Tuesday, July 7, 2009

EU parliamentary elections: democracy or hypocrisy?

Publié en français sur Un Monde Libre.org

In the wake of Europe-wide parliamentary elections, the Iranian presidential poll with its massive turnout and the eagerness of the voters to cast their ballots was uplifting. Candidates had spoken passionately, and their supporters mobilized in great numbers. The contrast with the lackluster and undisputed elections campaign in the European Union (EU) could not have been more striking. In Iran, the violent post-election crackdown is evidence - if anybody needed reminding - that elections do not necessarily yield more freedom. In Europe, the process was free and fair, peaceful but the question remains if the highly centralized Union is the democratic model it professes to be.

Indeed since the first direct elections (1979), fewer European citizens have bothered to exercise their right to vote. In the 2009, the overall turnout has hit the predicted record-low: 43% in 2009 v 62% in 1979. Slovakia with 19.64% lies at the bottom of the table. In France, one of the founding states, 60% of the electorate abstained. Yet this abyssal result did not damper the festive mood of the political parties that fared better (UMP 27.8%, Europe Ecologie 16.28%). Champagne corks popped with little regard to the fact that the newly elected MEPs (72, total of 736) will represent le peuple with the thinnest of democratic legitimacy. But truth be told, EU institutions and national governments have already moved on with a sigh of relief. It’s back to politics as usual.

By and large politicians have skirted the issue of the ever-deepening democratic deficit. The reason for this is simple. The EU show must go on. Many leaders have regularly and openly stated that “democracy and the complex EU polity are not really compatible”. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has revealed a deep-rooted mindset of mistrust towards voters amongst the élite. Hence a growing sense that democratic consultations are only meant as a “rubberstamping exercise” whilst the “real” EU business carries on in the secretive conclaves of supra-national consensual politics. Disenchanted electorates were left with only two options to express their frustration and disagreement: abstention or a vote for the more extreme parties (right or left). Yet defining this rising tide of negative sentiment as “anti-European” is simplistic, albeit convenient for a political class intent on preserving the status quo. Results can also be interpreted as anti-EU as currently run, and pro-freedom.

EU institutions seized on these elections to promote the notion that the Lisbon Treaty will usher a new dawn: “a more democratic and transparent Europe”. But as Oxford academic Christopher Bickerton points out, attempts to remedy the lack of transparency have been tried before and failed because “the EU is not about transparency. Its function is to provide space for policymaking that substitutes political conflicts of principle for a culture of bureaucratic compromise”. (The Manifesto Club study, “No” to the Politics of fait accompli”). The EU polity has become a “public-free zone”, namely the preserve of unaccountable bureaucrats, politicians and diplomats as Daily Telegraph correspondent Bruno Waterfield puts it. Even with more powers granted to the Parliament, reversing decades of culture of insulated and undemocratic decision and lawmaking could prove mission impossible.

The European project is supposed to enhance our freedom. The essence of liberty is choice. Yet if citizens’ choices – a “no” to the Lisbon Treaty, abstention to express discontent – are dismissed, if the “eur-oligarchy” can think of nothing better to resolve the crisis of legitimacy than to scaremonger voters to push ahead their “enlightened” agenda (“vote Yes or face the consequences of extremism or recession”), then arguably there is little democracy left worth talking about. Rather, what is emerging is a new form of supra-national authoritarianism imposed by a nomemklature who, in ways not dissimilar to the Soviet one, always “knows best”.

The EU is in legitimacy crisis territory. The low participation rate (and no-votes in the referenda) should be interpreted as an electoral equivalent of the 1965 “empty chair crisis” (“Luxembourg compromise”) when French civil servants were withdrawn by Charles de Gaulle due to serious disagreement with the Commission. The responsibility lies squarely on politicians (mainstream or not) who have sadly failed to articulate a vision for the future that a majority of citizens “can believe in” and support.

For results, see here.

No comments:

Post a Comment