/need/impossibility for a common language as a way to foster such common identity only distract the discussion from its real direction. Language, in its traditional meaning, is not a good guide to identity formation. In 1861, when Massimo d'Azeglio made his celebrated exclamation, only about 40% reportedly spoke Italian. And if we are to trust the research of Eugen Weber about the formation of the French nation, in 1863 about 25% of France population spoke no French at all. The other element of nation-building, common historical experience, is essentially a myth-creating exercise of a legitimizing "glorious" historical past at a large scale. It is usually forged through education. Fortunately, today United Europe has enough historical material to brag about in a such glorious myth. It also has an excellent educational system to disseminate and indoctrinate the current and future generations into it. Young people are far more internationalized, globalized, open-minded and pragmatic and such pan-European cosmopolitan fable would easily speak to them. The results can already be observed in many of the new EU member states, whose half a decade and more experiences speak for themselves.

In order to survive, EU has to succeed in pushing ahead with greater integration at an unprecedented scale. But to succeed, it is imperative to put aside, at least temporarily, all talk about democracy and how to solve the democratic deficit. Making democracy prerequisite for United Europe is to put the cart before the horses, an unwelcome distraction. And not to forge ahead with more integrated, federal, EU is to slide into painful trend of peril of the EU as idea and reality. It is no accident that the most vociferous proponents for strict application of the principles of democracy to further European integration are not others but the eurosceptics. They know that this talk will stall the process of integration. What EU needs today is not more democracy, but a new permissive consensus.


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