Europe's Reigning Elites Defy Voters, Reform at Their Peril

After the uprising on June 17th,
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Upon which was to be read that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only reclaim it
Through redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
Still for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

—Bertolt Brecht, “The Solution”

In 2013 a Pew opinion poll discovered that “the European project now stands in disrepute across much of Europe.”

The uprising itself came during the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament. The virulently anti-EU UKIP won in the UK while the National Front, which accuses the EU of being a “totalitarian state,” topped the poll in France.

It was hardly unexpected. The crisis of the eurozone from 2010 led to the dramatic bailouts of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain in 2010–2012, revelations of industrial scale misspending and corruption, the imposition of austerity policies—even the removal of elected governments and their replacement with compliant technocrats—by the troika of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. The markets were kept happy, and the euro was kept intact, but the price was high: democracy was “discarded like unwanted clothing” as the BBC Europe editor, Gavin Hewitt, put it in his valuable book The Lost Continent. More: the European welfare state was eroded; deflation, mass unemployment, poverty, and ugly and sometimes violent political populisms disfigured the European landscape.

The political meaning of the impending appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the president of the European Commission (which can draft laws and impose penalties on governments and firms) is this: the European political class and its bureaucracy has decided that the answer to the uprising is “More Europe!”

Jean-Claude Juncker is Mr. More Europe.

A former prime minister of Luxemburg, he is the consummate Euro-insider, a super-centralizer, a true believer in “ever-greater union,” and a man without any record of pushing for more democratic accountability or for reform. He is the man who once attacked Germany as “very un-European.”

The British commentator Iain Martin thinks the elevation of Juncker is “a historic disaster on a grand scale which makes Britain’s exit from the European Union very likely.” Why? Because it signals that “the federalists are … effectively taking reform off the table and signaling the end of the EU as a club of distinct nation states.” 

Of course, the European political class and bureaucracy are being coherent, if the purpose is to preserve the euro. They have understood that the crisis in the eurozone is a systemic one, the fruit of having monetary union without having political union, and so, if the currency is to be preserved, they must push on toward political union. Immediately, they want more integration—“a quantum leap in integration” is what they plan, says Hewitt—and a radical weakening of national governments.

The problem is that this is the very opposite of what the European people said they wanted in May.

The answer to that has an unmistakably Brechtian quality. Having “forfeited the confidence” of the European political class, the European political class has decided to “dissolve” the European people as a coherent polity able to hold the political executive to account.

The appointment of Juncker and the doubling down on Euro-centralism will only make worse what Perry Anderson, in a brilliant essay, has called “the degenerative drift of democracy across the continent, of which the structure of the EU is at once cause and consequence.” As Anderson points out, “The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.”

We are witnessing the emergence of something at once very new and very old in Europe: governance by elites without democracy. In time, they will find out that the peoples of Europe will not stand for it. Let’s hope that by then every mainstream politician has not been discredited, leaving only the extremes to represent the anger of the people.  

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