EU democratic deficit at core of fiscal impasse

Sat, May 12, 2012, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:WE ARE in the process – painfully, haltingly – of addressing the central deficiency in Europe’s single currency.

The vote on the fiscal treaty represents Ireland’s part in a joint effort to give the euro the framework of collective disciplines that can provide the currency with the robustness it needs, the guarantee of its soundness, economic bulk, and the defences that can allow it to maintain value.

That’s the theory anyway.

But Europe’s current impasse is not only an economic challenge, difficult enough as that may be. It is intensely political, a test of the limits of our ability to take decisions together and, crucially, the linked issue of the democratic legitimacy of the whole project.

If Ireland votes No it will be as much a rejection of so-called austerity politics as an expression of what appears to be deepening alienation from and suspicion of the EU, the perception that this is not a joint project but an imposition from outside, a them and us. What we are seeing is an increasing undermining of what political scientists see as the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, a “consent to be governed”.

In truth we have to ask ourselves if the missing pillar in the construction of the euro is not mirrored in a missing political pillar in the construction of the union itself, that of political legitimacy.

The issue was discussed in a debate in Brussels this week between senior MEPs and journalists from around the EU on the broad theme of “economic integration and democratic accountability”.

The nature of the treaty as an intergovernmental construct of 25 of the member states rather than a product of the union means MEPs have been bypassed – they have not been allowed to vote on it, although in truth they have approved the vast bulk of its provisions in the form of the “six pack”, the agreed regulations that establish the framework of economic governance and disciplines and that make the treaty itself a largely superfluous pandering to German political needs.

The context, all the MEPs insisted, is a significant and malign shift in the locus of power away from the community institutions, both the commission and the parliament.

Danny Cohn Bendit, the French head of the GreenEFA group, insists that even the simple act of passing the treaty through the European Parliament would have significantly contributed to enhancing its acceptability in places like Greece by giving it democratic legitimacy. Really?

Others across the political spectrum agreed. A call for enhanced powers – not only in vetting treaties but in enforcing new governance procedures, says socialist Roberto Gualtieri – is indeed long-standing European Parliament policy.

But it assumes, contrary to experience, that extra powers will inevitably bring with them a growing acceptance by the public of the parliament as an expression of its democratic will, a vehicle through which they can claim ownership of the union.

It crucially blurs the distinction between what might be called the legal realist view of democratic legitimacy – the formal structures that provide for control by a directly elected parliament – and the psychological or political nature of legitimacy, a subjective sense of ownership by citizens.

We are very far from the latter and it seems unfortunate that every treaty enhancing MEPs’ powers has, paradoxically, actually been marked by further public alienation from the EU

The meeting also reflected a genuine agonising over the democratic challenge of the Greek and French votes. While British Conservative Kay Swinburne argued that what had been agreed previously between member states should not be called into question by the election results, Cohn Bendit said to take that view was dangerously close to saying to the Greeks that there was no point in voting.

There was a strong reluctance to accept the inevitability of Greek departure from the euro – economically disastrous for them as much as threatening to the euro – and a desire to see some form of relief agreed, probably in the form of extending loan periods. How that will be agreed, however, without a willing partner in Athens is as unclear in parliament as, apparently, in the commission and among the member states.

There was also an unsurprising unanimity on the need for an EU growth pact to complement the treaty, an almost comical insistence that all are “of course” on board and that the Hollande election has really changed nothing. But scratch the surface and there are as many definitions of what growth policies mean as definitions of political legitimacy – from freeing up the internal market to expanding the capital base of the European Investment Bank to major capital programmes.

What is clear is that the full shape and ambition of a growth pact will not be clear before Ireland votes. A matter to take on trust, folks, though there’s precious little of that about these days.

Interesting, too, to see former internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy still remembered (by Pervenche Berez, a French socialist) not, perhaps, as he would have wished, but as the man who failed to put his finger in the dyke ahead of the crash by supporting self-regulation of financial services.

Ireland’s poster boy image ain’t what it used to be.

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