The foundations of European democracy are slowly eroding. The longer the crisis in the eurozone smolders, this democratic deficit is increasingly endangering the integration capacity of the European Union (EU) and its member states. The result is sociocultural disintegration despite functional integration efforts of the EU.
Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009, the EU has been taking quite dramatic steps to better synchronize national financial and economic policies. Yet the austerity policy that has come with these reform measures has been leaving a growing number of people in society behind. The degree to which social injustice is rising in Europe has been confirmed by various surveys, such as the EU Social Justice Index and the Social Inclusion Monitor. Moreover, the reach and pace of the crisis have heightened the sense of unease and helplessness. In terms of citizens’ democratic participation, this has resulted either in apathetic passivity accompanied by a withdrawal from public life, or protests that sometimes take a destructive form.
Both forms are worse preconditions for (European) policy-making, since political trade-offs of diverging social interests often require lengthy negotiation processes before they can be reconciled. Implementing political goals unilaterally – as practiced for a long time by the EU – always involves the risk of not gaining sufficient acceptance from the electorate. However, if citizens do not strongly identify with their democracy and its institutions, this can become problematic, especially for long-term stability and potential crisis situations.
The EU was never designed as a project for citizens’ participation
This is the true dilemma that the EU is facing right now. The European Communities were never designed to be a citizens’ democratic participation and discourse project. Rather, their primary purpose was to create an internal market to ensure peace. The elites in the national executives were the ones who pushed for the exercise of various market freedoms. Even the promise of ‘prosperity and lasting peace for all’ was forced to take a back seat to other goals. Political controversies and the parliamentary search for necessary compromises were always considered time-consuming and in conflict with the larger demand for market-building policies. Again and again, efficiency took priority over legitimacy issues.
Over the years, EU bodies have of course developed their own momentum in their institutional interaction. Nevertheless, citizens still perceive the EU as a closed shop that nevertheless has been gaining more and more authority to encroach on their personal lives. Since the beginning of the crisis at the latest, many people have also come to associate the EU with liberalized, deregulated markets – an abstract concern that many believe to be confirmed in the current negotiations over TTIP and CETA, and elsewhere. This is no surprise. There was never a cross-border public debate on the question of what type of market the people want and what type of relationship should exist between the market and democracy in the EU.
The EU’s democratic deficit requires more than cosmetic changes
Many politicians and academics are still under the illusion that a bit of political will and corresponding majorities could correct the EU’s democratic deficit by making a few cosmetic changes to its treaties. Most discussed in this context are more rights for the European Parliament, direct elections of the president of the European Commission and the Council, and more subsidiarity and direct democratic participation options for citizens.
But the crisis has shown more clearly than ever before that open-heart surgery of this kind hardly seems realistic right now, when the patient is short of breath and hence the need for democratization is the greatest. There is no capacity for a debate that would redefine the sense and purpose of the EU or for developing a positive vision as an alternative offer to EU citizens, since they are preoccupied with day-to-day crisis management.
Democracy needs forms of social balance. After all, individuals need to have adequate protection against existential risks before they can develop an interest in democratic participation. People who have to put great effort into ensuring their own survival each day have little energy left for political activity. This creates another dilemma for the EU. The union has always had such poorly developed skills when it comes to social policy and instruments for market corrections. The EU’s Financial Framework 2014-2020 gives evidence that it will continue to lack the financial resources and competence to mitigate the social imbalances in the internal market it created over decades in general and in the crisis in particular.
What is even more problematic is that its crisis management strategy has aimed for strict austerity that has usually involved comprehensive cuts in social welfare systems, especially in the member states in the southern periphery. The exorbitant rise in recipients of unemployment and welfare benefits as well as mass labor migration, especially in Greece, Spain, Italy, France and Cyprus, is worrisome, and not just for the many individuals who have suffered personally as a result. The greater danger is that the affected political systems will lose one or even two generations of democratically mature, active citizens. In this way, citizens’ dwindling acceptance will destroy the legitimacy of political systems and their decisions on both levels, the EU and its member states.
Eurosceptic and right-wing parties are on the rise
Even in EU member states like Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany, which have had well-developed welfare states up to now, there has been a significant increase in votes for Eurosceptic and right-wing populist parties in recent years. The Front National in France, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Great Britain, and new parties and organizations such as the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) and “PEGIDA”, have had unprecedented success at mobilizing support since the crisis began.
On one hand, the established parties want to prevent new groups from somehow accelerating their own loss of influence as a result of declining membership and various scandals. On the other hand, they appear uncertain and overwhelmed when it comes to dealing with these new movements. The demands of these groups are often vague or do not extend beyond a sweeping rejection of established political systems. At the same time, they claim to fully represent the real will of the people when they calls for ‘drastic measures’ and ‘cleaning up’.
Such demands ultimately correspond to the rebirth of communist and nationalist parties seen in member states in the center of Eastern Europe during recent years. The widespread wish to bring back the ‘good old days when things were under control’ is an indication that the democratic socialization of segments of the Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Croatian public apparently did not succeed enough to establish stable democracies after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
As Daniel-Schraad Tischler of the Bertelsmann Stiftung recently stated in the context of the Club de Madrid’s Next Generation Democracy project: “Finally, protests and social movements in defiance of government austerity programs and the political establishment are indicative less of a mature civil society and politically active citizenry; they point instead to disappointment in European integration and the associated modernization processes promoted by political elites. In several countries, violent riots near protest demonstrations and staged counter-protests have contributed to political polarization and provided ample opportunity for extremist politicians to exploit protests for their own anti-democratic objectives.”
In the long run, such developments threaten the integration capacity not only of individual member states but ultimately of the EU as a whole. It needs not necessarily a possible “Grexit” or a withdrawal of Great Britain from the Union to speak about European disintegration. A growing democratic vacuum implies also dangers, which should not be underestimated. Therefore, the only way to regain wide acceptance of the EU is for member states to strengthen their democracies. That can be only reached through an open and active discussion about Europe’s future between political elites and citizens and a renouncement of blame-avoidance games.
Dr. Henrik Scheller is interims professor at the Chair of German and European Government and Politics at the University of Potsdam.
Translation: Douglas Fox