The Eurocratic assault on democracy

In the eyes of the EU elite, the greatest impediment to ‘the European project’ is the continued existence of the pesky electorate.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics World

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The European Union is currently straining every sinew in a campaign to stifle outbreaks of politics across Europe.

For the EU oligarchs, democracy sucks. What if the Greeks – voting in elections this April – decide to tear up an austerity programme painstakingly hammered out by their betters in the EU and the IMF? Imagine – and the memory of all those lost referendums still smarts among Eurocrats – if a country should decide it has had enough of the economic mismanagement and diktat that has characterised the Eurozone’s handling of the economic crisis.

A spectre is indeed haunting the corridors of Brussels offices and it is real: a well-founded fear that voters will reject the ‘fiscal compacts’, ‘debt brakes’ and ‘golden rules’ aimed at securing the EU’s reign in de facto perpetuity.

Speaking after an EU summit last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that the new fiskalpakt for the Eurozone is aimed at making all Euro members enshrine austerity targets in their constitutions beyond the reach of popular votes. ‘The debt brakes will be binding and valid forever. Never will you be able to change them through a parliamentary majority’, she said.

This fear of the electorate, of the popular will, was the underlying reason for the German chancellor’s appearance at the Élysée palace alongside the French president Nicolas Sarkozy this week. With the upcoming French presidential elections having all but turned into a referendum on a controversial German-sponsored ‘fiscal union’ pact to save the Euro, she wanted to strengthen the pro-EU Sarkozy’s mettle and to set out the ‘There Is No Alternative to the EU’ stall.

There is an understandable sense of urgency to Merkel’s efforts to shore up her ally Sarkozy’s flailing presidency. In early March, Sarkozy, along with Merkel and 23 other EU countries’ leaders, will sign a ‘Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union’. Yet while it will be signed by Sarkozy, it will not be possible to get French MPs in the National Assembly to ratify it before presidential elections in April. And that presents the EU elite with a problem. For Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent François Hollande, the favourite to win the presidential election according to opinion polls, has declared his intention to tear up any treaty Sarkozy signs. Why? Because as Hollande sees it, the new treaty will effectively outlaw Socialist spending plans by writing a ‘debt brake’, limiting the size of national budgets for Euro members, into international and EU law.

But what is at stake here goes beyond the budgetary concerns of a social democrat like Hollande – it goes right to the heart of European politics. After all, fiscal and economic sovereignty cannot simply be separated off from other aspects of national sovereignty. To decide how a society manages and apportions its wealth is part and parcel of a functioning democracy. This is why the EU’s attempt to insulate the economy from political debate is so worrying. ‘Surely democratic politics is nothing if not about how wealth is created and distributed’, The Economist said critically of the Euro pact this week.

As Merkel herself explained two weeks ago, the new order has obliterated all boundaries between national sovereignty and external intervention, allowing all aspects of politics to be settled by the EU. ‘In this crisis we have reached a whole new level of cooperation; we have arrived at a sort of European home affairs. Europe is domestic policy’, she said.

That the political climate in France is so tough for Sarkozy is largely due to the Eurozone crisis. His austerity-laden response, including a hike in VAT rates, has proved deeply unpopular in a country that only narrowly voted to kill the Franc to join the Euro in 1992 and then actually rejected the EU constitution in 2005. If the Euro is to survive in its present form, with Germany and France at its heart, then the popular opposition to Sarkozy’s austerity measures must be crushed. French agreement is particularly critical because it is the Eurozone’s second largest economy and has a track record of high public spending.

Pierre Moscovici, the Socialist campaign manager, has further horrified the EU by hinting that a new French president could hold a referendum – a taboo in contemporary European politics. ‘I am convinced that we will find allies for a renegotiation aimed at a policy change to pull us out of this austerity spiral and recession. We don’t like the idea of a popular vote because we are pro-Europeans and we don’t want a “No”, but nor can we allow tensions to spill over’, he said last week.

The Socialist tactics – renegotiate the treaty or else a popular vote – have provoked near hysteria in the Sarkozy administration. In an interview with Le Journal Du Dimanche last weekend, Jean Leonetti, the French Europe minister, warned that, if elected, a Socialist president could face the same fate as the Socialist Greek prime minister George Papandreou: an EU coup d’etat. (Papandreou was deposed last October by European technocrats, backed by Germany and France, for threatening to put the EU’s austerity programme in Greece to the vote.)

‘There has been a European leader who has challenged a treaty, it was George Papandreou. François Hollande [is] the French Papandreou. And we know how it ended’, said Leonetti. ‘The Europeans will give the same response to him as Papendreou: it is not the treaty that needs to be renegotiated, it is your presence at the heart of the Eurozone.’

When a French minister of state threatens the leader of the opposition with the overthrow of his potential government unless he abandons a policy, it is safe to say that politics is under pressure. The EU is effectively recasting politics as the practice of bowing to the inevitable rather than coming up with alternative visions of the possible.

That even the highly attenuated, centrist and managerial politics of the past 20 years is being further depoliticised is a mark of the narrow and estranged structures of governance that the EU is seeking to impose on European societies. Six years ago, Jean-Claude Juncker, the long-serving prime minister of Luxembourg and chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, defined the plight of the pro-EU politician with characteristically pithy cynicism: ‘We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.’

In a speech made in November 2010, as Ireland was forced by Germany, France and the EU to surrender its independence to an externally imposed austerity programme, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, redefined political leadership for a new European era after sovereignty. ‘I, for one, have really been impressed over the last year by the political courage of our governments. All are taking deeply unpopular measures to reform the economy and their budgets, moreover, at a time of rising populism’, he said.

‘Some heads of government do this’, he continued, ‘while being confronted with opposition in parliament, with protest in the streets, with strikes in the workplace (or all of this together!) and fully knowing they run a big risk of electoral defeat — and yet they push ahead. If this is not political courage, what is?’

It is not courage to defy voters – it is actually cowardice. Leadership is about taking people with you, about cultivating a public interest; it is not about ignoring people in favour of loyalty to the bureaucratic interests expressed by the EU. European history does not teach us that politics is better ordered without the ‘risk of electoral defeat’.

Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and author of E-Who? Politics Behind Closed Doors, published by the Manifesto Club.

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