Several years ago, after a lifetime in the heartland of America, I moved to the heart of the European Union. Having heard Brussels described as the Washington, D.C. of Europe, I expected to see politicians from opposing parties insulting each other, lobbyists bearing checks as they flitted between campaign fundraisers, and legislation to benefit ordinary people dismissed as “impossible to pass.”
Although I did meet some cynics and scoundrels, I was struck mainly by the idealism and deep sense of responsibility of many EU civil servants, politicians, and activists. They seemed to realize that the success of the European Union is of vital importance not only to Europeans, but also to people around the world. That includes Americans.
This is because the EU, for all its faults, still offers the best, albeit imperfect and certainly incomplete, hope for the kind of democratic transnational government needed to protect ordinary people from extraordinarily powerful financial interests that aren’t confined by borders. As such, it has provided a hopeful model that other regions have considered following. But this model is now in danger. While the effects on the global economy of a failed euro could be devastating, equally destructive would be the failure of EU democracy.
Today, the democratic principles on which the EU have been built are being betrayed in the interest of speed. The sense of urgency is understandable. With financial markets in turmoil and the euro in peril, the European Council has on occasion functioned as a de-facto politburo. It has imposed austerity unilaterally on member countries and forced changes in national governments–in clear opposition to the democratic will of citizens. Lacking official channels to influence policy, citizens who oppose these policies have resorted to street protest.
It is true that the ordinary EU legislative procedure can be painfully slow. Laws take much longer to pass at an EU level than at a national one. But EU democratic decision-making can also be extraordinarily fast and efficient. Changing laws in 27 countries at once is quicker than changing laws in 27 countries individually. Furthermore, when a new country joins the EU, it must align national laws with EU standards. This has led to an astonishingly rapid improvement in both the democratic character and the relevance of laws in former communist counties.
The speed of EU decision-making is therefore not the real issue. The real culprit is the glacial pace of the democratization of the EU. Incomplete democratization, which is linked to incomplete integration, has left the EU vulnerable to outside threats–especially from unregulated global financial markets. Simply put, when the worldwide financial crisis hit, the EU did not have the legal competence to solve its euro-related problems democratically. So the leaders of the most powerful EU member countries, acting via the European Council, have tried to do so undemocratically. This betrayal of democratic principles may temporarily save the euro, but mortally wound the EU itself.
It is easy to forget how truly remarkable the achievements of the EU have been. Before the EU, transnational government was widely seen as either a utopian fantasy or a vehicle for world dictatorship by elites. The EU has proven that a middle ground is possible. Unlike the UN, WTO, IMF, NATO, or G-8, the EU has real transnational power and aspirations to be democratic. This is a first in world history.
Citizens need transnational democracy in these times–when capital can be transferred between countries in a nanosecond, when corporate profits are moved abroad to avoid national taxes, and when corporations routinely pit country against country in the pursuit of friendlier legislation. Countries must band together. But they must do so in a democratic manner.
For a concrete example of the effectiveness of transnational democracy in balancing citizen, environmental, and corporate interests, consider the EU’s 2007 comprehensive chemicals legislation, known as REACH. REACH took a full seven years to pass, but the final legislation is far more protective of public health and the environment than anything ever produced by an international treaty or a regulatory agency like the EPA. Furthermore, because of the EU’s large market size, REACH has a significant impact on the chemical content of products worldwide.
Unfortunately, European elites have traditionally been leery of giving citizens too much power, fearing they might use it to derail European integration. So a strong EU democratic infrastructure–in which citizens elect all key decision-makers, all policies are made transparently, and citizens can propose and influence policy–has been slow in coming. Furthermore, national leaders have been ambivalent about informing their citizens how the EU works. It’s been politically convenient for national politicians to blame the EU for “imposing” unpopular policy that the politicians themselves agreed to pass.
The result is that most EU citizens have no idea how the EU actually works. Many think all EU decisions emerge from a “black box” in Brussels, whether they were arrived at by using relatively democratic methods involving the European Parliament or through undemocratic diplomatic agreements between governments in the European Council. Therefore, the fiscal austerity being imposed “by the EU” on some countries via undemocratic means obscures much of the good that other democratically enacted laws have done. This is a particular problem for Europe because Europeans are relatively well-educated, individualistic, demanding, and distrustful of leaders. Unlike, say, the less well-educated and more culturally compliant Chinese population, they are not content to delegate decision-making authority to distant leaders.
What the Euro crisis has brought to the forefront most urgently is the question of the EU’s ultimate purpose. The EU was launched by a group of elites who, having lived through two European wars, wanted to render a third one impossible. Seeking political union, they started with economic union, leaving many details to future generations. Yet each new generation of leaders has redefined the EU’s purpose and, in the process, speeded up, slowed down, stalled, or sometimes reversed integration. Supporters of political union say that the euro crisis has made it clear that policy areas vital to a shared currency, like fiscal policy, must be handled at an EU-level. Opponents say further integration is either undesirable or politically impossible.
While financial markets will effectively determine the fate of the euro, EU citizens through their choice of elected officials will determine the fate of the EU. At its best, the EU has proven that democracy is not too slow for transnational government and that good laws can result. At its worst, the EU has made poor decisions reached quickly via non-democratic means. Yet, having been kept in the dark for so long, few citizens understand these two sides. That’s why undemocratic decisions made quickly to satisfy financial markets have been so dangerous. The irony is that they’re intended to save the union, but their effect could be precisely the opposite. Resentful EU citizens may now push to abandon what is their best hope for restraining the power of borderless financial and corporate interests. If that happens, not only Europeans will suffer.
Janice Thomson, a speaker at the May 8th Zócalo/Cal Humanities Sacramento event “Is Democracy Too Slow?”, worked in stakeholder and public engagement in European Union public policy in Brussels from 2006-2011. She recently returned to Chicago where she is currently researching public engagement in local government.
*Photo courtesy of quinet.