Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

The European Madhouse

The Law of the European Union. Universiteit Leiden

Last week’s visit to Berlin, peppered by many intensely interesting conversations, convinced me of one thing: Europe is beginning to resemble a political madhouse. Jan Zielonka’s brief but brilliant Is the EU Doomed? offers vital explanations of what’s happening, but you really need to be on the ground to smell, and to taste, the crazed dynamics that are now gathering pace.

Just over an hour’s flying time from the new European capital in-the-making, a nasty uncivil war is happening, with precious little being done to counter the wrecking of the economy, statehood or safety and happiness of Ukraine citizens. German politicians and citizens seem astonishingly complacent about the wider dangers posed by the conflict. Smugness, ‘the post-democratic lulling to sleep of public opinion’ (Jürgen Habermas), is the reigning spirit of the current German model led by Angela Merkel. Complacency seems to be the twin of tough-minded stagnation. Yet throughout the continent, whatever its apologists may be saying, the plain fact is that austerity isn’t working; in many sectors of the European economy, it’s actually killing off investment and innovation and shortening people’s lives.

Jürgen Habermas. Leuven University, 26 April 2013

Yes, the cafes of Europe seem to be full. Its shopping malls are still busy. Airports are crowded. Tourists roam the streets. Cameras click. There’s a selfie stick explosion. But unemployment levels are dangerously high. The volume of precarious employment is on the rise (in model Germany, the respected historian Jürgen Kocka tells me over a modest lunch, the figure is now around 30 percent of the total work force). Even within Europe’s strongest economies, poverty levels are rising fast, thanks to sluggish investment and cuts to welfare support for permanently poor people. One-fifth of the British population, 13 million people, now live below the official poverty line. In Greece, close to 50 percent of senior citizens receive pensions beneath that threshold. If Brussels gets its way, the figure would rise further: at last week’s Eurogroup meeting, IMF boss Christine Lagarde and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble insisted on a further 40 per cent reduction (to a mere 300 euros a month) in the value of the monthly pension received by already impoverished senior citizens of that country. Measured in terms of social justice and personal dignity, edicts of that kind are political lunacy.

The pandemonium within the European madhouse extends to popular disgruntlement with the way things are. At a gathering at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I met Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who later explained: ‘Syriza and the Danish People’s Party are mirror images of one another, part of the same megatrend now in many European countries’, he said. ‘There is a remaking of the political order, with centrist parties that have run politics over the last few decades being hollowed out and replaced by parties appealing to the fringes.’ Leonard thinks that the transformation is of historic long-term significance. ‘The parties of the left have become representatives of public-sector workers and the creative industries, while the right represents big business and finance, and both are rather liberal in social values. That leaves large segments of the population feeling angry and unrepresented, and new parties are emerging with a different language.’

Leonard is surely on the trail of something important. It’s not just that millions of Europeans have grown convinced that government has been captured by the rich, or that local independent parliamentary powers have been weakened by Brussels, or that mass political party organisations are no longer their thing. Bigotry, xenophobia, racism and ugly Muslim baiting are mushrooming. So is armed revenge, as we know from recent events in Paris and Lyon, with more murderous violence surely to come. Old European civility is experiencing its most serious stress test for a generation. It’s being fed by the inaction and incompetence of political elites, and by the fact that every month tens of thousands of desperate refugees are pouring into Europe from neighbouring zones of war and repression.

Confronted by these and other pressures, there’s little wonder that established political party systems are everywhere collapsing, or in a parlous state. In Denmark, a right-wing populist party led by Kristian Thulesen Dahl has just won enough votes to enter government, vowing to protect the ‘Danish way of life’ and to make life tougher for immigrants everywhere. Using similar language, Prime Minister David Cameron is on the stump, seeking new terms and conditions of Great Britain’s role within the European Union. A referendum on British membership will happen by 2017; as things stand, despite the incalculable and potentially disastrous consequences, a majority of English and Welsh voters will likely vote for withdrawal.

There’s meanwhile the menace of Russian meddling in European Union politics, as in France, where Marine Le Pen, bankrolled by Russian loans, would probably win the French presidency if a vote was held tomorrow. There’s also Russian military aggression (playing chicken with civilian and NATO aircraft, for instance); the build-up of troops in a Baltic region now gripped by fears of the spread of the Ukraine disease; and there’s mounting anxiety about the long-term consequences of the new Russian despotism for the future of the Atlantic alliance.

The European Union, a cartoon by Di Mauro Biani. Il Manifesto, June 25, 2015

Does a power-sharing democratic Europe in fact have a political future? Even a passing familiarity with the unfinished Grexit drama is enough to drive any democrat to despair. Just as I’m leaving Europe for home, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French television: ‘We must do everything so that Greece stays in the eurozone.’ He added: ‘Doing everything, that means respecting Greece and democracy, but it’s also about respecting European rules. So Greece needs to come back to the negotiating table.’ In Athens and other Greek cities, and in the Greek countryside, talk of European rules breeds a mixture of cursing and derisory laughter. When Greek citizens hear words like rules and restraints, they think of Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde and other ayotallahs of austerity. They feel indignation, pain in their hearts, humiliation and anger in their guts; and with their banks and stock exchange now shut, many Greeks rightly wonder whether the whole point of the European insistence on ‘European rules’ is to effect a regime change in Athens, against the wishes of a suffering people.

Ulrike Guérot, June 2015. John Keane

There’s no doubt the breakup of the European Union is gathering pace. There are countervailing trends, and smart public visionaries, to be sure. During my stay in Berlin, I talk at length with Ulrike Guérot, founder and director of the European Democracy Lab. With lots of experience in the European media and think tank communities, Guérot is wise to all the trends I’ve been describing. But she’s militant in her insistence that the present-day spoilers and wreckers of European integration are going to fail. ‘They don’t take into account the huge environmental, business and social costs of disintegration’, she tells me. ‘It’s as if they think the recovery of power at the member state level will solve all problems. It will actually make them much worse.’ Guérot sticks her sharp sword into the dragons of apathy and complacency. The ‘real enemies of Europe are not the Greeks’, she tells me. ‘Our enemies are outside Europe, awaiting the unravelling of Europe’s richness and precious set of values. They’re trying to buy it off or take it over on the cheap.’ Guérot is equally critical of the drift towards technocratic rule by what she calls the ‘institutional trilogy’ (the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council) and the fashionable populist attempts to exhume dead ‘nation-bound thinking’. She thinks as well that the old ideal of a United States of Europe is dead; and she boldly refuses political talk of ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe, simply because, in her view, the only legitimate and viable alternative for Europe is a multi-polar and democratic European republic.

Queen Europe, a map printed by Sebastian Münster, Basel (1570)

Inspired by the political thinking of Jürgen Habermas and others, and by old images of Europe as a female body politic, she imagines a new kind of power-sharing polity, a Europe that protects and nurtures the lives of its citizens by means of a rich plurality of connected institutions, from rural hinterlands, cosmopolitan cities and regions through to functional networks, member states and courts at all levels. Lurking within her vision is a new understanding of democracy as the public monitoring and restraint of arbitrary power by citizens considered as equals, even in cross-border settings. The key point, Guérot emphasises, is that European integration has already been achieved. ‘All the fuss is misplaced. There’s no question about further integration; for the Eurozone is almost completely integrated in economic and monetary terms. European integration is yesterday’s word; tomorrow’s is European democracy.’ So the new political challenge is to redefine and expand bottom-up and sideways democratic politics, to strengthen the public dimension of all things by placing citizens and their representatives at the centre of what Guérot daringly calls a ‘res publica europaea’: a new transnational polity founded on the principle of political and social equality.

During our time together Guérot quotes Albert Einstein: ‘No idea is a good idea unless it first appears to be completely illusory.’ Guérot’s bold neo-republican vision of a future Europe, a ‘European republic under construction’, is surely a case in point. It understandably takes the long view, above all because for the moment it is depressingly out of step with the prevailing political trends. Thanks to the banks and bureaucrats, and to the half-hearted and unimaginative efforts of senior political figures like Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, to revive Euro-zone politics, Europe is drowning in pessimism. Cancerous feelings of fatalism are spreading. The decadence is captured in Milan Kundera’s new novel, The Festival of Insignificance, in which a key character says: ‘We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.’

Sad to say, but those words, not twelve golden stars or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, are for the moment the ugly symbol and grating anthem of contemporary Europe. Cynical resistance to the whole European project is on the rise. Opportunists are taking liberties. Arbitrary power is flourishing. The spirit of democratic equality is fighting for its life. Like a virus, the sentiment is spreading, not for the first time in the history of Europe, that hereon, with one finger pointed rudely upwards, it’s each person, each government organisation and each market for themselves, no matter what the damage might be for the rest of Europe, or the stability and wellbeing of the wider world. It is madness, in need of democratic therapy.

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