Saturday, 30 November 2013

“An Ever Closer Union” – The Impact of the Eurozone Debt Crisis on National [Party] Politics

In the wake of the Euro crisis democratically elected governments were being removed and replaced by bureaucrats or ruling parties lost elections, but because of the strait jackets imposed by the Troika, there was no change in policies.
If democracy is the space within which the people express their will, then this has been a bad time for the democratic process. It’s also been a bad time for traditional party political definitions. Lines have been blurred and parties which know what they are against with little to say on what they are for are on the rise.

In the British system the link between MP and constituency is much closer than it is in party list systems – but even in those, what the terms “left” and “right” mean are becoming increasingly blurred.  In the UK, the rise of popularity of UKIP has less to do with Europe than people think. It has more to do with opposition to immigration, whether from within or outside the EU.
There has always been a tension between democracy and mob rule. That’s why checks and balances have been introduced, to ensure that with democratic expression also comes accountability and responsibility. That has been the greatest tension within the European system. The democratic space neither allows for fundamental change of direction, nor does it provide for the political elites, who in the eyes of the electorate been seen as failures, to be removed. The same names keep reappearing, just with different job titles.
Of course there is an argument that rules based systems and robust institutions give stability. But this ignores that the institutions and the values with underpin the rules, require political direction.
The Anglos Saxons have always accepted that governing is not about discovering some pre existing divine rules, but about finding the best solutions at any given time. So institutions have to be responsive to the need for change – and within the EU they are not. Indeed the Commission prides itself for being “the wise guardians” of the Treaties, which is not subject to public pressures. That might have been right in 1957, but is no longer so.
Too often the EU institutions confuse legitimate democratic pressure with inappropriate pressure from the mob. Is it really right to argue that “we know what needs to be done, the voters won’t agree, so we send in the technocrats”? This is the benign interpretation of what happened in Italy and Greece in the recent past. A more radical interpretation would be that we have said that democracy doesn’t work.
But much of this has always been inherent in the structures of the EU, but the economic crisis has undoubtedly put on extra pressures on the EU in general and those countries in the single currency in particular.
In a recent speech to the Bundestag Angela Merkel outlined her vision of the future structure of Europe. Four pillars: a common policy for the financial markets, a common fiscal policy, a common economic policy and more democratic authority controls.  The latter would include a Commission acting as a European government, controlled by a strong parliament, which would be the European parliament. The Council would become something like a second chamber.  That might be music to the ears of people in countries who have weak national governments, but in a country like the UK this comes close to heresy.
But one development strikes me most. Wherever you go immigration has become contentious. The fear of the other and the inability to control flows of people. And it isn’t just the illegal movement of people. When you read in German newspapers that their politicians worry about “EU benefit tourism” then you know there is something afoot which we have not seen before.
The very thing which distinguished the Common Market from EFTA the Free Trade Zone was the free movement of labour. Once people cross borders it was argued, political integration will follow
And yet it is that movement of people which is causing the deepest tensions.  In the long run it is this fracture which we should worry us more than anything else. 

Gisela Stuart, Member of Parliament, British Labour Party
Vice-President of the Praesidium of the Convention on the Future of Europe

For the Greek Public Policy Forum, 2nd Annual Chania Forum 2013, 27-28 September 2013

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