In Perry Anderson’s magisterial book on the European Union, The New Old World, he sums up what has become a perennial conundrum of the soon-to-be 27-member union’s future:
“Democratisation can still be deferred. But not indefinitely. Nor, however, can it be realised suddenly or completely.”
Change is gonna come, but when, to what extent and by who, is unclear. Post-Brexit, Brussels appears to have got the stabilisers on with Emmanuel Macron’s election victory in France. There is even economic growth in the Eurozone. But none of the structural problems that created an economic, political and – finally – constitutional crisis of the EU after the 2008 Great Recession have been resolved. Just deferred.
Anderson’s work provides few answers, but he does problematise the challenge of democratisation correctly: an institution that derives its power from intra-national deal-making and consensus building is a “formula for a cartel of elites”.
There is of course a danger of passivity in this analysis: that politics at the level of international relations can be nothing other than opaque, secretive and accountable only to the powerful. Democracy is constrained not out of principle, but out of necessity. Certainly, degrees of detachment between people and power make the challenge of democracy more complex.
Time and space become genuine hurdles. But understanding the limits of democratic engagement in the EU does not extinguish the need for it. Forget about any moral principle of democracy for the moment. The EU has proven it needs greater democracy to come to better decisions on behalf of EU citizens. The stubbornness with which the EU machine has stuck to arbitrary limits on deficit spending despite its calamitous economic effect, for instance, is a case study in the supremacy of the ideological strictures of an institution over facts on the ground.
The way in which the EU has dealt with crisis management also shows its instincts towards technocracy when the going gets tough. The establishment of the Eurogroup to deal with the Eurozone crisis is a case in point: the ad hoc body is secretive, informal and not subject to any clear set of rules never mind democratic legitimacy.
And then there is the ambivalence with which Brussels appears to hold for the rights of minorised People, and the way in which referenda – an important democratic forum for the expression of public consent – is treated with contempt. Catalonia’s independence referendum in November 2014 was snubbed by the EU Commission in June via technocratic reference to the Spanish constitution (1978). This reference failed to take account of articles 10 and 96 which ratify all international treaties defending the Right to Self-determination of People which were formally signed by the Kingdom of Spain in 1977. This was to get the Spanish State accepted as a Western democracy after the death of the facist dictator Franco.
This is chance for the EU at this crucial stage in its development to stand by its founding democratic values of Justice, Equality and Peace by supporting the official Catalan referendum about independence scheduled for the 1st of October (supported by elected President Puigdemont and the absolute majority of Catalan Parliament with the massive support of the 80% of Catalans). We’ll see if once again, any concern for the consent of the people is secondary to meeting the needs of those with power in the EU.
This is the fundamental problem with technocracy. Technocrats are useful at solving the problems they are set: but the problems they’re set are defined by vested interests with their own highly partisan take on what needs to be solved. In a Europe that is politically, geographically and culturally diverse, imposing technocratic answers from above is really imposing the will of centralised authority.
It is becoming increasingly ridiculous to think that these technocrats represent some sort of general, benign common interest of the whole of Europe. Juan Manuel Barroso, former EU Commission President during the Scottish independence referendum who made the outlandish claim that it would be “extremely difficult if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU, has subsequently left office to become Goldman Sachs International non-executive chairman, in which his considerable insider information will be put to use to earn his new clients big bucks.
This reality of a revolving door between the EU technocracy and the corporate sector should be a warning to liberals responding to Brexit in the opposite direction of democratisation – embracing grim lesser evilism of a liberal technocratic EU versus democratic populist national regimes. The argument is never put this way, but it is implied that the EU is needed exactly because we need technocratic elites to rule over the stupid, irresponsible people.
The key to break out of this false dichotomy between EU technocratic centralism and Trumpite populist nationalism is to do what neither currently offer: diversity and democracy.
First on diversity. There needs to be an acceptance that the EU cannot be a homogenous institution, and that an asymmetric union with a patch-work of positions would be a sign of strength not weakness. It is known that Brussels is no fan of the Switzerland EEA deal, but perhaps this is the direction of travel needed – to manage the tension between the need to collaborate and the need to respect that we all have a sense of place and cannot squeeze over 500 million people into one governance model. Do all EU states really have to be part of the common agricultural policy? I’m not convinced.
On democracy, we need to be willing to extend and enhance the idea of democracy much deeper into the veins of our economy and society. The EU appears as if it to treat democracy as, at best, that bit that is done once every four or five years before the elected dictators take over. Workers democracy, community democracy, popular e-based participation in big EU-wide decisions, and yes referendums, including respect the rights of nations to self-determination, should be at the heart of the EU’s values, not something it treats as a threat.