Fintan O’Toole: EU has taken decisive turn from democracy

We EU subjects have our own supreme ayatollahs of fiscal correctness now

By rejecting an attempt to force their elected government from office, the Greeks have acted as good Europeans. They have given the European Union a chance to save itself as a democratic project. If it is not seized now, that opportunity may not come again.

The EU faces many threats, but by far the biggest comes from within. It is from what we might call the new Illuminati, after the elite 18th century masons who imagined themselves so uniquely enlightened that only they themselves were fit to direct the destiny of the world.

Like their historic brethren, the new Illuminati see themselves as an entirely benign force. They have little idea that what they are actually creating is a form of arbitrary rule.

Consider three moments from the last fortnight. Firstly, the (now former) Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was excluded from the eurogroup of finance ministers. When he sought legal advice on what rules allowed the group to exclude him, he was told: “The eurogroup is an informal group. Thus it is not bound by treaties or written regulations. While unanimity is conventionally adhered to, the eurogroup president is not bound to explicit rules.”

This is the very definition of arbitrary rule – decisions of vast consequence are being taken by a group that does not consider itself bound by treaties or regulations.

Euroanorak award

Secondly: a question. Who are the following people? Harald Waiglein, Thomas Steffen, Isabelle Goubin, Hans Vijlbrief, Alenka Jerki?. If you recognise these names, allow me to present you with this golden Euroanorak award. These, along with a bunch of others, form the board of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

Last week, they issued a formal threat to call in Greece’s loans from the EFSF early, thus forcing a member state into bankruptcy and out of the euro. So, again: who the hell are these people? Every one of them is a civil servant. None, so far as I know, has ever been elected by anybody.

Thirdly, consider John FitzGerald's column in The Irish Times . FitzGerald, recently retired professor at the ESRI, has long been the leading analyst of fiscal policy in Ireland, a man who politicians and the media look to for expert guidance. In the course of last week's column he mentioned that he finds the euro zone's fiscal rules "pretty impenetrable".

In effect he owned up that he does not understand them and suggested that “only a handful of experts understand what the rules mean”. Why does this matter? Because we are literally governed by these rules. We (in my view foolishly) inserted them into our Constitution, so they set the parameters within which any government we elect must act.

The rules that shape our collective lives are as obscure to the vast majority of citizens as the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem or the lyrics of A Whiter Shade of Pale. If John FitzGerald doesn't understand them, it is safe to say that no elected Irish politician understands them either. How can citizens exert their rights to democratic accountability when even the most economically literate of them cannot expect to understand the laws that govern all policy?

The corollary is that those who do understand, that tiny elite of fiscal gnostics, now wield the kind of authority that, in European history, previously belonged only to the Oracle at Delphi or to mediaeval popes. We mock the Iranians for having an assembly of ayatollahs whose interpretations of the finer points of Islam can overrule all political decisions. But we have our own supreme ayatollahs of fiscal correctness now.

Working model

If we put these three moments together, we have a perfect working model of arbitrary rule: a high-level group that does not consider itself bound by European treaties (those treaties that we went to such trouble to insert into our Constitution in multiple referendums); a second group that nobody ever elected but that has acquired the power to bankrupt an entire country and effectively expel it from the euro zone; and a set of governing laws that are impenetrable, not only to citizens but even to professional politicians and to most of the experts whose opinions shape public discourse.

These realities amount to something that those (like myself) who have always supported the European project have to face: the project has taken a decisive turn away from democracy. It is conventional wisdom that the EU is in danger from below, with the rise of eurosceptic parties. But it is in even more danger from above.

The Illuminati form a tight, disciplined and single-minded technocratic elite. Like all such elites, it is impervious to evidence that it is wrong. It created the current crisis through its botched design of the euro and its unwillingness to control the banking system. But its confidence is unshaken by these disasters – it now knows with utter certainty that the only way out of the crisis is more of the austerity that has proved to be a failure.

The Greek government and now the Greek people are trying to take the EU back from the Illuminati. Anyone who wants the EU to survive should stand with them.