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Thoughts on the DiEM25 manifesto for Europe

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“DiEM25” stands for “Democracy in Europe Movement 2025”. It is a new leftist initiative whose aim is to transform Europe into a democracy and make it a place where justice prevails. You can learn more about it on its website.

What is of interest to the present author is the ideas it brings to the fore and the quality thereof, rather than the potential it may have for gaining a grip on power. Its manifesto is examined in an effort to understand whether its altereuropeanist vision is based on a solid foundation and remains consistent with the overarching ambition of establishing a transnational democracy in Europe.

A manifesto is, for the most part, a collection of slogans. It captures the general spirit of a political movement, while outlining its principles and objectives. Some propositions are propounded for their rhetorical power, not their underlying analytical qualities; for their capacity to express a certain feeling towards things rather than describe their actuality.

It always is a challenge to comment on a manifesto. Its purpose is to motivate people into action. It is not an elaborate study of the case’s interoperating factors. A manifesto is, nevertheless, a political statement. In being so, it renders itself open to public scrutiny. This is the scope of the present article: to shed light on the perceived weaknesses of certain claims and, perhaps, to stimulate further thinking about how these may be improved, refined or otherwise expanded upon.

The promise of an undefined democracy

The manifesto rests on the premise that virtually everyone fears democracy, including those who are actively involved in the political process. It also presents a very pessimistic and occasionally nihilist view of the world. The EU is [yet again] on the verge of collapse. Practically all economic or organised social actors conspire against the interests of the demos. No policymaker or political adviser seems to be knowledgeable or intelligent enough to implement any decent [economic] programme.

“Brussels” is depicted as a bureaucracy that decided, presumably on its own, to create the troika. Though not a defender of its policies, the truth is that this entity was not brought into being by bureaucrats. The bailouts themselves are inter-state accords that have been approved by all national governments involved and, in many cases, ratified by the respective parliaments. The notion that Europe’s troubles are the fault of a bureaucratic elite operating aloof from the fray fails to account for the inherent intergovernmentalism of European integration; from the fact that the EU is not a proper federation that, inter alia, enjoys a clearly delineated vertical separation of competences.

Political parties appear as nothing but masters of deception. They only pretend to care about their values until they rise to power. It is not clear though whether this concerns all parties across the ideological spectrum or just some of them, and whether it applies throughout Europe or only in some of its parts. Furthermore, it remains to be determined whether this innate immorality of theirs is only exposed once they become part of the government, or can also be discerned in other forms of administrative control and influence. The phenomenon’s peculiarities aside, one may wonder about its contributing factors. Do political parties abandon their lofty ideals once in government due to the frailties of human character, the malice permeating their stratagems, or because their ambition is sometimes misaligned with the facts and is, as a result, unrealisable under the circumstances? Is this truth generalisable or context-dependent? At any rate, it will be interesting to see exactly how DiEM25 will be partisan without becoming a party or, at least, without associating with such ostensibly decadent structures.

Then we are informed that the European Union is part of the problem, if not its ultimate cause. To quote from the text (emphasis original):

Alas, today, a common bureaucracy and a common currency divide European peoples that were beginning to unite despite our different languages and cultures. A confederacy of myopic politicians, economically naïve officials and financially incompetent ‘experts’ submit slavishly to the edicts of financial and industrial conglomerates, alienating Europeans and stirring up a dangerous anti-European backlash. Proud peoples are being turned against each other. Nationalism, extremism and racism are being re-awakened.

One may notice a certain contradiction here. European peoples already were in the process of uniting, yet the very system within which their fusion takes or took place—the EU or European integration in general—is what fuels their division. Notwithstanding the sweeping generalisations about everyone being incompetent, it perhaps is more consistent with the facts to claim that nationalism and xenophobia are rising despite the positives of European integration. It is not the EU as such that engenders those attitudes. More broadly, the issues of corporatism, opacity of decision-making, wealth inequality, and the like appear to be misattributed to “Brussels”, whereas one would expect them to exist in spite of the presence of Europe-wide politics. Would the abolition of the EU necessarily signal the end of those evils?

All these present us with the dilemma of either retracting to the nation state or submitting to the will of Brussels’ bureaucrats. The third option is “democracy”: a concept that everyone understands and yet nothing more than the vague promise of a radical alternative. Throughout the text we do not find out what the much-touted “surge of democracy” amounts to, at least not in concrete terms.

Is the European Union supposed to persist and be reformed? Should it be a federal republic or not? Must the Council of the EU enjoy direct input legitimacy and be re-instituted as a genuine European Senate? Should the Union have an elected government, meaning that the Commission would cease to exist in its current form? Is there scope for a “European Council” or assembly of national heads of state or government in such a reformed EU? Are nation states within the Union supposed to remain “sovereign” over certain policies or not? What norms may govern the separation and distribution of competences between the Union and its Member States? Should these be the constitutional principles of conferral, subsidiarity and proportionality, or something entirely different? Will the supranational level enjoy supremacy over the national level on those areas of policy that are conferred to it? Is this new EU meant to exercise [economic] governance? And will that be enshrined in a certain legal framework that will be binding on national governments? In what substantive way does a European constitution differ from the EU Treaties when both perform the exact same function of being the primary law of the polity?

These questions are meant to make us think in terms of complexity and to suggest that the legal-institutional architecture of a transnational republic will inevitably have to resemble today’s EU in some important ways. If that is the case, it may be hard to reconcile its meaning with the kind of narrative that only finds in the EU the source of all of Europe’s woes.

The action plan to change Europe

It is stated that Brussels is “democracy-free” and “politics-free”. Strictly speaking, this is a tissue of falsehoods. If we refer to the Council’s various formations we are dealing with inter-state politics, their shortcomings notwithstanding. If we are concerned with the ordinary legislative procedure we face a combination of federal representative democracy (European Parliament) and intergovernmental decision-making (Council of the EU). If we focus our attention on the European Council we are again seeing intergovernmental negotiations that are eventually parsed through the EU’s legislative procedure and/or national policy-making.

Whether these are optimal, desirable, or whatnot is beyond the point of them being political, all too political. As for their “democracy-free” nature, perhaps it is best to suggest that they stand below the republican standard set at the national level, without fundamentally deviating from it. They are instances of a democracy manqué, not of a totalitarianism of sorts. If the EU were indeed authoritarian it would have to be abolished, not reformed.

The Union’s democratic shortcomings are in the details and, more specifically, in the fact that inter-state politics and bargaining all too often take precedence over Union-level representative democracy. Interests tend to coagulate along national lines, with one nation or group thereof standing against another. While official Europe provides space for the formulation and promotion of national agendas, it has no means of equally representing the interest of the system at-large. There are rules for the whole area without there being a common body politic, while the virtuous cycle of legitimacy and accountability applies, in its fullness, only to the Member States. The EU’s fundamental flaw is its sovereignty mismatch. It is not as republican as the nation states that comprise it. To correctly present the Union’s flaws one needs to be more eclectic in their approach and accurate in their statement.

Coming to DiEM25’s action plan, we find some interesting ideas combined with others of dubious value. The call for transparency is sound and should remain a priority. It may have to be slightly more careful about what it demands such as, say, the documents concerning the United Kingdom’s negotiations with the EU. The draft agreement and concomitant declarations are actually offered to the public and it so happens that this website already hosts a commentary on them.

Its twelve-month horizon is rather problematic and is caught in another contradiction. To quote from the text:

All five realms are currently left in the hands of national governments powerless to act upon them. DiEM25 will present detailed policy proposals to Europeanise all five while limiting Brussels’ discretionary powers and returning power to national Parliaments, to regional councils, to city halls and to communities. The proposed policies will be aimed at re-deploying existing institutions (through a creative re-interpretation of existing treaties and charters) in order to stabilise the crises of public debt, banking, inadequate investment, and rising poverty.

Firstly, it needs to decide if (a) national governments are indeed powerless, and (b) whether returning authority to national parliaments etc. will, ceteris paribus, render nations powerful once again. Secondly, a clarification is needed concerning the agency that deals with those crises. It now seems as though national governments are all acting on their own accord as if there are no intergovernmental decisions or EU-level policies. Should there be EU action and will it take precedence over national initiatives? Thirdly, the idea of Europeanising policies while at the same time shifting the locus of power to the national level is the kind of impossibility that Dani Rodrik theorised about, by noting that “democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible”.

On another note, a change in the way these crises are addressed is contingent on the prevailing mindset. The policies now in place are not a function of the EU Treaties or of the institutional order they found. They are not independent from the policymakers who operate within it. The content of governance is produced and implemented by governments and parliamentarians that are, for the most part, more conservative than DiEM25. To amend the Treaties, or at least reinterpret them, the agent of reform must first gain widespread support in Europe. That requires a spectacular turn to the left, which is not likely to take place in twelve months or so.

Coming to the medium-term objective, that of drafting a constitution for Europe, it still is the case that the present ideological constraints will have to be overcome. While it is an excellent idea to have representatives to the constitutional assembly be elected on transnational platforms, the modest expectation is that the draft constitution will eventually be formulated by some European citizens and representatives thereof, who will operate outside any institutional framework. Such a constitution will need to be endorsed by the demos, which inevitably means that it either has to be ratified by national parliaments and the political parties operating within them, or be subject to referenda that are themselves proposed by national governments in cooperation with the respective parliaments.

That some group of people may come up with a new piece of primary law does not, in and of itself, mean that it (1) will be implemented, (2) is consistent with national and European constitutional norms and traditions, (3) is compatible with existing constitutions, and (4) is necessarily making Europe or the EU [more] democratic.

A manifesto is not enough

As acknowledged in the introduction, a manifesto does not properly lend itself to analysis. Its purpose is that of offering people a vision for a better future and of motivating them to enact it. One must therefore limit their criticism to whatever elements of content are made available, with the understanding that inchoate arguments and vague promises will give way to concrete proposals.

The objective of establishing a transnational democracy in Europe is laudable. What remains to be determined is the desired structure of such a polity, its particularities and the exact manner in which the thoroughgoing reform of the EU will be realised.

As for DiEM25 qua political entity, it has a lot of potential, especially if it can succeed in its task of drawing linkages between activism and policy-making. Its ambition for Europe is worth exploring, though the way it is framed can benefit from some revision. Ideals and general beliefs will have to be accompanied by—and indeed underpin—the kind of “technicalities” that actually make all the difference in the realm of politics.

The movement is still in its first days. We will assess its progress once it offers us something more convincing than this manifesto.