The crisis of the euro, the common currency of 17 European Union members, continues unabated. Because of massive, sustained budget deficits by several eurozone countries, some could default on their sovereign debt obligations, or the euro itself might disintegrate, profoundly affecting the EU’s political and economic future.
Very little media attention, however, is focused on a very different, but even more important, EU problem, namely its “democratic deficit.” This large, growing gap between remote EU institutions in Brussels and citizens of its member states dramatically highlights the rising frustration and impotence felt by individual voters. To combat the euro crisis, EU elites are ignoring or overriding popular opposition to harsh austerity measures and imposing on fellow democracies the policies demanded by leaders of other, more powerful EU countries.
Even if the EU-wide remedies and the requirements imposed on countries such as Greece and Italy ultimately prove to be correct financially, they come with an enormous, corrosive cost to basic concepts of representative government throughout the EU. Whether this widening of the democratic deficit ultimately will weaken the EU itself remains uncertain, but there is no doubt populist resentment is smoldering in many EU countries.
One of the most persistent criticisms of the EU is its lack of democratic legitimacy. Its basic institutions are bureaucratic and opaque, with decisions either made by unelected European Commission bureaucrats or negotiated by EU member governments. These outcomes typically are binding on EU members, with no opportunity for independent judgment or meaningful dissent in national legislatures. The only popularly elected EU body, the European Parliament, has minimal power and is widely regarded as inconsequential.
Whereas national parliaments are elected directly by actual people, the intergovernmental EU process is not democratically accountable either to the EU’s population as a whole or at the national level. Thus, the growing shift of decision-making power to Brussels inevitably means further distancing from ordinary citizens and the declining importance of national legislatures. British Prime Minister David Cameron has estimated that 50 percent of Parliament’s significant economic actions simply rubber-stamp what EU negotiators or bureaucrats already have decided.
In 1776, Americans decided they had had enough of remote, unaccountable government and took matters into their own hands. While Europe does not yet face armed uprisings, it confronts the dramatic question of whether the EU and the eurozone will survive in their present forms. No one knows the endgame, but one point is clear: Having some countries dictate outcomes to others is causing massive tension inside the EU and adding to its democratic deficit.
In Greece, for example, former Prime Minister George Papandreou, after agreeing to harsh financial austerity measures to secure EU aid to meet his country’s sovereign debt obligations, suggested a national referendum on the final deal. Howls of outrage from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy squashed the foolish idea that the people might actually have a voice. EU leaders even insisted that the main opposition party, New Democracy (a quaint name in present circumstances), also sign the deal, rather than vote freely in Greece’s parliament.
In Italy, there was a veritable EU-led coup d’etat against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. While many had long seen his personal behavior as an embarrassment, and his successive governments had done little to halt Italy’s slide into crisis, he and his coalition partners had, inconveniently, won the last election. Because Mr. Berlusconi and the voters who supported him were in the way, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, following German-French orders, appointed Mario Monti “senator for life” to become prime minister when Mr. Berlusconi resigned. Even if Mr. Berlusconi was likely to fall in any case, Mr. Monti’s “technocratic government” would never have come to power without outside interference in Italy’s political system.
In Britain, the eurozone’s turmoil persuaded opponents of the increasing centralization of power in Brussels to push for restructuring London’s EU ties. Some propose a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU; others favor renegotiating the basic EU treaties, returning key “competencies” to members (or at least to London) or providing more opt-outs for EU members to decide what powers they cede to Brussels and what they keep. Other skeptical EU members, such as Denmark, Sweden and several Eastern and Central European states, might join the United Kingdom in this effort. Once again, Germany is objecting, demanding that the euro crisis should be resolved without considering fundamental changes to existing EU agreements, institutions and practices. This controversy remains in flux.
EU advocates for harsh austerity measures say they are entitled to impose stringent economic and political conditions on the financial assistance being extended in order to prevent the fiscally irresponsible countries from simply continuing their profligate policies far into the future. There is considerable merit in arguing that German taxpayers and others providing bailouts deserve assurances they will not be endless sources of financial largesse.
But in a more profound sense, the extraordinary depth of the crisis underscores graphically how flawed are the essential structures of the EU itself, and particularly the entire euro project. If rescuing the euro requires dramatic constrictions of political dissent and democratic debate, there surely is something existentially wrong with the underlying precepts.
If democracy can be supplanted easily when “big issues” are at stake and actual voters are allowed to select governments only for unimportant questions, the vitality and longevity of democracy itself are at issue. Europe may survive its financial crisis without major disruptions to the euro or other EU institutions, but there is no doubt that the democratic deficit will have widened considerably in the process. That outcome cannot be conducive to either legitimacy or stability in Europe for decades to come.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).