For Europe, Some Fear a Conflict Between Union and Democracy

The struggles, setbacks, and perhaps even impossibility of true democratic participation in the European Union

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Members of the European Parliament attend a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg / Reuters

For now at least, the Greek referendum that could have been the beginning of the end for the euro has been shelved. The panic that it provoked, however, says something about the tension between democracy and effectiveness that has marked the European project from its outset.

The 1992 Maastrich Treaty, which transformed the European Community into the European Union and kicked off an ambitious project of creating the new "Europe" out of what had been a mere free trade zone among sovereign states, was extremely controversial. It barely passed a referendum in France with 51.4 percent of the vote and narrowly lost a referendum in Denmark, getting only 47.9 percent approval.  It took a special set of opt-outs for Denmark for a second referendum there to pass in 1993 with 53.8 percent.

In 2005, a proposed Constitution for Europe was scrapped after French and Dutch voters defeated it in referenda in May and June, respectively. Rather than recraft the document to satisfy the concerns of voters in these countries -- which would risk alienating voters in other European countries -- European leaders instead passed a virtually identical reform of the EU political structures via the Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007 and ratified in 2009. Because this was framed as a mere amendment of Maastrich and the earlier Treaty of Rome rather than a new measure, no Dutch or French referenda were required. Rather than address the concerns of French and Dutch constituents, in other words, EU leaders found a way around them.

Governing is hard. Certain amounts of deal making, arm twisting, and legalistic workarounds are part of democratic governance even at the national level. Just look at Washington.

Still, Europe's push from above to further consolidate governance has often conflicted with popular sentiment. British Conservative Member of European Parliament Daniel Hannan sneers that, "Brussels has a bizarre power to make politicians break their words, split their parties and betray their voters so as to keep the project going."  George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell puts it more soberly: "European politicians have preferred to integrate by stealth rather than public debate."  

Farrell argues that they have tried to "treat the rolling crisis as another, albeit much more complicated, technocratic problem, which can be solved through the usual kind of technocratic solution."

Thus far, they have largely succeeded. Germany has demanded austerity measures as the price of continuing to prop up the euro, but this has been wildly unpopular across the Continent. Going along with the measures is likely to cost Spain's Jose Zapatero and his Socialist party their jobs just as it already has the governments that passed austerity programs in Ireland and Portugal. A majority in Ireland continue to oppose austerity measures even though the economy is rebounding nicely and Sinn Fein, the only anti-austerity party, is surging in the polls. Eight of ten Greeks opposed Papandreou's plans to address the crisis by going along with EU demands. Ditto 81 percent of Portuguese on their austerity measures.

As Heather Horn observed, the short-lived threat of a Greek referendum was a signal that  "national sovereignty is alive" despite the grand project for a single Europe. As much as the Germans and French resent having to bail out Greece, the Greeks may resent having their core political decisions dictated from Paris and Berlin even more.

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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