More Democracy in Europe?

The outcome of the French elections are likely to have far-reaching consequences for the European project. It is a showdown between pro-European figures who want to relaunch the European integration on the one side, and eurosceptics who want to destroy it on the other. This article is a critical discussion of the eurozone parliament, one of the key proposals that is put forward by the pro-European side.

The Necessity to Reform the Eurozone Governance

The democratic deficit of the eurozone has been subject to wide criticism since the financial crisis that hit Europe in 2008. Most prominently, interventions in Greece by the so-called troika – composed of European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund – were decried as an illegitimate restriction of the sovereignty of the Greek people. The austerity measures that were imposed on Greece were seen as going against the will of the citizens, who in a now historical referendum had voted against them. They were left, however, with no alternative.

Greece_rally_against_Troika_20150703
A Greek rally against austerity (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the crisis, a system of governance was established, headed by the European Commission, the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank, which gives rise to many doubts regarding its democratic accountability. No parliament, neither national parliaments nor the European Parliament, controls the decisions of the officials that work on the policy of the troika and the European semester, the national bankers who sit in the board of the European Central Bank, or the ministers of finance that meet in the Eurogroup, where they discuss and coordinate the financial and economic policies of their countries.

This criticism is nothing new – it is being voiced over and over again since the onset of the crisis. However, four French intellectuals, Stéphanie Hennette, Thomas Piketty, Guillaume Sacriste and Antoine Vauchez, point out in their co-authored book Pour un Traité de Démocratisation de l’Europe that the need for reforms have taken on a new urgency when seen against the rise of populism in the EU: „[Le déni démocratique] favorise aussi une grande insensibilité aux signaux politiques pourtant lourds qu’envoient désormais les votes nationaux, qui ne cessent de pointer la montée d’un populisme d’extrême droite“. In other words, the denial of democracy facilitates an insensitivity to the heavy political signals that emanate from the national votes that unceasingly point to the rise of an extreme right-wing populism.

An Assembly for the Eurozone

The treaty of a democratisation of Europe (abbreviated ‚T-Dem‘) proposed by the authors would establish a parliamentary assembly which would participate in the economic and financial goverance of the eurozone. Mainly composed of members of national parliaments and partly of members of the European Parliament, this eurozone assembly would democratise the intergovernmental bureaucratic system that has been established over the last years. Together with the Eurgroup, it would set the agenda for the eurozone summits and the semestrial work of the Eurogroup. Besides this, it would have its own power of initiative – which the European Parliament is still lacking – and would be involved in nominating and overseeing key positions of the eurozone governance, including the President of the Eurogroup, the board of the European Central Bank and the board of the European Stability Mechanism.

The aim of the treaty would be no less than to „insure that the policies of convergence and conditionality which today are at the centre of the ‚governance of the eurozone‘ are led by democratically responsible institutions, at the European as well as at the national level. Then, it has to ensure that the new steps which are necessary to deepen within the eurozone the fiscal and social convergence as well as the coordination in the economic and in the budgetary field are not decided without directly involving representatives of national parliaments“ [own translation].

Piketty_in_Cambridge_3
Thomas Piketty, economist and one of the co-authors of Pour un traité de démocratisation de l’Europe (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Besides conferring a new legitimacy on the supranational economic and financial governance that has driven countries of the eurozone over the last years, it would also offer the prospect to put an end or at least to loosen the politics of austerity that have been perceived as an unjust and violent grip on citizens who were suffering from the dire economic situation in their countries. Other aspects related to the project, such as a budget of the eurozone to be used to support economic convergence and social cohesion, bear the promise of fostering solidarity in Europe.

Is it Democratic Enough?

No doubts, the motives behind the proposed assembly are honourable and promising. I am sceptical, however, as to whether the path suggested by the T-Dem is expedient and efficient. First, the fast-track procedure that is suggested to set it up is questionable. The authors propose that 10 out of 19 eurozone countries representing at least 70% of the population could already sign the treaty – leaving the abstaining countries the ‚choice‘ to join later. The assembly of the eurozone would thus be called into being by an intergovernmental treaty without having to go through the lengthy and risky procedure of modifying the Treaties of the European Union.

In my opinion, this can barely be considered as a democratic approach. First, the European Parliament is completely marginalised in this project, not even having a voice in the conception and the negotiations. Also, creating a new assembly would create even more complexity and could lead to a relative decrease of the importance of the European Parliament in the balance of powers between the institutions of the European Union. Second, countries who do not approve of T-Dem would nevertheless be constrained to adhere, because they would otherwise be directly or indirectly subject to a system of governance in which they do not participate. A democratic treaty should at least involve all national parliaments – if not national referendums – and should not bypass the European Parliament which is the true organ of the people of the European Union.

Finally, a treaty that creates an assembly for the eurozone cannot fully claim to ‚democratise‘ Europe. It would, of course, be a significant step; but it would not address major flaws of the current set up of European Union institutions. Many issues still need to be addressed, including a reform the electoral system of the European Union, installing a right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament, giving the European Parliament the power to elect a true government of the EU, and increasing its right of inquiry. It seems a bit pretentious therefore that the authors nevertheless call their project a ‚treaty for the democratisation of Europe‘.

The European Union at stake in the French Elections

Given the delicate context in which the idea of an assembly of the eurozone is put forward, I must also reckon and point out its merit. In the ongoing French elections, Europe has played as crucial topic – wildly disputed mainly between pro-Europeans and eurosceptics. There is a wide consensus that the outcome will be decisive for the future of the European project, which is threatened by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélanchon, whose nomination would most likely lead to another referendum about EU membership.

On the other side, there are two pro-Europeans, Benoit Hammon and Emmanuel Macron, who both have endorsed the democratisation of the eurozone. Hammon is directly supported by the economist Thomas Piketty who is part of the latter’s electoral team; Macron has also endorsed the idea of a budget for the eurozone, a eurozone parliament and a European minister of finance. Seen in this context, the democratisastion of the eurozone appears like a beacon of hope that we will carry on the path that will take us back on the road towards a more unified Europe.

Given that Macron is said to have the biggest chances of defeating Le Pen in the second round of the election, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of Europe. A positive outcome could be a first step in relaunching the European integration and in the rebirth of a project that has united Europeans over the last 60 years. Personally, I hope that if European forces experience a breakthrough, this will create an impetus whose consequences will go even further than addressing only the governance of the eurozone.

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