What Europe Needs is Democracy: Striking at the Root of Europe’s Crisis

This article has first been published on the Rootstrikers’s web site; my thanks go to the Rootstrikers team and Lawrence Lessig for that. I hope it will be the beginning of something exciting and a quite different kind of a “Transatlantic Cooperation”. To know more about the Rootstrikers’ Movement and why it matters for America and other democracies, check their website; an interesting account of the first “RootCamp” in Brussels has also been written by André Rebentisch and published in the same place.

People tend to forget History. No matter how far back the common memory of a nation goes people, politicians, journalists, scholars and CEOS seem to be forgetting what happened even thirty years back.

I am appalled by the dramatic change of regime in Hungary and what is referred to as the European debt crisis. These two episodes, while being themselves the outcome of a complex chain of events, reflect our inability, as citizens, as a culture and perhaps as humans to remember the lessons of the past.

In the case of Hungary the past century is full of the clamor of the Holocaust and several other tragedies that have reached a planetary scale. In the case of the debt crisis, I cannot think of one century after the Second century A.D that did not see at least one European state, empire or kingdom threatened by bankruptcy or complete devaluation of its currency. The European debt crisis is not the first, and I am afraid it won’t be the last one. Let’s take Spain for instance. Spain faced bankruptcy seven times since 1900. Germany suffered from a terrible inflation rate between the two world wars; only Zimbabwe is currently experiencing a similar fate; and in 1945 the Mark was not exactly alive and kicking. I could go on, but I would probably miss the main point: What’s unique in this crisis is not the crisis itself, it’s the governance model Europe has to deal with.

An united Europe is itself an old dream; let’s not dwell on the Carolingian Empire, itself the pale revival of what the Western Roman Empire was but which is the symbolic matrix upon which the European “vision” has been founded. Yet writing “vision” is problematic from the onset. For Europe is the result of a relatively recent History starting in the fifties with France, Germany agreeing on common, yet concrete projects, soon to be joined by Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Luxembourg. These projects focused mostly on the energy production were carried on and created opportunities for other projects in other areas while the initial “club of the six” countries was growing. That is what you will read in every schoolbook of Europe. What you will also read is that while politicians of each of these founding countries may have been very different and have had different agendas, there were other people, visionaries such as Schumann and Monet; these people had a dream and ambition for Europe by and for itself; to them, even a strong multinational cooperation was only a step towards something much bigger and much more beautiful. This was and is a powerful dream. This dream and the necessities of handling the nascent European apparatus of coordination and its unspoken governance prompted the creation of European institutions. These institutions became more complex over time; with that complexity came a system; and with that system came the game that aims at tricking it. Some time in the eighties or perhaps even a bit earlier, what was a set of tools became an end to itself. The institutions stopped working exclusively along the two opposing forces that were defining the dynamic of the European march towards what Americans called “a more perfect Union”: the will of each member states versus the will to unite Europe. This trend was manifested by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 that added an even deeper layer of monetary integration inside what ended up being officially called in 1997 the “European Union”.

The basic premise of the emphasis on what was first large, but focused transnational projects and became then an almost exclusive focus on economical issues was that in order to achieve something bigger we needed more integration. That premise and understanding worked for about thirty to forty years and then, somehow, we lost our way. As the eighties were drawing to an end we lost the reason why we were supposed to work together. Granted, not everybody became blind, but all of a sudden the notion we ought to be more than a wide common marketplace open to the four winds (and particularly the Chinese winds) ceased to be either an obvious, or a desirable goal. Suddenly it was all about deregulation and what the “stakeholders” interest could be. Quietly, in a disturbingly progressive yet implacable fashion decisions that were to frame the future economic landscape of Europe were made oftentimes without any public debate or without the citizens’ awareness. Quietly, subtle dependencies between the European “decision makers” and special interest groups were tied and built. Corruption is not what would come to mind; but career building, encouragements, the constant back and forth of skilled individuals between the European public sector and the private sector, the constellation of public policy experts populating Brussels created a weird environment where the public interest was turned into an ideological framework inside which the notion of economic development came to mean everything large corporations could want out of it. The march towards an European democracy became muddled into ever-more important demands to serve the “European economic agendas”. European democracy stopped to be a goal and became something that could be seen as the 36th priority of the European institutions.

Meanwhile the public perception of the European institutions grew ever more ambiguous. Europe was and is still funding major infrastructure work and essential cultural initiatives around the continent while providing millions of European farmers incentives to stay in business, survive, and even grow their activity year after years. Yet the largest majority of politicians in the so-called “member states” made sure they could play the long running blame game with Europe; by pretending to ignore the various pieces of legislation that were enacted month after month in Brussels they could easily behave as if they didn’t know that the European legislative corpus was influencing their own national laws at an increasing rate. And when those politicians found out one popular legislation coming from Brussels they would try very hard to appropriate it and act as if it had been their idea all along. The reality is that today, the European Commission and, when it can, the European Parliament, produce most of the legislation in the European Union. Inside the member states, it has been estimated that around 70% of the regulatory work and legislative activity are directly related to the various policies emanating from the European supranational institutions.

The world crisis that started in 2008 has not changed the issues much. You can go to Brussels and you will find pretty much the same ballet. What’s striking, however, is that the existing shortcomings and failures of the European construction have been made much more visible today.

To discuss the unfolding of the European debt crisis is somewhat out of context here, however a few points of interest could be useful. The European Institutions are now in theory much more powerful and controlling, while in reality the power really lies in a tandem formed by a few head of states and the European Central Bank. Meanwhile, the European Commission continues its regulatory -or deregulatory- work while pretending to have gained more oversight on the member states’ budgets. Meanwhile the Parliament stagnates as the current “Zeitgeist” is that we need a much more integrated union, albeit without the people. Because of the debt crisis, people (rightly) feel that the whole set of European Institutions now works with and for the private financial sector while their own countries are being put under even tighter surveillance and control by the Commission, the European Central Bank and the rating agencies.

This crisis leaves us with no choice. We cannot hope to fight our way in a “Long March” towards a European-wide Democracy. We need to act now; we need to profoundly reform the European Institutions that have become a barrier to the very purpose they were supposed to serve. We need to found a real legislative power, possibly under the form of a bi-cameral system and ensure the proper process to avoid external dependencies and corruption are in place and work effectively. We need an executive power that is responsible in front of the people of Europe and not an irresponsible institution of bureaucrats who know too well they will never fail as long as they pretend not to make politics. We need to seriously acknowledge that what we need is not a “common market” but a “common democracy” and we must have the courage to call it by its real name: a Federation. We need an European Union that works as and is a federation of people and countries; not in order to gain the ability to see an oversized federal administration grow out of it, but to ensure we will live in a system that protects who we are while remembering who we were without shedding the blood of our generations; a federation that exists and runs by the people, and for the people of Europe without interference from the special interest groups and acknowledges corporate greed and influence where it is. We are far from this today; but we will get there. We must get there.

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