Economics continues to trump politics because politics lacks sufficient organising power. For a Left in search of collective solutions, this poses a fundamental challenge, one which originates from the weakness of democracy at both the national and EU levels.
It will soon be five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis erupted in spectacular fashion. At first, there was a belief among some EU politicians that the problem could be confined to US shores. They rapidly found out that the crisis was truly global, before it took a European turn when Greece was hit by a sovereign debt crisis at the end of 2009 and the eurozone began to crack. What followed is all too familiar – to this date we remain stuck in economic stagnation, trapped in unsustainable levels of public debt, and faced with calamitous rates of unemployment, especially among younger generations. Markets, not governments, are dictating the rhythm of reforms.
Politically, the story is no less extraordinary. Many associated the global financial crisis with the end of an ideological era: free-market fundamentalism, based on deregulation, tax competition and privatisation, was to blame. The Left ate humble pie and apologised (to varying degrees) for the sin of having bought too much into this neo-liberal consensus – the hope was that voters would be forgiving and easily recognise which side remained closely attached to the dogma that inflicted the crisis. Alas, it did not work out very well. Over the last five years, the Right has remained by and large the dominant political force in Europe, despite determinately playing the tunes of the past.
What the weakness of democratic politics means for the Left
The central weakness in the offer of centre-left politics is too often ignored: economics continues to trump politics because politics lacks sufficient organising power. There is no shortage of regulatory power and capacity to intervene in (failing) markets. What is missing is the ability of politics to gather a critical mass of support for collective action that can make a difference to problems of scale. This ‘collective action problem’ is far from new, but it remains deeply entrenched in today’s capitalist settlement – one which tends to set individual freedom and personal preferences, enjoyed through market choices, against the provision of public goods. In other words, the neo-liberal character of our economic systems is highly resilient as, for instance, the renowned political scientist Wolfgang Streeck has argued.
The Left’s organising ambition must be to gradually weaken this resilience. But for this to happen, it must grasp the full extent of the challenge: governments will not simply tame capitalism by seeking to expand the boundaries of the state, or any other centralising authority, in order to curtail the market. Rather, they must revitalise and renew democratic politics as the best means to regain organising power for far-reaching change, whether at societal, corporate or policymaking level. The state is often unpopular. Democracy is not. But the latter is not in good shape either and social democrats should be far more concerned about it.
Much has already been written about the ‘democratic deficit’ and how the Left in particular is affected by the breakdown of collective institutions. At the national level, this is coupled in some EU countries with a serious collapse of trust between the governing class and the governed. Politicians enjoy precious little respect and cynicism towards political processes is widespread and deeply ingrained. Policymaking visibly suffers from the pitiable state of public deliberations but at least governments still command sufficient legitimacy to uphold an ideal of democracy that keeps the most extreme and repulsive tendencies in check (pushed to the limits in Greece though). Nation-state democracy is weak but clearly fixable.
Europe’s ‘engineering’ problem
The challenge differs at the European level. The Left largely accepts that global capitalism requires multi-tier governance as a response. The EU is at the heart of such a system and provides the most advanced framework for creating common norms and rules that govern market forces. When those norms and rules, however, penetrate deeper and deeper into established settings at the national level, and at the same time there is no equivalent or clearly identifiable legitimising power, reforms become increasingly contested. This problem is aggravated by the fact that the current ideological vacuum does not provide any clear sense of policy direction, creating significant obstacles for any majoritarian politics as the public instinctively adopts a cautious, if not sceptical, attitude towards ’change’.
It is not that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic, as many of its fierce critics like to claim. It features widespread representation, separates most executive and legislative powers, guarantees fundamental rights and supports European-level political parties, all of which makes the EU a distinctive bearer of the democratic ideal. But a chasm has opened between the salience of policy change initiated at EU level and the extent to which our populations can trace the decision-making back to where it originated and how it can be influenced. The complexity of the EU has simply outgrown its lines of accountability – to the detriment of popular consent for collective action.
Some on the political Left therefore advocate making a leap to a European federal union. The argumentation is entirely plausible: relying on an opaque system of ‘governance’ will no longer do the trick if we are serious about both further European integration and changing our economic model. Instead, we need a ‘government’ at the EU level complementing national executives. Such a European government would require a mandate from the European people who would directly elect a new president. Above all, the argument rests on the hope that a federal democracy is supported by, as Andrew Duff puts it, a “strong horizontal association of self-conscious European Union citizens of different nationalities as well as lively vertical liaison between the various levels of government.” If not a European demos, than at least something which comes close to it.
Supporters of a federal Europe make a powerful case but remain a minority voice. Deep-rooted socio-cultural forces, shaped by decades and centuries of nation-state building, put a stiff brake on experimenting with any new governmental structure that seek to substantially alter customary forms of cohabitation among different peoples. Wariness against a federal framework at EU level should not come at a surprise: as it is in the case of fostering a common European identity, it simply cannot be a matter of engineering, but rather of gardening. People might grow familiar to it, but it is likely to take a long time.
Embracing monitory democracy
Hence, if a fast-track route to a federal union is not a serious option, how should democratic politics at EU level be strengthened?
Few still dispute that the status quo can satisfy popular demands for greater legitimacy and better accountability. Changes in economic governance of the Eurozone mean that the relationship between “Brussels” and national capitals will only intensify (take for instance the centrality of the newly created ‘European Semester’), creating further pressure for policy-makers to act. At least on this point, widespread consensus seems to exist.
In thinking about the challenge, the political theorist John Keane offers an interesting conceptual framework. In a nutshell, Keane distinguishes three forms of democracy: first ‘assembly democracy’, characterising self-government of a select group of people who come together to decide on a joint course of action based on majoritarian rule.
Second, ‘representative democracy’, which relies on intermediaries who not only receive a popular mandate through direct universal suffrage but who also command considerable discretionary power in how they execute their competences and act in defence of their constituents’ interests.
Third, there is ‘monitory democracy’, in which the control and steering of the ruling class depends on multiple forms of public scrutiny, ranging from parliamentary processes and pressure from special interest organisations, to social movements, faith groups, civic and voluntary associations, internet campaigns and blogging.
Keane’s notions, with which he essentially analyses the historic evolution of democracy, somewhat also apply to the EU cosmos and how we think about strengthening democratic politics. To begin with, there are those who argue that only the European Council and its heads of governments carry the legitimacy to decide on controversial issues. This European form of ‘assembly democracy’ based on qualified-majority-voting (QMV) should therefore be taken further by giving national parliaments more rights to interfere in EU policy-making and equip their leaders with more clearly defined political mandates. The idea of self-government remains central to this argument and presupposes that member states share a good understanding of what the EU is supposed to achieve and do.
Most would agree that going down this route offers real possibilities to strengthen the EU’s legitimacy. However, serious doubts exist over whether the EU system could thus improve its ability to stand up for the European ‘common good’, whose definition remains controversial and in flux. Others therefore argue that ‘representative democracy’ must find a greater expression at the EU level. They point to the gradual increase of powers of the European Parliament which ought to be matched by greater politicisation of EU policy-making (“winner-takes-more” model; direct election of the Commission President though EP vote, etc). These ideas are complemented by proposals to create a new chamber for Eurozone MEPs, with a view to enhance proximity between voters and their elected representatives. The question then is whether a transnational parliament will ever be capable of balancing national with party political interests, if the salience of hard policy choices at EU and EMU level increases further.
To be sure, both avenues have their strengths and weaknesses. Both will be part of any discussion about how to reinforce EU democracy. And both surely offer partial solutions for making the EU more acceptable in the eyes of the public. But, in truth, neither promises to remedy any time soon what the EU is lacking most: a more powerful mandate from Europe’s populations to enact far-reaching changes to our capitalist settlement. For a centre-left in search of collective solutions, this must mean embracing ‘monitory democracy’ at least as much as any other forms. Vibrancy in Europe exists, but mainly beyond traditional electoral politics.
The European project still has enormous potential to unleash political energy for progressive change in Europe. Yet this energy, carried by all sorts of extra-parliamentary organisations and individuals campaigning for the European common good, is poorly absorbed by often outdated party structures. The Left should seize the opportunity and radically open itself up. EU democratic politics must be more than horse-trading among the political establishment.
Olaf Cramme is director of Policy Network and a visiting fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics.
This essay was commissioned as part of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies' (FEPS) Renaissance for Europe
event in Turin on 8-9 February 2013.