Recent economic turmoils in the European Union have raised questions about democracy, or the lack of such, in the EU. Are we truly (un)democratic?  

European integration has far exceeded the expectations people had back in 1957, when the Treaty of Rome was signed. What is more, unlike other structures aimed at regional cooperation, the principles of democracy, justice and solidarity are set in its fundamental Treaties. However, recent European economic events and the management of the crisis pose some questions: is the EU really democratic? Or is it only our perception of the lack of democracy without understanding how much power EU citizens have that is bothering us? But how much direct democracy is actually needed in managing a crisis that many experts do not yet have the knowledge to cope?

Is the EU terrified of democracy?

Let’s begin by looking back at the proposed referendum in Greece, in autumn 2011. Greek Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou, under pressure from riots, said he would call for a referendum on the bailout package that the EU and Greece had concluded. The idea met the lukewarm reception of other European leaders, and less than a week later, it was dropped. One more week, and Papandreou himself had tendered his resignation.

Ostensibly, it would appear that the EU leaders, led by Merkel and Sarkozy, sabotaged the noble democratic impetus of the Greek premier. The eurosceptic media seemed to support this view quite vocally, stating that Europe “[was] terrified of democracy”, or expressed “a damnable contempt for democracy”. Even the BBC expressed its concerns over democracy, publishing an article called “Democracy versus the eurozone.” However, amidst all the media buzz, a more detailed view is needed to make sense of the situation.

Photo: GoatChild (Flickr);Licence: CC-NC-SA
“In the name of democracy, do you, citizens of Greece, want to see austerity and cuts in public spending?” Please vote yes so we can just move on.

Why a greek referendum would not work

First of all, it should be noted that whatever analyses and opinions we have and share are to a great extent speculative. It is only a small amount of information that reaches the general public, and unfortunately we will never know what exactly was – and is – being said at the closed-door summits, where the most important decisions seem to be taken. It takes only a brief look at any WikiLeaks cable to realise that open diplomacy is still only an abstract concept, in the EU, US or elsewhere.

That being said, in a rapidly developing situation like the eurocrisis, Greece needed sound and quick decisions that would help the country tackle its massive debt problem. The statesmen in charge, personified here by PM Papandreou, had to take incredibly responsible choices which would have consequences for decades to come. A parallel could be drawn to the mid-70s, when PM Karamanlis decided to apply for membership to the European Community, against popular opinion.

So why was a referendum inappropriate; did the Greeks not deserve to have a say?

First and foremost, the Greek bailout package is an intricate economic matter, which means that one has to have specific knowledge to form a justified opinion on the matter. This is primarily the reason why most European states’ legislation explicitly excludes economic matters such as taxation from being referendum questions.

This leads to the second reason – however the question was posed on the ballots, it was bound to be reduced to a vote on austerity. If Papandreou had convinced the Greek people that this was necessary and had won the vote, he and his policy would have emerged stronger than ever, this would have given him legitimacy and he would not have had to act under the constant pressure of daily riots in Athens. In reality, however, the vote was never going to be a “yes” – history has yet to see a population that votes for austerity and cuts in public spending. In that case, Greece would have plunged into the unknown consequences of a default, but Papandreou’s reputation would have still been intact. Vox populi

In reality, however, the vote was never going to be a “yes” – history has yet to see a population that votes for austerity and cuts in public spending.

Papandreou’s fall from power and the interim government of “national unity” which followed it, formed by Lucas Papademos, bring us to another allegation that has been made against the EU: that it has ousted unfavourable governments in Greece and Italy and appointed convenient ones instead. While it is true that both Papademos and Monti are better received in Brussels than their predecessors were, these claims are vastly exaggerated. It was the national parliaments of Greece and Italy that approved these governments, thus adhering to the democratic form of the constitution of a government. Moreover, Mario Monti seems to have retained the approval of the majority of Italians (52% as of February), while making quick, silent, and effective reforms. Quite unlike Silvio Berlusconi, immensely popular at the time of his election, whose notorious offences flooded (his own) media on a daily basis a few months ago.

This scrutiny and the new fiscal treaty bring us to a broader subject – the principle of subsidiarity. Put simply, it means that within the Union, policy decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level. In this context, it seems only reasonable that decisions that affect the entire eurozone should be discussed with all the parties involved. As a result to that, the eurocrisis will have at least one positive outcome – citizens now realise how closely their states’ economies are integrated and how it is in everyone’s interest that the common currency should succeed.

Democracy vs. integration

The ongoing fiscal integration, however, might further harm the image of the EU as a democratic entity. Over the last two decades, there has been great debate in both academic and professional circles on whether the EU suffers from a democratic deficit. Those who think so point out, among other things, how the crucial decisions are taken by unelected officials, namely the European Council and the European Court of Justice).

On the other hand, many also stress that it is the democratically elected representatives of the Member States that appoint their officials to the EU, and that this gives it legitimacy. They also argue that as an international organisation (as opposed to a federation), the EU does not need directly elected officials – no one is complaining about the UN being undemocratic, are they?

Photo: Images_of_Money (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

Without going further into that debate, we can define the lowest common denominator that both sides agree on – the perception that the EU is undemocratic, which implies an immediacy deficit. It would appear that this is the view of the European leaders who attempted to address this very issue in the Lisbon Treaty – the powers of the European Parliament, as the only directly elected European institution – have once again been vastly expanded, while all its sessions are available to stream live online in all 23 official languages. Moreover, the European Citizens’ Initiative now allows citizens to communicate directly with the Commission to initiate legislation.

As an international organisation, the EU does not need directly elected officials – no one is complaining about the UN being undemocratic, are they?

Yet, it is still uncertain whether these measures will engage European citizens with politics at the EU level. For many of them, Brussels still seems a distant, detached place where crucial decisions are taken behind closed doors. While tackling the eurocrisis and making sure it does not repeat seems to be at the top of the agenda, bringing the Union closer to its citizens should be a long-term goal, and arguably one on which its’ future depends.

Cover Photo: Randy Colas on Unsplash

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