The Greek Crisis and Democracy

 A perennial criticism of the Left during the past 20 years has been that “economics trumps politics”. This is true of the European Union as well as for the world. The current financial crisis is living proof of that. Financial market actors – with passive and active cooperation of politicians and supervisors – have been saved by taxpayers and now request from these deflationary “consolidation” packages, in order to be able to play again their destructive “business as usual”.

But politics is hitting back: the massive and sometimes violent protests against the consolidation packages inGreece,Portugal,SpainandIreland, but also inEnglandand other countries are a clear signal to politicians that the suffering populations are no longer willing to bear the costs of irresponsible and self-serving behaviour of financial markets. These protests threaten our political fabric. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has recently warned the political classes in an article in The Guardian that the lack of an open discourse with the populations about the causes of and possible solutions to the financial crisis, and its consequences for the rules of the Eurozone and the European Union is a grave threat to democracy in Europe.

A similar, but deeper criticism has recently been voiced by theOxfordhistorian David Marquant in the recently published “The End of the West. The Once and Future ofEurope” (PrincetonUniversityPress, 2011). This book is beautifully formulated, easy to read and presents in a very convincing way the political and cultural history of the EU from the vision of its founding fathers to today’s stagnation. Marquand is very positive about European integration, not only because it managed to end large European wars (he deplores the Yugoslav war), but also because he sees in it the only way forEuropeto maintain its position in the continuing political and economic shift towards the large emerging countries.

Marquand states thatEuropeneeds to answer three large questions: ethnicity and identity; governance and authority; civilisation and territoriality. Overarching over these three complexes he bemoans the “democracy deficit”, the failure of the elites to engage with the European “demos”, the populations, in an intense discussion on these issues. If this is in righted, he sees a looming end for the European integration project.

While successive enlargements (from 6 to 27 countries) have softened borders and reduced ethnic diversity, recently new ethnic and chauvinistic tendencies have crept in by the backdoor: Scots and Northern Irish, Catalans and Corsicans, Flemings and Padanians (and others) demand autonomy or secession; how Europeans deal with their Muslim and Roma citizens and migrants, is left more and more to chauvinistic populist politicians, without constructive solutions in sight. The lack of a discussion what forms a “European” identity, opens the door to a new nationalism. The recent Danish discussion on reversing Schengen is another case in point.

The governance question for a long time has been relegated to the dichotomy between federation and confederation. The lack of a discussion with the populations on the occasion of the “European constitution” and theLisbonprocess, relegates this important question towards a loose confederation. “Austrian money for Austrians”, “new German and British money for lazy Greeks” is water on the mills of EU deniers. This lack of an intense dialogue with the populations – contrary to the heated debate when theUSconstitution was discussed, or the Indian constitution – prevents constructive arguments about what governance is useful and functional for monetary union and the European Union as a whole. This democracy deficit threatens the whole project, since the citizens do no longer understand what the EU stands for. It might be appropriate to have intense public discussions on which problems can no longer be solved by nations states alone and where the added value of the European Union will be in the future. More “direct” democracy is needed: Marquand proposes, as first steps, the direct election of the European President, where different candidates present their (varying) programs and EU-wide referenda on important topics (enlargements, trade agreements, European positions on climate change, financial supervision, fight against terrorism, etc.). Pan-European parties vying for pan-European votes for European Parliamentary elections might help to promote genuine European issues elections, instead of abusing these elections to pay back national politicians.

When talking about the “territorial finality” ofEurope, Marquand dismisses geographical delineation concepts. SinceEuropeis not a continent of its own, all such attempts are hypothetical constructs. He proposes rather “cultural and historical identity” as the relevant criterion – which again would need intense popular discussion, in order to make European citizens aware of what constitutes “European values”. Marquand is aware that this concept does not make it easy, since probably “European values” cut across some of the Eastern neighbourhood countries. Marquand also requires ample absorptive capacity for further enlargements and ciriticizes the lack of the Lisbon Treaty to no have solved this problem, thus rendering the EU of 27 members dysfunctional.

A far-reaching discourse on these three issues needs to start immediately, not only in order to prepare the EU for further enlargement, but in order to save it from the threat of implosion. Citizens today do not understand the purpose of the EU, they feel distant from the non-legitimized decision makers who are not accountable, they do not understand the myriad of directives and processes. This institutional and democratic failure threatens an immensely valuable project.

The Greek crisis is the tip of a very large iceberg. The inability of European leaders to resolve the crisis of a 2 ½% EU country attests to the EU’s inability to re-evaluate its weaknesses and strengths. Economics has wreaked havoc on the populations who are not willing to shoulder the burden of re-instating the irresponsibly risk-taking financial sector to “business-as-usual”. To driveGreeceinto a long-term recession without a growth strategy to give hope for the future shows a remarkable lack of political understanding. It is time for rating agencies and financial markets to be removed from sovereign finance: this must be given into the hands of legitimate and accountable public institutions. The task of the politicians is to engineer this de-leveraging in a way that it does not cause another freeze of the interbank market.

David Marquand has written a remarkable book. It deserves to be read by experts, laypersons and politicians.


Filed under Crisis Response, European Union, Financial Market Regulation, Fiscal Policy, Global Governance

2 responses to “The Greek Crisis and Democracy

  1. Joanne

    Great article (no bias!) and democratizing the EU is more than overdue. I’m confused, however, about the role of financial institutions in the Greek crisis. Doesn’t it also have to do with years of disguised budget deficits. If we took the financial markets (the rating of greek debt, etc) out of the equation, wouldn’t there still be a crisis?

    • kurtbayer

      Yes, the banks will have problems when they deleverage. Then this is a question of once more countries supporting them – or letting one or the other default and disappear from the market – with negative consequences for their owners and their creditors. In this case they government bonds which banks hold should be turned over (purchased) by “official institutions”, e.g. the ECB, National Banks or similar vehicles. These then could be supplanted by Eurobonds with lower interest rates and longer maturities than the private ones. This is what the Brady bonds were for US banks in the Mexican and Latin American crisis. In the future these bonds would not be traded, but held by ECB (or whoever) until maturity. Then the daily staring at “events” and the panic attacks of fearful financial markets would be over.

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