The erosion of democracy in Europe


The European Union has long grappled with a democratic shortfall, stemming from the absence of a unified European polity that can effectively hold EU political institutions accountable. In recent years, three key developments have significantly eroded the perception of the EU as a positive and influential entity within Europe and beyond.

The tranquil days of August provide a suitable opportunity to reflect on the year ahead. Glancing at my 2024 calendar, the looming European Parliament elections capture attention. Unfortunately, they fail to ignite the same enthusiasm they did half a decade ago.

People’s diminished excitement as the European elections draw nearer isn’t due to waning interest in European politics or recent political setbacks. Instead, it’s the difficulty in envisioning the seeds of democracy taking root in the European Union.

Devotees of the European project may criticize my stance. How can someone label the EU a democracy-deficient zone when it operates through a Council comprising elected prime ministers and presidents, a Commission appointed by elected national governments, and a Parliament directly elected by European citizens, endowed with the power to dismiss the appointed Commission?

In any democracy within deeply unequal societies, institutions must be designed to counteract the reduction of all human interactions to mere power dynamics. To prevent despotism, the discretionary power of the executive must be curtailed by a sovereign polity equipped to minimize it.

EU member states furnish these mechanisms to their respective polities.

Even though a country’s choices may be constrained, its citizens still possess the authority to hold elected bodies accountable for decisions made within the realm of external constraints. Unfortunately, this mechanism is absent at the EU level.

Following EU Council meetings, EU leaders return home and swiftly shed accountability for unpopular decisions, attributing blame to their Council counterparts.

This dynamic is well understood by EU functionaries, advisors, lobbyists, and European Central Bank officials. They expect member state representatives to toe the line, reassuring national parliaments that while they may disagree with Council decisions, they are nonetheless committed to European “solidarity” and are too “responsible” to resist.

This is where the EU’s democratic deficit emerges. Crucial policies rejected by a majority of Council members often sail through easily, without any polity able to pass judgment on the Council itself, hold it accountable, or ultimately disband it as a body. When the Council reaches a tentative agreement, as seen with the Spanish and Dutch prime ministers’ reform of the EU’s fiscal compact, these decisions can vanish into obscurity due to national elections that rarely focus on EU-level matters.

Additionally, the formal authority of the European Parliament (which still lacks the power to initiate legislation) to dismiss the Commission in its entirety is about as effective as equipping the Greek navy with a nuclear bomb to counter Turkey’s threats over a nearby islet.

While these concerns are not novel, what wears me down today are three developments that have nearly obliterated the concept of the EU as a constructive force, both within Europe and on the global stage.

Firstly, any hope of common debt functioning as the catalyst for a Hamiltonian transformation that could shift our European confederation toward a more cohesive democratic federation has vanished. The pandemic did lead Germany to finally accept common European debt issuance.

Secondly, the conflict in Ukraine has quashed the European aspiration for strategic autonomy from the United States. Despite courteous gestures following Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat, the US continues to view the EU as an adversary to be contained. While the specifics of a Ukraine-Russia peace accord may be debated, one certainty remains: the EU’s marginalization throughout the diplomatic process leading to such an agreement.

Thirdly, any pretense that the EU champions principled cosmopolitanism has dissipated. While Europeans criticized Trump’s “Build the Wall” campaign, the EU has proven adept at wall-building, outpacing Trump’s efforts. The EU funded the construction of barriers on Greece’s border with Turkey, in Spain’s Moroccan enclave, along the eastern frontiers of Hungary and Romania, in the Libyan desert, and now in Tunisia. Strikingly, no discussion has arisen about the unlawful conduct of our coast guards, operating under the auspices of a complicit Frontex (the EU’s border control agency), which has played a clear role in thousands of Mediterranean deaths.

Following the 2019 European elections, the liberal press expressed relief that Europe’s far-right did not perform as strongly as feared. However, they overlooked a significant distinction: the new breed of ultra-rightists doesn’t rely on winning elections. Their strength lies in gaining power, irrespective of electoral outcomes, as mainstream parties vie to embrace shades of xenophobia, authoritarianism, and eventually, a diluted form of totalitarianism. In essence, autocratic European leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán need not lift a finger to propagate their chauvinist ideology throughout both the EU and Brussels.

These observations don’t stem from the musings of a Euroskeptic convinced that European democracy is an impossibility due to the absence of a European demos. Instead, they reflect the lament of a Europeanist who believes that a European demos is entirely feasible, yet the EU has moved in the opposite direction. The rapid decline of Europe’s economy and the parallel emergence of democratic (and ethical) deficits have unfolded before us.

Despite my reservations, the decision to participate in the upcoming European elections is straightforward for me. This time, I’ll be doing so in Greece with MeRA25. The rationale behind my decision lies in the need to express my concerns during the campaign.


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