Does Democracy Need Voters?

The question Europe still needs to answer

The next time you see one of those newspaper photos of the industrialized world's top leaders at a summit meeting, you may notice something peculiar: one of the leaders in the photo is not an elected representative. Moreover, this unelected President speaks not for Russia—even Russia elects its President these days—but for Western Europe.

Let's face it, voters are a nuisance. They have an inconvenient habit of refusing to follow where social reformers want to lead. And so reformers are always on the prowl for ways to bypass electorates. One such effort is the increasingly audacious campaign by American lawyers and activists to circumvent legislatures with lawsuits. Another is the attempt to set up a number of supranational agencies, including an International Criminal Court, whose functionaries would not be accountable to voters anywhere. A third—and at least until lately the most ambitious of all such projects—is the European Union.

The EU is a consortium of European governments (fifteen at the moment) that for most of its forty-plus years has drifted steadily away from the moorings of good governance. A good government should be delimited in its powers, but the EU's guiding premise has been "ever closer union," leading to a permanent constitutional revolution that has inexorably gathered power toward the center. A good government should be comprehensible in its structure and open in its workings, but the EU's processes are bafflingly arcane, and many of its key deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. A good government should, above all, be accountable to voters in regular elections, but the EU has only one elected branch, which is by far its weakest: the parliament.

Those euro coins newly jangling in pockets across Europe? Only in a few countries were voters ever asked if they wanted their country to cede its monetary policy to a European central bank. Germany, where the central bank is based, gave up the deutschmark against the wishes of its citizens. To the great architects of the EU (and some of them were great), voters were not assets and collaborators but pesky obstacles on the path toward the common continental good.

Europe's unprecedented and, it must be said, surprisingly successful effort to create a Europe-wide democracy without a Europe-wide electorate has finally hit a wall. The EU plans to admit twelve new members in the next few years. Getting the existing members to agree on anything is hard enough; twelve new ones may cause total paralysis. Prompted by this realization, an especially prominent critic has recently pointed out many of the shortcomings delineated above, charging that the EU's citizens "feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight," that they believe "the Union is behaving too bureaucratically," and that the EU "needs to become more democratic, more transparent and more efficient." This critic is none other than the EU itself, which made these points in a formal declaration in December and announced plans for a convention, starting this month and continuing into next year, to draft a constitution for Europe.

Americans may yawn. During a war on terrorism, who can be bothered with "qualified majority voting," "subsidiarity," "variable geometry," and the other tongue-twisting and brain-addling elements of the EU apparatus? Besides, no one would be surprised if a grandiose EU parley disintegrates into diplomatic pablum.

But the new convention looks to be different. Its mandate is sweeping, putting on the table everything from the Union's basic division of powers with its member states to the direct election of an EU President. It will consult a wide range of real people—national parliamentarians, academics, members of private groups, business leaders—in addition to the usual coteries of EU ministers and bureaucrats. Above all, it is impelled by Europeans' realization that today's blob needs shape and limits if it is to grow without collapsing.

The EU can take on a host of new members, or it can become more democratic and open, or it can become more streamlined and efficient; to do all three at once, however, seems impossible. The EU's constitutional convention, in short, faces a hopeless task—just as our own constitutional convention did in 1787. I wouldn't bet that the talks will produce a turning point in Western history. But I wouldn't write off the possibility either.

Americans ought to take an interest in the EU's constitutional deliberations, because core American interests are involved. One is stability in Europe: the United States has long favored the EU's eastward expansion as a way to knit Europe together and prevent chaos or war. America also has an important principle to defend. The EU has a common market, a common currency, a common high court, a (mostly) common border and immigration policy, and more; it is moving toward a common foreign policy and even a common military force. However one feels about these supranational structures, they are unlikely to be undone—so they must be made accountable. An opaque and inadequately democratic EU will alienate its citizens and ultimately destabilize itself; it will dither when it should act and act when it should dither; it will be tugged to the left of its citizenry by the activists and intellectuals who dominate Europe's elite; and it will denude the democratic legacy that millions of Europeans and Americans have died to bestow.

I asked a British Europhile recently if America has any role to play in Europe's constitutional debate. "Not really," he said. "If the Americans try to tell the Europeans how to run their institutions, the Europeans get very annoyed." On reflection he tempered his reaction; but many Europeans, especially those of the French persuasion, will share his initial response, and understandably so. The Bush Administration and other American busybodies will need to be delicate about butting in to the EU's constitutional debate. But butt in we should, with quiet diplomacy and friendly speechifying. America has a vital stake not just in widening the EU but in opening it, too.