State of European Democracy

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On September 9 European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered the annual State of the Union speech before the European Parliament [see transcript].

President Juncker did have the honesty and boldness to admit some of the Union’s shortcomings, such as the overall failure to respond in a rational, humane, and concerted way to the refugee and migrant crisis. Yet his solution always seemed to be the same old motto of “more Europe” and “more Union”, which translate as “further transfer of power to the European level”.

I appreciate Mr. Juncker’s openness and European spirit, but I think we will be committing an error if we hold Europe to such a low standard as the typical “more Europe” rhetoric would suggest.

More power at the supranational level is not a problem per se, provided it is aligned with the principle of subsidiarity in its narrow interpretation. It becomes an issue when the transfer of sovereignty is not accompanied by the corresponding democratic legitimacy, thus substantiating a pan-European popular sovereignty.

By making the European institutions ever-more powerful we are not automatically improving the quality of democratic life in the Union, nor are we enhancing our inter-subjective political experience at the national or local level. Instead, we are creating an increasingly centralised order that diminishes the scope of popular control over the state structures.

The state of democracy

The state of democracy in Europe is not as good as it could and should have been. The evident normative shortcomings of the European Union as it currently stands can be summarised thus:

  1. inter-state-treaties-based system: the EU is founded on international treaties. Based on the principle of pacta sunt servanda, no Member State can unilaterally review the content of those treaties, meaning that their validity takes precedence over any national policy that may stand in conflict to them.
  2. weak legislature: the European Parliament does not have the power to review the primary legal corpus of the Union, so that it may not amend a single iota in the legal basis of any institution, body, or agency, while it cannot even bring into question the Treaty articles on which secondary legislation is based. Because of the inter-state nature of the Union, neither the European Parliament nor any given national parliament may proceed with an ex post review of this legal order, which represents a severe constraint on popular sovereignty.
  3. inter-governmentalism: notwithstanding the excitement and promise germane to the spitzenkandidaten process that made Mr. Juncker the Commission’s president, the locus of power in Europe is found at first in the institution of the European Council, and secondly in the quasi-legal entity of the Eurogroup. It is the Council that provides the Commission with its mandate or, if the issue concerns policies specific to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), the Eurogroup. Such inter-governmentalism further diminishes pan-European democratic policy making, for decisions are contingent on the circumstantial balance of power between interests that always coagulate along national lines.
  4. [European] citizenship manqué: though there exists a European citizenship, it does not entail the normative rights a national citizenship does. As is clear from the items on this list, a citizen qua “European citizen” cannot vote to change the primary law of the Union, be it directly by plebiscite or indirectly via their representatives; has no power whatsoever to elect a genuine democratic government; is decisively hampered from exercising democratic control over “de-politicised” institutions such as the European Central Bank; and is deprived of the capacity to pierce through the veil of opacity surrounding the decision-making processes of the European Council and the Eurogroup.

President Juncker’s “more Europe” will not address any of these flaws. Instead it will exacerbate the problems. Popular sovereignty and democratic legitimacy will be diminished further, be it at the national or the European level, as the quasi-confederal order outlined above will assume greater authority.

The state of democracy in Europe does concern me the most. My fear is that this kind of integration is making us citizens alien to our own state structures: we do not control them sufficiently and at all times.

I am not a “more Europe” panegyrist. I find that kind of language to be highly problematic, for it obfuscates or conveniently circumvents the real issues, depicting them instead as a typical “good-bad” binary, where EU institutions assume the role of “the good” and national governments perform that of “the bad”.

I am a European federalist/republican, which means that I am in favour of establishing a European constitutional order founded on a codified corpus of primary law. This is not yet another Treaty that will be agreed behind the closed doors of the European Council, but a single document that will be open to public debate and scrutiny, and will have to gain the approval of citizens at a referendum.

To such an event, I will be among those voting for a “Yes”. On the flip-side though and as democratic norms demand, if citizens were to object to the creation of a European republic, no leader would be legitimised to transfer more power to institutions that are of dubious legitimacy and are not adequately accountable.

More democracy

The regular reader is aware of what I mean by the creation of a European constitutional order, a European Democracy. For those new to my writings, I may point to a recent essay, Modality and European Federalism, where I outline such a view, while strongly criticising federalist approaches that put form (federation) before substance (democracy). To that end, I also question the idea of an “economic government”, which is a notion that President Juncker also referred to in his speech.

Instead of making economic governance more technocratic, we should be thinking of ways to overcome the EMU’s underlying mindset of “common rules without common politics” for the purpose of creating a sphere of common [federal] politics.

We do not need—and I believe no body of citizens would ever approve of—a European economic tsar with the power to rewrite national budgets and impose austerity at will, even if that super-Commissioner were to be regularly _briefing _a dedicated euro-committee inside the European Parliament.

Note: As outlined above, the European Parliament does not exercise parliamentary scrutiny in its fullest, not least because it has no power to amend the legal order of the Union or the legal basis of any EU institution.

We would be better off if a genuine European government were in place, directly elected on a clear platform, and subject to control by a bicameral European Parliament/Congress, comprised of elected representatives in both of its chambers (House of Representatives and Senate).

Such inter-governmental and technocratic instruments as the European Semester would be decisively reformed, to become mechanisms for the exercise of a federal economic policy, enjoying democratic legitimacy, and being fully accountable to the legislature.

No more inter-state bargaining, no more stewardship by troika-like mechanisms, no more arbitrariness by the Union’s now-depoliticised institutions (such as the European Central Bank’s decision to stop being the lender of last resort in Greece).

[Read analysis: On the institutional independence of the European Central Bank]

I find President Juncker’s “more Europe” call to be nothing new. It promises to make some European policies more effective at the expense of reinforcing the most alienating aspects of the current quasi-confederal order; an order that we might as well consider technocratic in varying degrees of intensity, depending on the issue at hand.

What we need is crystal clear: popular sovereignty and democratic control over our state structures. The honourable president of the European Commission had nothing to say on that front.