The light of democracy is being extinguished across Europe. An unaccountable European elite is ignoring the basic principles of democracy and betraying the founding vision of the EU. Ordinary Irish people are rightly concerned, but few in Irish politics or the media represent their fears.
Last week Angela Merkel set out her chilling vision of the EU as a federal superstate: "My vision is one of political union … We need to become incrementally closer and closer, in all policy areas … Over a long process, we will transfer more powers to the [European] Commission, which will then handle what falls within the European remit like a government of Europe. That will require a strong parliament. A kind of second chamber, if you like, will be the council comprising the heads of [national] government. And finally, the Supreme Court will be the European Court of Justice”.
2011 saw the joyful removal of unelected tyrants across North Africa. Meanwhile, to the north of the Mediterranean, Greece and Italy saw their duly elected leaders deposed, and replaced with unelected ones. Ironically, perhaps, the first leader to be deposed was the Greek president - pushed from power in the very cradle of democracy itself. Why? Because he dared suggest that the Greek people might want a democratic referendum.
In a matter of days, these two deposed leaders - Papandreou and Berlusconi - were replaced with seasoned and loyal Eurocrats. Yet this was not the handiwork of the EU, as such. In fact, the legitimate institutions of the EU have been sidelined in much the same way as the elected governments of Europe’s democratic nation states.
The real power in Europe is now vested in the Groupe de Francfort - the Frankfurt Group. At last year’s G-20 summit in Cannes, some delegates could be seen sporting badges identifying them as members of Europe’s new power nexus, which had been founded just weeks earlier in Frankfurt. Reuters quickly - and not inaccurately - dubbed the Frankfurt Group the Eurozone’s “politburo.”
It consists of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy; IMF chief Christine Lagarde; as well as the heads of the ECB, the Eurogroup finance ministers, the European Commission and the European Council. Essentially, the group consists of unelected technocrats, led by a Franco-German axis. However, its real power lies with Merkel and Sarkozy - and the real power within “Merkozy” lies with Merkel. Therefore, without any democratic mandate to do so, Angela Merkel and her coterie are now openly seeking a radical federalisation of Europe - merrily subsuming ancient nation states and riding roughshod over the basic principles of democratic accountability.
A German leader - unelected by the 420 million non-German citizens of the EU - is pushing an entire continent toward what would inevitably be a German-dominated superstate. If that sounds dramatic, consider the fact that last year the Irish budget document was being reviewed in the German Bundestag weeks before the Irish parliament’s elected representatives were to see it. As no polity in Europe shares it, Merkel’s vision represents an utter betrayal of the principles of subsidiatiry and the founding vision of the EU - which was intended to prevent precisely the sort of centralised superstate she now openly espouses.
These days, fears about the lack of democracy in the EU are no longer confined to fringe eurosceptics. Even the most deeply committed EU-integrationists are voicing their alarm: Pro-EU German philosopher Jürgen Habemas believes deeply in the EU, but in his new book “On Europe’s constitution,” he warns that, “the first attempt at a democratic, judicial supranational community [may] become an arrangement for the exercise of post-democratic-bureaucratic authority.”
Perhaps we should not be surprised: Democracy is only viscerally prized by relatively few European states. Merkel herself, for example, only tasted democracy for the first time in 1990. It’s frequently forgotten that most EU countries have been dictatorships within living memory. Here’s a list of some EU nations, next to the date when they most recently became democracies: Spain: 1982; Germany (West); 1952; Germany (East) 1990; Portugal: 1982; Italy 1946; Poland 1990; Latvia: 1991.
These facts alone show, at best, a very short history of uninterrupted democracy in many EU states. Perhaps, for some nations, democracy has not been around long enough for a deep culture to develop that instinctively resents a government that ignores the will of its people. Indeed, when speaking to my Italian family about the deposition of Berlusconi, most seemed utterly unconcerned about the implications for their democracy. Quasi-dictatorships and monarchies, “benevolent” or otherwise, are historically common in Europe. A ferocious and long-standing commitment to liberty and democracy is historically only seen in some EU nations such as Ireland, Britain, Sweden, France and a few others.
The Frankfurt Group is becoming more hostile to basic democratic principles by the day. Yet Europe is not becoming stronger, it is becoming weaker: Obama's decision not to attend last year’s EU-US summit in Spain underlines this fact. The fact that the single currency remains under constant threat also demonstrates the folly of pretending that precisely the same laws and currency are good for Greece, Spain, Ireland and Germany.
The EU began as a bright promise of co-operation and peace in Europe but - like so many other utopian political visions - it is becoming dangerously anti-democratic. It has achieved many great things, but it now needs to go back and submit itself to the basics of democracy: government of the people, by the people, for the people. What is a people? History has shown repeatedly that an enduring “demos” can only comprise a natural, largely culturally homogenous unit such as a nation state. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the British Empire to the Soviet Union, centrally governed, undemocratic multi-national entities have always eventually failed.
The principles of democratic consent must be urgently renewed in Europe. In Ancient Greece and Rome, democracy was born in Europe. Yet, as ordinary Europeans now see every day, Europe's leaders are ignoring the sovereignty of our nations and the democratic will of our peoples. If we don't speak out, the cradle of democracy may soon become its grave.
Rory FitzGerald is an Irish writer and commentator based in Cork