Europe’s crisis is an opportunity for democracy

Europe already accomplished a miracle once before: enemies became neighbours. In the light of the euro crisis, the cardinal question must be confronted once again: how can Europe guarantee its citizens peace, freedom and security in the risk-storms raging in the globalised world? This calls for nothing less than a second miracle: how can the Europe of bureaucracy become a Europe of citizens?

Once upon a time, after the Greek debt had been devalued, people began to breathe easily and to draw hope: Europe had survived and was perhaps even strong and agile enough to overcome its problems. Then the Greek prime minister, Giorgios Papandreou, announced that he wanted to put this fateful question to the Greek people in a referendum. Suddenly, the hidden, inverted reality came to light. In Europe, which is so proud of its democracy, someone who practices democracy becomes a threat to Europe! Papandreou was forced to call off the democratic referendum.

Whereas just a short time ago we had hoped, to quote the German poet Hölderlin, that “Where there is danger, salvation grows too”, now a new counter-reality is appearing on the horizon: where there is salvation, danger grows too. At any rate, the anxious question has suddenly wormed its way into people’s heads: Are the measures introduced to rescue the euro abolishing European democracy? Will the “rescued” EU cease to be a European Union as we know it and instead become an “EE”, a European Empire with a German stamp? Is this never-ending crisis giving birth to a political monster?

Not long ago it was commonplace to speak in disparaging terms about the cacophony in the European Union. Now all of a sudden Europe has a single telephone. It rings in Berlin and for the moment it belongs to Angela Merkel.

Yesterday it seemed as if the crisis was raising the old question of the finalité of European unification: should Europe become a nation writ large, a confederation, a federal state, a mere economic community, an informal UN, or something historically new: namely, a cosmopolitan Europe founded on European law that performs the role of politically coordinating Europeanised nation-states?

All of that suddenly looks like folklore. Even asking “Which Europe do we want?” is to act as though one could still choose after rescuing the euro. The train seems to have already left the station – at least for Greece, Italy and Spain.

Not just the power structure has undergone a permanent shift. Instead, a new logic of power is taking shape. The Merkel-Europe’s grammar of power conforms to the imperial difference between lender and borrower countries. Thus it is not a military but an economic logic. (In this respect, crucially, any talk of a “Fourth Reich” is wide of the mark.) Its ideological foundation is what I would like to call German euro-nationalism: that is, an extended European version of Deutschmark nationalism. In this way the German culture of stability is being elevated to Europe’s guiding idea.

Some Germans do believe their model exerts a magnetic power of attraction on the people of Europe: Europe is learning German, they say. But it is more realistic to ask: what is the basis of the power of enforcement? Angela Merkel has dictated that the price for debt without restraint is loss of sovereignty.

The consequences are the splitting of the EU. This is reflected, first, in the new internal conflict between the eurozone countries and the EU countries outside the eurozone. Those who do not have the euro find themselves excluded from the decision-making processes which are shaping the present and future of Europe. They are losing their political voice – most apparent in Britain’s case, which is sliding into European irrelevance.

However, a dramatic split is also occurring in the new, crisis-torn centre of activity of the euro countries, a split between the countries that already or will soon depend on the drip feed of the rescue fund and the countries financing the rescue fund. The former have no other option but to submit to the claim to power of German euro-nationalism. Italy, perhaps one of the most European countries, is threatened with playing no further role in shaping the present and future of the continent.

The basic rules of European democracy are being suspended or even inverted, bypassing parliaments, governments and EU institutions. Multilateralism is turning into unilateralism, equality into hegemony, sovereignty into the deprivation of sovereignty, and recognition into disrespect for the democratic dignity of other nations. Even France, which long dominated European unification, must submit to Berlin’s strictures now that it must fear for its international credit rating.

This future taking shape in the laboratory of the euro rescue as an intentional side-effect resembles – I hesitate to say it – a belated European variant of the Soviet Union. A centralised economy no longer means having to draw up five-year plans for the production of goods and services, but five-year plans for debt reduction. The power to implement them is being placed in the hands of “commissioners”, authorised by “rights of direct access” (Merkel) to stop at nothing in tearing down the Potemkin villages erected by notorious debtor countries. We all know how the USSR ended.

But could there be opportunity amid the crisis? In fact, the question of how this enormous space comprising 27 member states should be governed if, before every decision, 27 heads of government, cabinets and parliaments have to be convinced, has answered itself. In contrast to the EU, the eurozone is de facto a community of two speeds. In future only the eurozone (not the EU) will belong to the avant-garde of Europeanisation. This could represent an opportunity for the urgently needed institutional imagination.

There has long been talk of an “economic government”. What is behind this needs to be fleshed out, negotiated and tested. Sooner or later the highly controversial eurobonds will also be introduced. The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, is already arguing for the introduction of the tax on financial transactions that, in the larger EU, would founder on Britain’s veto.

John F Kennedy once astonished the world with his idea to create a peace corps. By analogy, the neo-European Merkel should dare to surprise the world with the insight and initiative that the euro crisis is not just about the economy but about initiating the Europeanisation of Europe from below, about diversity and self-determination, about a political and cultural space in which the citizens no longer confront each other as enemies who have been disenfranchised or fleeced. Create the Europe of the citizens now!

Any talk of “enlargement” and “deepening” would thereby acquire a new meaning. What would have to be enlarged and deepened is democracy in Europe. The rule of law and the market are not sufficient. Freedom needs a third pillar if it is to become secure; its name is European civil society or, in more concrete terms, doing Europe or European civic activity. Such an autonomous civic practice, providing basic funding for Europe’s unemployed youth, would doubtlessly cost a pile, but just a fraction of the zeros which have been, and are probably going to be, swallowed up by the rescue of the banks.

We should have no fear of direct democracy. Without transnational opportunities for interventions from below, without European referendums on European themes that send a shudder through the ocean liner Europe, the whole enterprise will fail. Why not have the president of the European commission directly elected by all European citizens on the same day, which would thus for the first time be European in the strict sense?

It might also make sense to appoint a new constitutional convention which this time would confer democratic legitimation on another Europe – let us name it the “European Community of Democracies” (ECD). That would be a beginning, not the answer to the European crisis. We have to speak of the Europe of the citoyen, the citizen, the burgermaatschappij, the ciudadano, the obywatel, etc, thus of the antagonisms hidden in the unifying formula “Europe of the citizens”. For each of these national cultural key concepts stands for a different path to political modernity.

How is a European democracy possible without disenfranchising the national parliaments? Assuming one recognises that implementing democratic rights involves and requires many paths, can the democratic empowerment of a cosmopolitan Europe be accompanied by a strengthening of its national democracies in the member states?

The answer has to be that new Europe would not follow the model of German euro-nationalism but would be an emerging European Community of Democracies. And sharing sovereignty becomes a multiplier of power and democracy.

Ulrich Beck, professor of sociology at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University and the London School of Economics, and author of World at Risk. He and Edgar Grande are co-authors of Cosmopolitan Europe.

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