Another chance for European democracy?

Heather Horn had an interesting blog post   in The Atlantic Online that was at last asking some fundamental questions, or at least gave some insight into the fundamental questions being asked by European intellectuals, at a time when the whole EU project has been thrown into doubt. Indeed, it is in the realm of possibility, not dystopian fiction, that if the Europeans don’t create a clear path forward that is trusted by the markets- the whole thing could go bust.

It’s that “trusted by the markets” part that puts into relief the whole democratic nature of Europe’s future. Horn writes:

“In the democracy-versus-capitalism debate, what seems to worry European spectators is the way in which the markets, as expressed through bond prices and ratings agencies, have overtaken the political process. Some European see the exit Greek prime minister George Papandreou — welcome though it was after his surprise call for a referendum on a bailout package for his country — as deeply troubling, particularly when put together with similar political exits of the past year.”

It is the markets, or rather, the pace and scale of market gyrations, that have brought governments to their knees in a way simultaneous riots by the alienated have not. The markets appear to be demanding that the currency union become a real federation. What is the response of European intellectuals to this? Why, to call for a federal Europe, for only an entity of such a scale could push back on the forces of the market.  Again Horn:

“When famed sociologist Jürgen Habermas was asked if the European leaders feared democracy, he responded, “They are afraid of not obtaining a majority or of losing power.’ He added that, due to the debt crisis, “fears about the future of Europe have become the number one theme of discussion. Perhaps the time of the European public sphere has finally come. The political leadership must show itself capable of an open mind about the reorganization of Europe — and have the courage to swim, as needed, against the current, rather than follow polls in search of a majority.'”

The problem with this, of course, is that the push to further integrate Europe appears to have little democratic legitimacy. While it makes sense to no longer allow European policy to be held hostage by national referendum, it is also pretty clear that nothing like a truly European political community (except among elites) exists.

Political communities exist where there has been a common history, shared myths, and tragically, almost always, the unifying experience of war. Europe is indeed a civilization, but it is not a political community in the sense that the United States is a political community. Here in the US we share the historic bonds of our Constitution, the founding act of our revolution, and unifying experience of our Civil War. Europe had three real chances since the late 18th century to move from a civilization to a political community. The first was under Napoleon, which would have been tragic. The second was under Hitler, which would have had tragic, and horrifying consequences for the world. The third, and only truly democratic, opportunity for political unity stemmed from the European resistance movements that fought against the Nazis.

Contrast the views of someone clinging to national sovereignty quoted by Horn:

“This isn’t a lone opinion, either. An op-ed in the German Süddeutsche Zeitung made a similar point back in October. ‘Critics hold that democracy is not suitable to bring Europe through the crisis,’ wrote Heribert Prantl, but, he contended, ‘what’s necessary is a debt cut, not a democracy cut … Germany cannot let its parliamentary democracy be castrated because of Greece.'”

With the views of a member of the Dutch Underground at the close of the Second World War quoted by Hannah Arendt in her Approaches to the German Problem:

We are experiencing at present… a crisis of state sovereignty. One of the central problems of the coming peace will be: how can we, while preserving cultural autonomy, achieve the formation of larger units in the political and economic field.?… A good peace is now inconceivable unless the States surrender parts of their sovereignty to a higher European authority: we leave open the question whether a European Council,or Federation, a United States of Europe or whatever type of unit will be formed”. ( 113)

The problem is that this historic opportunity to create a united, democratic Europe was missed at the end of the War. The project of European unity was not a political project, but a technocratic one. Given political time (a generation) Europeans might yet create it, but if it is the markets that dictate for Europe to decide its future now, European democracy will define itself in resistance to rather than the creation of a united Europe.

Rick Searle

December, 6, 2011

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