When a word becomes synonymous with the Right and the Good and is expected to command universal assent, you can be sure that some kind of confidence trick is being played. Democracy has unfortunately become such a word, one of those “big words” that Stephen Dedalus feared because “they make us so unhappy.” Right now, democracy, or the supposed lack of it, is making Europeans of all stripes unhappy. Complaints about Europe’s so-called democratic deficit abound on both the right and the left.
To take one example, John Hilary, a left-wing advocate of Brexit, or British exit from the EU, wrote recently that “democracy no longer has any meaning within the EU” because “the will of the Greek people was bulldozed by the demands of the central elites.” This brisk summary neglects the fact that the central issue in the referendum in which the Greek people expressed their will concerned Greece’s obligations to the other peoples of the European Union, of whose population the Greeks account for less than 3 percent. The Greek government that called the referendum was itself elected with just over 35 percent of the vote. The “central elites” who allegedly bulldozed the popular will themselves wielded no powers other than those granted to them by agreement of the democratically elected governments of the EU’s member states. Hilary was thus conveniently cherry-picking among the numerous and often contradictory expressions of the popular will that exist in every democracy, choosing only those necessary to make his case while ignoring others. His professed concern for Greece is purely instrumental, a manifestation of British nationalism rather than the transnational solidarity behind which it masquerades.
Martin Sandbu, a much more balanced commentator than John Hilary, nevertheless echoes Hilary’s attack on Europe’s central elites. In his valuable recent book on the Euro crisis, entitled Europe’s Orphan, Sandbu condemns the European Central Bank for attempting to hold Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to commitments he had made in return for financial relief from the bank. “There was a time,” Sandbu writes, “when generals (or worse) took it upon themselves to protect the national interest from dithering politicians. It is less bloody when central bankers do it, but nearly as noxious to democracy.”
Reading these two articles, one might think that the chief threat to European democracy comes from high-handed Eurocrats in Brussels and Frankfurt thumbing their noses at the will of the people. But an article in Foreign Affairs paints a very different picture. Popular elected leaders in Hungary and Poland have moved rapidly toward autocracy, the authors warn, and Eurocrats have failed to step in to prevent the undermining of democracy from within: “By failing to aggressively counter [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban’s grab for power, the European Union signaled to aspiring autocrats across the continent that they could commit similar attacks on democracy and the rule of law without facing meaningful consequences,” thus encouraging, for instance, a recent crackdown on the press and attempt to undermine the Constitutional Court in Poland.
So which is it? Are Eurocrats at fault when they high-handedly intervene to thwart democratically elected member-state governments in the name of their own view of the greater good, or are they at fault when they fail to intervene to halt “aspiring autocrats” elected by duped and beguiled majorities? Perhaps the problem lies rather with the commentators’ failure to ask what the European Union might require in order to function more successfully as a democracy. If elites are a problem in any democracy—and they are—they are also indispensable. If the popular will cannot be ignored, it sometimes needs to be educated, slowed, or moderated. And the mere existence of elections, which Hilary seems to take as the be-all and end-all of democracy, is no guarantee that minority rights and the rule of law will be respected in places like Poland and Hungary.
Various proposals have been floated to remedy the EU’s chronic institutional defects. The Glienicke Group, consisting of 11 German economists, lawyers, and political scientists, has proposed, in lieu of full political union, an “economic government” overseen either by members of the existing European Parliament or deputies chosen from the various national parliaments of the member states. The latter formula would have the virtue of brining politics at the European level into more intimate association with politics at the national level. A similar French group, also composed of intellectuals and civil society actors including the economist Thomas Piketty, has sketched out what it calls a “new democratic architecture” for Europe. One of its ideas is to add a second chamber to the European Parliament, in which states would somehow be represented “through their national parliaments.”
Both groups believe that if Europe suffers from a democratic deficit, then the answer is obviously “more democracy” in the form of more representative bodies. But neither grapples with the true cause of the Continent’s impasse, which, as the late Stanley Hoffmann noted more than 20 years ago in The European Sisyphus, lies in the fact that its “Byzantine setup … is a compromise between the inadequate and the impossible.” What is impossible is for states to cede enough of their sovereignty so that citizens began to think of themselves as citizens of Europe, whose fate depends not on what national governments they elect but on what collective purpose they envision for themselves as Europeans. What is inadequate is the way in which they have tried to compensate for their failure to make the leap to a federal super-state by shunting crucial decisions onto a technocracy that has convinced itself of the rightness of its policies but is under no obligation to convince the people who are subject to them.
When democracies go wrong, their people along with their elites must bear part of the blame. Where have the people of Europe gone wrong? The answer is clear. They have never been able to decide whether they prefer to hang separately or hang together. Their reluctance to commit to a common future is understandable. They bled one another for centuries in fratricidal wars. Their mutual hatreds are enshrined in linguistic stereotypes: “perfidious Albion” contracts “the French disease” from “the Krauts.” Following the unprecedented destruction of World War II, these animosities were buried, because everyone agreed such devastation this could never be repeated. The old purposes of national supremacy around which the prewar political systems had coalesced therefore had to be suppressed, and the promise of economic cooperation across borders seemed for a time to provide an adequate substitute.
The opportunity offered by the necessity of postwar reconstruction ensured a level of prosperity sufficient to justify the limited sacrifices of sovereignty that were demanded and grudgingly granted. But the next step, toward true political union, has proved difficult to take, and the requirements of economic cooperation in an increasingly competitive global environment have revived old tensions without suggesting any achievable new purpose that might justify further sacrifice. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out nearly two centuries ago, democracy involves a difficult feat of temporal balancing, “vanquishing the passions and silencing the needs of the present for the sake of the future.” Until Europe can devise an idea of a common future capable of quelling the mutual suspicion and rancor of the present, democracy will continue to struggle, not because of a deficit of popular voice or an excess of elite arrogance but because it offers no basis on which to build consensus.