The Magazine

Tough Times in EUtopia

The continent's politicians think the undemocratic character of the European Union is a virtue. They have miscalculated.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Sometimes truth just has to speak to powerlessness. Addressing the EU's sham parliament in mid-February, the Czech Republic's refreshingly tactless and refreshingly Thatcherite president, Václav Klaus, raised the awkward topic of what the EU euphemistically refers to as its "democratic deficit" and told MEPs that they were part of this problem, not its solution:

Since there is no European demos-and no European nation-this defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European parliament either. This would, on the contrary, make the problem worse and lead to an even greater alienation between the citizens of the European countries and Union institutions.

Klaus's listeners were predictably outraged. They ought to have been terrified. With the EU economies falling apart at an unprecedented pace, there is nothing that these toy-town parliamentarians can do-except get out of the way.

The EU's insultingly undemocratic nature is not news (indeed, it is part of its rationale), but it remains the key to grasping how those who run the EU have, for better and worse, had so much success in ramming their agenda through. Not having to bother too much about national electorates has been a great boon to Brussels. As the continent's economies slide ever deeper into the mire, however, that once handy feature could end up crashing the entire system.

An economic debacle on the current scale is going to shake any political structure, however securely moored, but the EU's persistent recourse to a form of soft authoritarianism has left it peculiarly ill suited to weather the storm to come. After decades of routinely bypassing its voters the union may well no longer have what it takes to secure their approval for the harsh medicine and painful sacrifices necessary to bring the EU through this ordeal in one piece. After all, it can barely even get them to vote: Turnout for the most recent (2004) elections for the EU parliament sank to a record low of 45.5 percent. Admittedly that total was dragged down by massively uninterested Eastern Europeans (only 16.7 percent of Slovaks voted and 20.4 percent of Poles), but it was sparse almost everywhere: Only 39 percent of Brits showed up, about the same percentage as made it to the voting booth in the Netherlands, one of the EU's founding nations.

As the history of the union's occasional, grudgingly granted referenda-a sorry saga of chicanery, rejection and do-overs-reminds us, appeals to the supposed solidarity of that imaginary European demos have never really worked. And that was in the good times. They surely won't do the trick now, nor will arguments based on the logic of a free market ideology widely, if inaccurately, said to have failed. Yet to steer a course through what may become hideously hard times without much in the way of popular consent threatens to push already alienated electorates in the direction of the extremist politics of left or right.

The story of this slump is too familiar to need repeating here, but it is worth pausing to consider how the introduction of the euro has left the EU marooned on a circle of economic hell all of its own making. Imposed on most of the European heartland by a characteristic combination of bullying, bribery, conclave, and legerdemain, the single currency was put in place with as little regard for the real world as for the ballot box. To squeeze a wide range of vastly divergent economies (and to do so with few safety nets) into one monetary system made little sense except when understood as a matter of politics, not economics. But economics has a nasty habit of biting back.

Up until the eruption of the present crisis, the European Central Bank's interest rate policy primarily reflected the needs of France and Germany, Euroland's largest economies. This left rates "too" low for naturally faster growing countries like Ireland and Spain, which in turn inflated unsustainable housing bubbles. These have now burst-in Ireland's case taking much of the banking system down with it. On some forecasts Irish GDP may shrink by 10 percent between 2008 and 2010, a dismal number that could eventually prove too optimistic. Gloomsters joke bleakly that the difference between Ireland and Iceland is six months and one consonant. Spain meanwhile now boasts an official (in other words, understated) unemployment rate of 14 percent. Over 600,000 migrant workers have been laid off. This is not a recipe for social peace.