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The aversion that many in Britain now feel towards the EU springs from the right instinct but leads to the wrong answer. Undoubtedly, Brussels disdains democracy and luxuriates in unaccountability. David Cameron’s hollow compromise will do precisely nothing to address this. Yet at the same time, a vote for “Brexit” in the forthcoming referendum is not the answer either.
The European Community was, in its early incarnation, a magnificent undertaking. Its construction allowed for the revitalisation of national cultures in the spirit of European cosmopolitanism, disappearing borders, common institutions and shared prosperity. Despite different languages and diverse cultures, Europe began to pull together, in peace and ostensible harmony. Alas, the serpent’s egg was hatching inside the foundations of the emergent union.
Normal states, such as Britain, evolved through the centuries as political mechanisms to contain social and economic conflicts between antagonistic groups and classes (eg the monarchy, the barons, later the merchants, the trades unions, etc). This is not at all how the EU, and its Brussels bureaucracy, developed.
It began life as a cartel of heavy industry (coal and steel, then car manufacturers, later co-opting farmers, hi-tech industries and others). Like all cartels, the idea was to manipulate prices and to redistribute the resulting profits through a purpose-built, Brussels-based bureaucracy.
This European cartel and the bureaucrats who administered it feared the demosand despised the idea of government by the people, just like the administrators of oil producers Opec, or indeed any corporation, does. Patiently and methodically, a process of depoliticising decision-making was put in place, the result a relentless drive towards taking the “demos” out of “democracy”, at least as far as the EU was concerned, and cloaking all policy-making in a pervasive pseudo-technocratic fatalism. National politicians were rewarded handsomely for their acquiescence to turning the commission, the Council, Ecofin (EU finance ministers), the Eurogroup (eurozone finance ministers) and the European Central Bank into politics-free, democracy-free, zones. Anyone opposing the process was labelled “un-European” and treated as a jarring dissonance.
This is, in an important respect, the deeper cause of the aversion that many in Britain instinctively harbour for the EU. And they are right: the price of de-politicising political decisions has been not merely the defeat of democracy at EU level but also poor economic policies throughout Europe.
In the eurozone, to maintain their unenforceable fiscal rules, the Brussels and Frankfurt-based “technocracies” ensured that economies sharing the euro were being sequentially marched off the cliff of competitive austerity, resulting in permanent recession in the weaker countries and low investment in the core countries. The more their policies failed, the more authoritarian they became and the more irrational the policies they imposed.
Meanwhile EU member states such as Britain that had had the good sense to stay outside the eurozone were also affected by Europe’s overall slide into deflation and are now alienated, seeking inspiration and partners across the Atlantic, or in China, where only disappointment and great losses of sovereignty await (as any reading of the TTIP and TISA trade deal documents confirm).
Today Europeans everywhere, from Helsinki to Lisbon, from Dublin to Crete, from Leipzig to Aberdeen, are feeling let down by EU institutions. Many are attracted to the idea of tearing up the EU, except that they remain wedded to the single market. Brexit campaigners are promising voters that they can have their sovereignty and access to Europe’s single market. But this is a false promise.
A truly single market, a genuinely level playing field, requires a single legal framework, identical industry, labour and environmental protection standards, and courts that will enforce them with the same determination throughout the single jurisdiction. But this then also requires a common parliament that writes the laws to be implemented across the single market as well as an executive that enforces the courts’ decisions.
A people such as the British, where all sides of politics cherish the idea of a sovereign national parliament, cannot envisage such an institution coming into being. They are right to be prepared to sacrifice, for a loftier cause, the ease of buying second homes in Normandy or settling on a Greek island.
But what is the alternative? If neither the retreat into the cocoon of the nation state nor surrender to the disintegrating democracy-free zone known as the EU are good options, is there a third way?
Yes, there is. It is the one that official “Europe”, and some local elites, resist with every sinew of their authoritarian mindset: a surge of democracy, orchestrated by Europeans seeking to regain control over their lives from unaccountable technocrats, complicit politicians and opaque institutions.
On 9 February some of us, convinced of the above, are gathering in Berlin to found a new movement – DiEM25(Democracy in Europe Movement 2025). We come from every part of the continent, including Britain, and are united by different cultures, languages, accents, political party affiliations, ideologies, skin colours, gender identities, faiths and conceptions of the good society.
One simple, radical idea is our motivating force: to democratise the EU in the knowledge that it will otherwise disintegrate at a terrible cost to all. Our immediate priority is full transparency in decision-making (live-streaming of European councils, Ecofin and Eurogroup meetings; full disclosure of trade negotiations; ECB minutes, etc) and the urgent redeployment of existing EU institutions in the pursuit of policies that genuinely address the crises of debt, banking, inadequate investment, rising poverty and migration.
Our medium-term goal is to convene a constitutional assembly where Europeans will deliberate on how to bring forward, by 2025, a fully fledged European democracy, featuring a sovereign parliament that respects national self-determination and shares power with national parliaments, regional assemblies and municipal councils.
Is this utopian? Of course it is. But no more so than the notion that the current EU can survive its anti-democratic hubris, and the gross incompetence fuelled by its unaccountability. Or the idea that democracy can be revived in the bosom of a nation-state asphyxiating within transnational “single” markets and opaque free trade agreements.
Yes, our movement seems utopian even to us. However, the only alternative is the terrible dystopia unfolding before our eyes as the EU disintegrates; David Cameron celebrates the potential exclusion of some eastern Europeans from social security benefits; ambition is renationalised; xenophobia surges; and newer and taller fences are built begetting insecurity in the name of … security.