Democ­racy or bust in Europe

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“Europe will be democra­tised or it will dis­in­te­grate!” That maxim is more than a catch­phrase from the man­i­festo of the Democ­racy in Europe Move­ment – DiEM25, the group I just helped to launch in Ber­lin. It is a sim­ple, if un­der­ac­knowl­edged fact.

Europe’s cur­rent dis­in­te­gra­tion is all too real. New divi­sions are ap­pear­ing seem­ingly ev­ery­where one looks: along bor­ders, within our so­ci­eties and economies, and in the minds of Europe’s cit­i­zens.

Europe’s loss of in­tegrity be­came painfully ev­i­dent in the lat­est turn in the refugee cri­sis. Euro­pean lead­ers called upon Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdo an to open his coun­try’s bor­ders to refugees from the war-torn Syr­ian city of Aleppo; in the same breath, they chas­tised Greece for let­ting the same refugees into “Euro­pean” ter­ri­tory, and even threat­ened to erect fences along Greece’s bor­ders with the rest of Europe.

Sim­i­lar dis­in­te­gra­tion can be seen in the realm of fi­nance. If an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen won some lot­tery jack­pot, she would not care whether her prize dol­lars were de­posited in a bank domi­ciled in Ne­vada or New York. This is not so in the eu­ro­zone. The same sum of euros has very dif­fer­ent “ex­pected” value in a Por­tuguese, Ital­ian, Greek, Dutch, or Ger­man bank ac­count, be­cause banks in the weaker mem­ber states are re­liant on bailouts from fis­cally stressed gov­ern­ments. That is a sure sign of the sin­gle cur­rency’s dis­in­te­gra­tion.

Mean­while, political rifts are di­vid­ing and mul­ti­ply­ing in the Euro­pean Union’s heart­land. The United King­dom is torn on whether to exit or not – a re­flec­tion of its political es­tab­lish­ment’s own chronic un­will­ing­ness both to de­fend the EU and to con­front its au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. The re­sult is an elec­torate prone to blam­ing the EU for ev­ery­thing that goes wrong, but with no in­ter­est ei­ther in cam­paign­ing for more Euro­pean democ­racy or in leav­ing the EU’s sin­gle mar­ket.

More omi­nously, the Franco-Ger­man axis pow­er­ing Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion has frac­tured. Em­manuel Macron, France’s Econ­omy Min­is­ter, could not have put it more chill­ingly when he said that the two coun­tries are edg­ing to­ward a mod­ern ver­sion of the Catholic-ver­sus-Protes­tant Thirty Years’ War.

Mean­while, south­ern coun­tries lan­guish in a state of per­ma­nent re­ces­sion that they blame on Europe’s north. And, as if this were not enough, an­other men­ac­ing fault line has ap­peared along the for­mer Iron Cur­tain, with gov­ern­ments of for­merly com­mu­nist coun­tries openly de­fy­ing the spirit of sol­i­dar­ity that used to char­ac­terise (at least in the­ory) the Euro­pean pro­ject.

Why is Europe dis­in­te­grat­ing? And what can be done about it?

The an­swer lies in the EU’s ori­gins. The EU be­gan life as a car­tel of heavy in­dus­tries de­ter­mined to ma­nip­u­late prices and re­dis­tribute mo­nop­oly prof­its through a bu­reau­cracy lo­cated in Brus­sels. To fix prices across Euro­pean bor­ders, there was a need to fix ex­change rates as well. Dur­ing the Bret­ton Woods era, the Unites States pro­vided this “ser­vice.” But as soon as the US ditched Bret­ton Woods in the sum­mer of 1971, the Brus­sels-based car­tel’s ad­min­is­tra­tors be­gan to de­sign a Euro­pean fixed ex­change-rate sys­tem. Af­ter a se­ries of (of­ten spec­tac­u­lar) fail­ures, the euro was born to su­per­glue ex­change rates to­gether.

As with all car­tel man­agers, the EU tech­nocrats treated gen­uine pan-Euro­pean democ­racy as a threat. Pa­tiently, me­thod­i­cally, a process of de-politi­cis­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing was put in place. Na­tional politi­cians were re­warded hand­somely for their ac­qui­es­cence, while any­one op­posed to the car­tel’s tech­no­cratic ap­proach was la­beled “unEuro­pean” and treated as an out­sider.

Thus, al­though Euro­pean coun­tries re­mained demo­cratic, the EU in­sti­tu­tions, where sovereignty over cru­cial de­ci­sions was trans­ferred, have re­mained democ­racy-free. As Mar­garet Thatcher ex­plained dur­ing her last Par­lia­men­tary ap­pear­ance as Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter, who con­trols money and in­ter­est rates con­trols the pol­i­tics of Europe.

Hand­ing Europe’s money and pol­i­tics to a car­tel ad­min­is­tra­tion did not only spell the end of Euro­pean democ­racy; it has also fu­elled a vi­cious cy­cle of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and poor eco­nomic re­sults. The more Europe’s es­tab­lish­ment chokes off democ­racy, the less le­git­i­mate its political au­thor­ity be­comes. That leads Euro­pean lead­ers to dou­ble down on au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in or­der to stick to their failed poli­cies when re­ces­sion­ary eco­nomic forces strengthen. This is why Europe is the world’s only econ­omy that has failed to re­cover since 2008.

It is through this vi­cious cy­cle that Europe’s cri­sis is turn­ing its peo­ples in­ward and against one an­other other, am­plify­ing la­tent jin­go­ism and xeno­pho­bia. In­deed, it is what has ren­dered Europe in­ca­pable of ab­sorb­ing ex­ter­nal shocks – like last sum­mer’s refugee in­flux.

What we should do now is what democrats should have done in 1930 to pre­vent a catas­tro­phe that is now be­com­ing imag­in­able once again. We should es­tab­lish a pan-Euro­pean coali­tion of rad­i­cal, so­cial, green, and lib­eral democrats to put the “demos” back into democ­racy, coun­ter­ing an EU es­tab­lish­ment that sees peo­ple power as a threat to its au­thor­ity. This is what DiEM25 is about and why it is nec­es­sary.

Are we utopian? Maybe. But it is more re­al­is­tic than the EU es­tab­lish­ment’s at­tempt to hang on to our dis­in­te­grat­ing, anti-demo­cratic, car­tel-like union. If our pro­ject is utopian, it is also the only al­ter­na­tive to a dystopia in the mak­ing.

The real dan­ger is not that we shall aim too high and miss. The real dan­ger is that Euro­peans train their eyes on the abyss and end up there.

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