More democracy, or no more Europe


Picture of Stefan Collignon
Stefan Collignon

Professor of Political Economy, Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa

As the European Union stumbles from crisis to crisis, the institutions responsible for its governance seem less and less capable of handling the EU’s internal contradictions.

At the heart of this weakness lies Europe’s democratic deficit. Although all the EU’s member countries are democracies and the Lisbon treaty declares the Union to be founded on freedom, democracy and equality, the EU is still not a true democracy. For, the sum of all national democracies does not generate a European democracy.

Governments of EU countries first and foremost represent the interests of their national constituencies. They coordinate when policy preferences overlap, but when interests diverge, gridlock is inevitable.

The only solution for Europe’s governance crisis is a democratically elected European government

Take the refugee crisis. Under the Dublin Convention, the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU is responsible for determining his, or her, status.

This has seen frontline states such as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Croatia overburdened by the need to register hundreds of thousands of refugees. If the Union were founded on equality, they would be receiving more help from other member states and fairer burden sharing would be the norm.

Instead some governments have pandered to xenophobic tribalism, undermining freedom, equality and the ideals of an open society. As a consequence, democratic control over policies that affect all European citizens has become impossible.

Then there is the Greek euro crisis. There is no doubt that policies introduced by Greek governments from Karamanlis to Tsipras have had spillover effects that have destabilized international financial markets and affected citizens across the euro area. At the same time, it’s clear that the reaction of other governments contributed to the crisis. At least initially, national policies were driven by local electoral factors rather than the will to maintain a stable euro.

Austerity, which pleases German policy makers, reduced Greek GDP by 30% and doubled the number of Greeks living in poverty. Not surprisingly, voters rebelled, but the election of Syriza in January 2015 has proven once and for all that European policies cannot be changed by national elections.

There is a simple reason for this. European integration has generated European public goods which belong to all EU citizens. If democracy is to have any meaning in the EU, these public goods, Europe’s res publica, must be managed by a government that represents all citizens affected by them.

EU governments have accepted the concept of subsidiarity – which implies that issues not affecting all citizens across the EU should be decided at a lower level. The other side of this principle should mean that issues which do affect all EU citizens must be decided by a European government that represents their collective interests and preferences.

The democratic process of choosing a government contributes to public acceptance of policies. For the European Council and Councils of Ministers this is not the case. The Council is not a government in this sense, but rather a clearing chamber to look for overlapping consensus. From the perspective of the European Council, national elections are just by-elections and the only general elections are those for the European Parliament.

To understand how this undemocratic European Union, has been able to go so far in creating European public goods we have to recall a distinction from the economic theory of public goods.

There are inclusive public goods that generate benefits and mobilise support for the integration process. One example is the single market which has made companies more efficient and productive and has served consumers well. Since citizens wish to share these benefits, such public goods make it easier for governments to sell European integration to their electorates.

However, there are also exclusive public goods which are characterised by limited resources. In this case, one country’s gain implies a loss for others. That makes co-operation between governments much harder.

Political philosophers since David Hume in the 18th Century have emphasised that these exclusive public goods can only be administered efficiently by a government with the authority to act in the common interest. Money, of course, is the limited resource par excellence, so it is not surprising that the euro has generated discussions about the need to create a political union and a European economic government.

Democratic control over policies that affect all European citizens has become impossible

The only solution for Europe’s governance crisis is a democratically elected European government.

Such a government cannot be based on national governments or national parliaments. Only the European Commission can play this role. It is the guardian of the common European interest and already has a proper administrative structure.

However, it will only be acceptable to delegate common competences to the European Commission if it is fully accountable to the European Parliament. That way, citizens will see to it that the Commission is adopting policies approved by their elected representatives.

Without more democracy there cannot be more Europe. In fact, it looks increasingly more likely that without more European democracy there will be no European Union.

Deeper integration will meet resistance, even if it brings more democratic involvement. By demanding a redefinition of competences within the EU, David Cameron has created an opportunity to clarify Europe’s governance.

Euro area members subjected to the logic of exclusive public goods must seize the moment for setting up a European government. Those remaining outside the euro can then interact with this government in a looser structure. This would be a way out of Europe’s democracy crisis.

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