Looking back over 2012 the picture does not look so rosy for ordinary Europeans. As a result of the economic crisis the standards of living that ordinary Europeans have worked hard for are under threat and our political institutions are straining to react effectively and lead us out of trouble. The economic security many people thought they had secured has evaporated without warning. National and intra-national institutions have failed to sustain economic growth and ordinary people have been left to carry the burden of austerity measures due to a crisis they didn't make.
Make no mistake, the people are angry and not just in southern Europe but also in the north where citizens feel their taxed income should not be used to bail-out incompetent financial management by other governments. There is a profound anger evident in the running battles between police and protestors outside the Parliament in Athens, in movements like the Spanish ‘Indignados’ representing the huge numbers of unemployed youth, and even in the pressure citizens of northern countries put on their governments.
Ordinary People Have No Input
People are angry because their lives are worse off and they don’t know why. Austerity as a solution to the crisis is a bitter pill to swallow but even more so when you don’t seemingly have a say in the choice of solution. There might have been consensus on Austerity amongst politicians and economists but the ordinary people had no time to input their thoughts; there wasn’t even a full debate. Instead measures agreed in Brussels (or Berlin) were agreed to by national politicians and implemented in the face of local opposition.
Mario Monti parachuted into Italy as Prime Minister is a case in point of political elites deciding what is best for the people rather than asking them. I’m not saying that balancing national budgets is not the answer but implementing serious policy without public input is insulting, it says “We don’t trust you to make the right choice so we will make it for you”. It wasn’t the people who set up the current economic structure of the Eurozone, who failed to regulate the banks, who failed to prepare for the long term affects of a Eurozone comprised of wildly different national economies or allowed growth driven by cheap credit to continue unchecked. The consensus is that we need to find paths to growth and job creation but again there is no public debate, the solutions are top down, and fundamentally undemocratic.
Austerity is only the short term solution to stop the roof falling in on all of us.The only long term solution being offered is further integration or “more Europe”. In order to properly manage one single economy under a single currency you need one set of rules so that individual national governments cannot derail the project. This was known before the Euro was launched but ignored because it was thought that politics could override economics. The Euro was a giant step towards a federal Europe and those driving it thought wrongly that any possible economic problems could be overcome just because there was no turning back. It was a one way bet.
The Dangers Ahead
Now the political integration that should have happened before the Euro was launched (but was probably deemed unpalatable to the public) can be completed in the name of saving Europe from the economic crisis. However in the name of expediency we will get an integration that is imbalanced, in favour of the wealthier countries’ national governments, the indebted countries having to accept this imbalance as the price for bailouts. Once again, this is an ugly compromise made between governments, just as before when glaring problems were overlooked with the Euro’s implementation. It is not a solution debated and mandated by the European population. When the national governments make deals at inter-governmental level over the heads of their electorates where is the voice of the people, where is the democracy?
Of course we have the European Parliament but I would question the democratic legitimacy of this institution as it currently stands even though it is directly elected. It hasn’t found relevancy with ordinary citizens and voter turnout has declined at every European Parliamentary election since the first. Further, the Parliament focuses itself on regulations which national media and politicians, fairly or unfairly, use as examples of Brussels’ interference in national priorities. Most importantly it isn’t the primary power in the EU structure. Real power lies with the Commission, Council and in the closed door meetings between national governments. This highlights that even the most democratic of the EU institutions lacks legitimacy and in any event is the least influential. It and European democracy generally needs to be reformed and strengthened.
Our politicians talk often of the challenges of globalisation, of needing unity, of having to find growth and encourage investment and job creation, to above all else compete with other major economic powers. These arguments and tone of language are almost identical to that of the new Chinese President upon his appointment as leader of China. Is that our aspiration, to be more like China, to give consent to the authority of one party in exchange for the promise of economic prosperity and peace? Have we really given up on the idea that prosperity comes from freedom, democracy and the rule of law?That it comes from the grass roots?
Learning From the Past
After the Enlightenment surely there can be no turning back from systems of government that entrench rule by the people and protect individual freedoms. These were ideas born in ancient Athens, freedoms bought with blood in civil and religious wars. In the early twentieth century many of us gained the full right to vote and then we squandered it by falling for nationalistic voices and we paid for the mistake in two world wars and countless dead. After the last of these wars we were clear that there could never again be war between us, that never again could we be led by totalitarian authority and that individual rights of the citizen had to be upheld. We have achieved that peace through the EU, we have secured individual rights through the European Court of Human Rights, and our newest members in Central and Eastern Europe have thrown off totalitarian rule.
We also realised how wrong we were to colonise other peoples’ land and we welcomed many of the people of our former colonies to our countries and became more tolerant of them and each other. What this shows is that we have matured tremendously as people and societies. However I would argue that one area where we have not matured is in how we expect democracy to function. We are still happy to pass consent to rule to representatives we elect every few years. We expect them to be accountable to us despite the evidence of numerous political scandals, tales of corruption or special interests lobbying for advantage but we still continue with Representative Democracy. We accept the idle posturing of our politicians without questioning the facts or getting genuinely involved in the business of governing.
This is unfinished business that we should have settled at national level. Now that we move towards further integration at European level it is in my opinion a watershed moment for democracy in Europe.The structures of how the EU will be managed going forward are being argued about behind closed doors right now and it affects not just the sovereignty of our national governments but also our collective European sovereignty to rule.
What Has to Happen
It is time to mature to a democratic system closer to direct democracy than representative democracy. That doesn’t have to mean referendums for every policy decision but begins instead with true oversight of elected officials. We should ensure that we have open and transparent decision making at all levels whether local, urban, regional, national or European so that the true nature of the system and policy decisions cannot be hidden from us.
We should demand that all relevant information to decision making should be made free, highly accessible and the sources of information comes directly from independent trusted institutions. Information cannot be filtered through self-interested government bodies. Modern technology and universal high levels of education enable us to find new ways of not only holding leaders to account but also to directly input our collective will, knowledge and values into the process of government.
It is also challenging the established broadcast media and their antiquated dumbed down interpretations of the news and rabble rousing editorials and replacing them with social and independently published information directly from experts and ordinary people themselves. It even comes from challenging powerful bodies like the financial industry by using new technology to crowd source funding for important projects and forcing pension fund managers into more ethical and long sighted investments.
This might sound like an idea too far-fetched to be achievable or coming at the wrong time with the urgency of the Eurozone financial crisis hanging over us but I would argue that there is no better time. When the issues are clear and people are wrestling with the consequences of poor democratic systems every day, a call for greater democracy, transparency and openness goes hand in hand with further integration.
Once upon a time the right for anyone to vote for their ruler was seen as a ridiculous notion but it was achieved. The post war settlement we have now where universal education and welfare is a hallmark of the European Union came only after two world wars and two major economic depressions. The people need to show that enough is enough. Do we really need to put ourselves through the same suffering this century, before we realise too late that we need democratic reform? What if this crisis is only the first of many? What if the Nobel Peace Prize was Europe's last reward?