Citizens’ role ‘undermined by ratings agencies’ - Higgins

President addresses Dublin European Institute on question of crisis in the union

The disproportionate influence of ratings agencies in informing European policy responses to the current crisis is undermining the role of citizens in governing their democracies, President Michael D Higgins said.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

The disproportionate influence of ratings agencies in informing European policy responses to the current crisis is undermining the role of citizens in governing their democracies, President Michael D Higgins said. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 19:11

The disproportionate influence of ratings agencies in informing European policy responses to the current crisis is undermining the role of citizens in governing their democracies, President Michael D Higgins said.

Referring to them as “a modern panopticon, not bound by any requirement of democratic accountability, he said the agencies were “increasingly coming to define the lifeworld and prospects of European citizens”.

“The relationship between peoples is not in the end reducible to the calculable,” Mr Higgins said.

The President was giving a keynote address to the Dublin European Institute (DEI), a university centre for research on European affairs which is part of the UCD School of Politics and International Relations.

Speakers at the event in Dublin addressed the topic ‘European Democracy in Crisis?’.

“The formulation of a discourse on such issues as the possibility of having a pluralism of responses that would enable the member states of the European Union to address their citizens’ concerns on unemployment, poverty, social insecurity and growing inequality is, I believe, both urgent and important,” Mr Higgins said.

Mr Higgins also said the the current “encroachment of expertise and technocracy over democratic debate” was “threatening the future of our polities”.

“As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, recalling how Europe sleepwalked into war; as we watch in dismay the unfolding crisis between Ukraine and Russia; as risks of armed conflict on a large scale are discernible elsewhere in the world, we should seek to understand, reflect and speak of what it is that Europeans gained in displacing oppression as a mode of international relations. The full capacity of a deepened democracy in life and institutions has yet to be achieved.”

The President also noted the rise of “Eurosceptic populists” in contemporary Europe - with “national identity as their rallying cry” - pointed “very plainly to European citizens’ perceptions and growing discontent with the current course of the EU”.

Prof Kevin O’Rourke, Chichele Professor of Economic History at all Souls College Oxford, said the European crisis had “greatly enhanced the power of technocrats”, which was “problematic in all sorts of ways”.

He had a “number of problems” with the way people within the European Central Bank and the European Commission had behaved since the crisis started.

“The first thing to say is these people are not politically neutral.”

He said he did not believe there was “any reasonable reading” of the policies they had been promoting that would lead people to conclude this was the case.

“Ever since the crisis started there has been a ‘Holy Trinity’ - or perhaps a troika - of beliefs that has governed the advocacy of technocrats in our international institutions.

“Firstly a believe that austerity is expansionary - that didn’t work out. Secondly a belief that if debt-to-GDP ratios get above 90 per cent all hell will break loose - that turned out to be the result of a spreadsheet error. And thirdly the belief that if we are going to cut back, if we are going to have austerity, it has to be through cutting government expenditure and not through raising taxes.

“These are all very convenient beliefs to have if your ultimate aim is to shrink the state. And that’s not a politically neutral aim.”

Prof Brigid Laffan, director and Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and a founding director of the DEI, said there was still a real problem of classification of the European Union.

“The EU is not a state, nor is it an international organisation and we still have a very real problem of classification. Just what is it? We can say that it is a compound polity, it is a political system, it has real power, real reach and real consequence. But it isn’t a compound democracy...Whether it is capable of becoming one will unfold over the years ahead.”