Europe’s democratic legacy


Europe’s democratic legacy

The EU elite is defined by its fear of popular sovereignty.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Long-reads Politics

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If EU supporters are to be believed, Europe is indeed a fragile flower. Politicians and commentators have continually warned the public about the threat posed by so-called populist movements across Europe. Martin Schulz, the socialist president of the European Parliament, issued the latest alert ahead of the recent Austrian presidential election, warning that ‘Europe’s character will be changed’ if Norbert Hofer, the far-right Freedom Party candidate, won. It is far from clear how one man can alter the character of a whole continent just by being elected to a largely ceremonial post.

Nor is it clear how one ought to define Europe’s character, or on what grounds Schulz can claim to be an authority on the subject. Europe has always been a contested concept. In geographical terms, the question of where Europe begins and ends has never been settled. Not so long ago, many Western commentators insisted that Russia and the Ukraine were in Eurasia. Now that Turkey is set to join the EU, the geographical meaning of Europe will become even more contested and confused.

There is just as much uncertainty over the character of Europe. After the Cold War, many commentators used the term Old Europe to refer to parts of Europe that remained outside the Soviet bloc. In contrast, Eastern Bloc countries were branded New Europe. Today, parts of Old Europe – Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – are still treated as not quite European and given lectures by the EU about what it means to be European.

Historically, Europe has always been divided. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire created religious, political and cultural differences that endure to this day. And since the fall of the Roman Empire, there have been periodic attempts to recreate it. This was first imagined as a Christian empire in the Middle Ages, under Charlemagne, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. It is important to note, however, that Charlemagne envisioned a Christian version of the Roman Empire, not a united Europe. Ever since, ideas about Europe have been raised, contested and dropped. Enlightenment thinkers wrote about a continent devoted to scientific and secular values. And, in the 19th century, the idea of European unification was associated with the ability of a single nation to unify the continent through conquest.

Arguably it was Napoleon who came closest to the role of unifier of Europe. When he was crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon evoked the memory of Charlemagne. For sections of the French elite, Napoleon still represents the personification of Europe. In 2002, the French magazine Historia featured an article entitled, ‘Napoleon – the real father of Europe’. The Historia cover showed Napoleon crossing the Alps, his hat sporting the EU insignia. ‘History has vindicated Napoleon’s vision of a “great European family”‘, wrote Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister of France, in Les Cent-Jours ou l’Esprit de Sacrifice.

But what really inspired the establishment of the EU was not Europe’s alleged character; rather, it was the imperative of avoiding a conflict like the Second World War, and the need, therefore, to reintegrate Germany into the Western world. Continental unity was driven by Realpolitik – security issues and economic exigencies – rather than philosophical reflection about the meaning and character of Europe. The former German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, admitted as much when he asserted that ‘German problems can only be solved under a European roof’. For Adenauer, it was preferable that the roof was under German ownership. And Angela Merkel has continued to find this roof useful when imposing her migration policy on Germany’s neighbours. Since the 1950s, and especially since the 1980s, this ‘roof’ has played a vital role in shielding many European governments from the pressure of their electorates.

Evading the question of Europe’s character

Contrary to Schulz’s musings, Europe does not have a character. Advocates of European unification hoped that over time the diverse national identities would fade away and, in their place, a continent-wide identity would emerge. Hence the EU has done its best to undermine national identities. Since the 1970s, it has encouraged groups like the Catalans and the Scots to cultivate and develop their cultural consciousness. And its interest in protecting minorities of all descriptions has allowed the EU to play the role of their protector, standing up for them against their national governments.

One side-effect of the EU’s policy of promoting regional attachments has been to help fragment national identities. Yet the weakening of national consciousness in large parts of Europe has not been paralleled by the rise of a European identity. It has proved much easier to diminish a national consciousness than it has to cultivate a genuine EU identity. Since the 1970s, numerous surveys have indicated that Europe’s citizenry have little affection for the EU, and that even its advocates only support it pragmatically. The EU’s lack of legitimacy is well understood by its leaders, whose periodic attempts to mobilise support for European values invariably lack conviction.

In fact, the EU’s identity crisis is an unresolvable issue. The construction of Adenauer’s ‘roof’ was motivated by the urge to build an institution that could shield the different national elites from political pressure. Since its inception, the EU has been at the forefront of developing a style of governance that self-consciously impedes the formation of a democratic will. Its constant attacks against populism are informed by the desire to curtail the influence of national sovereignty. Over the past four decades, the EU’s intellectual advocates have continually elevated the ideal of cosmopolitanism and technocracy above national sovereignty and popular democracy.

The EU’s commitment to democracy is paper-thin. Its enthusiasm for the politics of dictat exposes the authoritarian instincts of technocratic governance. Today, members of the leftish, pro-EU political elite more than match traditional right-wingers in their contempt for popular democratic decision making. In this regard, Jurgen Habermas, a leading German political theorist, personifies the EU, if not the European character. He stridently advocates cosmopolitanism and denigrates national sovereignty. He argues that national electorates are ‘the preserve of right-wing populists’, and condemns them as ‘the caricature of national macrosubjects, shutting themselves off from each other’.

The EU’s suspicion of representative democracy is based on four propositions. First, it believes that people cannot be trusted to support policies necessary for the preservation and improvement of society. Second, it claims there is an important trade-off to be made between democracy and efficiency, and that, in a time of crisis, efficiency must prevail over democracy. Thirdly, it believes that governments, especially democratic governments, have lost the capacity to deal with the key problems facing societies in today’s globalised world. Finally, it is convinced that, given the naivety of the electorate, the main beneficiary of a genuine process of democratic decision-making would be right-wing populists.

Indeed, the anti-democratic instincts of the EU are most strikingly expressed in its obsession with the problem of populism. It imagines itself to be the beacon of enlightened democracy, while the people – the demos – are xenophobic and bigoted. That is why it can casually dismiss and ignore the verdict of national electorates. So, when it seemed as if the Freedom Party could win the Austrian presidency, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said that the Austrian electorate’s will would be ignored. ‘There is no debate or dialogue with the far-right’, he warned.

Juncker’s assertion that there would be ‘no debate’ exposes his reluctance to account for EU politics in front of an electorate. It is also a statement of political cowardice. If indeed the Austrian far-right is a problem, then the task facing genuine democrats is to change the outlook of those who voted for Hofer. That requires a willingness to argue and debate – something that Juncker and the EU oligarchy studiously avoids.


In Europe, the choice that confronts us is between the technocratic governance of the EU and democratic decision-making through popular sovereignty. Making society aware of this is one of the key challenges facing liberal-minded, tolerant and pro-Enlightenment individuals in Europe today. If there is one really important European foundational value, it is the quest for the kind of freedom that first emerged in a limited manner in the agora of Athens, gradually gained clarity during the Renaissance and the early modern period, and eventually developed into the underpinnings of liberal and popular democracies.

Democracy does not always come up with the right answers. It is a risky enterprise precisely because its outcomes cannot be predicted. However, without democracy the flourishing of public life is inhibited. That, today, far-right parties are improving their electoral standing is not an argument against democracy; it’s an argument against technocratic governance. Historically, the elitist disdain for the masses was characteristic of right-wing political thought. Today, this sensibility is shared by left and right alike – even those who used to denounce the EU as a capitalist institution now prefer it to the risky business of popular democracy.

The attitude of the European political class towards ordinary people is condescending and dismissive. The public are called xenophobic, homophobic and Islamophobic. Yet those who are only too willing to attach a phobia label to other people, do not recognise their own affliction: demosphobia.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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