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Can European Democracy Survive Globalization?

Can European Democracy Survive Globalization?

Mini Teaser: European democracy is under strain from both external and internal pressures. But Europe still has democrats determined to save it.

by Author(s): Ralf Dahrendorf

DEMOCRACY today is under serious pressure, not least in Europe. The pressure, notably on representative or parliamentary democracy, is such that we will have to rethink the very constitution of liberty. This pressure comes moreover from two sides at the same time. Within countries, several developments conspire to set in motion a kind of creeping authoritarianism. These internal developments are reinforced by what is crudely called globalization, that is, the emigration of important decisions to spaces for which democratic processes and institutions do not exist.

Americans recognize some of these problems, but for a number of reasons the American position is different. Like Larry Siedentop in his influential book, Democracy in Europe, my concern focuses on the countries of Europe and with the European Union since 1989.1 Many of us still remember with joy those months twelve years ago when country after country east of the crumbling Iron Curtain emerged from nomenklatura rule to the first halting steps toward democracy. As a Popperian I never subscribed to the view that threats to liberty were forever dispelled and that Hegel's (or Kojeve's) final synthesis had arrived. At the same time I did not anticipate that within little more than a decade the risks to democracy would become so powerful.

This spring, two of the major countries of Europe, Italy and the United Kingdom, underwent--and survived--national election campaigns. In both cases, these campaigns were an expression of what might be called anti-politics. This was especially evident in Italy. The winning candidate used all his experience with-as well as ownership of--the media to project the image of a leader who is different: a star, a celebrity, an entrepreneur who knows what his customers want. It is also worth remembering what happened on the other side of the Italian political spectrum. A prime minister who by common consent did his job exceptionally well, Giuliano Amato, was considered insufficiently telegenic to lead the center-left into the election. Someone more attractive to viewers was found in the person of Francesco Rutelli. In the event, Rutelli turned out to be a very serious candidate, but the reasons for his choice tell the relevant story.

Some would argue that something similar happened in Britain, because the "real" prime minister is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, whereas Tony Blair, who likes to surround himself with stars from anywhere but politics, is needed to get the votes. However that may be, Blair is a leader who likes to bypass political institutions like party and parliament and turn directly to the people, or, better still, to "focus groups" selected as representatives of the people.

Celebrity politics tends toward snapshot politics. Somehow, continuity has gone out of the democratic process. What counts is the view of the moment--and this is highly volatile. A week after the election, the voters are just as likely to turn against their choices. The chosen leader (if that is the word) for his part is happy to abandon his projects if what he regards as the people want something different. Throwaway politics is another notion that comes to mind: like tins of Coca-Cola, indeed like cameras and radio sets and soon mobile phones, policies are chosen, used and discarded for their short-term utility. What has gone out of our democracies is extended debate and the patient pursuit of objectives through periods of popular support as well as those of popular doubt.

Institutionally speaking, what has gone is the pivotal role of parliament. Mr. Blair's first act after his election in 1997 was to reduce "Prime Ministers Questions" in the House of Commons from two days to one--a symbolic yet significant act. Perhaps the British Parliament has always been more malleable than those of countries with a clearer separation of powers, but the tendency to strengthen the executive and weaken parliament is widespread. I am a member of a committee of the Upper House whose task it is to scrutinize bills in order to prevent government from using legislation to delegate powers to the executive. In recent years there has been a massive increase in such attempts. Elsewhere in Europe, and especially in the European Union, secondary legislation remains largely outside parliamentary control. Government by what we call "Henry VIII clauses"--that is, provisions in primary legislation that enable the executive to alter the very purpose of an act or even revoke it--is widespread.

There is also another side to the picture. While turnout in elections is still high in Europe, at least compared to the United States, observers nevertheless find widespread apathy, if not cynicism, with regard to politics. People do not care, and while they do not trust anyone in power, they cannot be bothered to do anything about it. This is how the authoritarian syndrome emerges. Contrary to totalitarianism, authoritarianism is founded not on the permanent mobilization of all subjects, but on their disinterest. People--citizens indeed!--can do what they want as long as they do not interfere with the smooth exercise of power. This power, in turn, is more and more concentrated in the executive.

Now such creeping authoritarianism does not always prevail. In France there is a well-established tradition of 100,000 teachers or farmers or nurses descending on Paris and forcing the government to mend its ways. Last year, a number of European countries reacted to blockades by lorry drivers demanding lower taxes on petrol. But none of this is democracy as James Madison or John Stuart Mill envisaged it. "Strengthening Parliament", to quote the title of a recent report by British Conservatives, has become an uphill task.

THIS IS all the more so in view of the other half of the somewhat somber picture before us--globalization. Democracy means three things: change is possible without violence; there are checks and balances to the exercise of power; the people have a decisive say in the process. Representative or parliamentary democracy links these elements through the election of representatives who in and through parliament can change policies and, if necessary, government, as well as scrutinize and control the exercise of power. Such institutions were historically developed in the nation-state, and, indeed, in many cases alongside the formation of nation-states. Both Madison and Mill (and many others) offered important reflections on the size and the nature--or rather, the culture--of the communities in which democratic institutions work; Madison speaks of a space in which there are "chords of allegiance", Mill of "nationality."

However we define or describe the traditional political space for democratic institutions, from a European perspective at least, it is rapidly losing relevance for important decisions. Whether and when interest rates are changed is decided by an unaccountable European Central Bank. Attack from the air on Kosovo is planned and initiated by NATO. Whether Russia receives further help from the international community, despite the halting repayment of its debt, is a matter for the International Monetary Fund. While in these cases one can at least point to institutions, other decisions of great significance issue from less defined agencies, as when a Japanese company decides to invest in Wales rather than in Normandy, or an American speculator grabs an auspicious moment to drive the pound sterling out of the European Monetary System and, by so doing, puts billions of dollars into his own accounts. Sometimes it is just wholly anonymous "markets" that seem to call the tune.

So what happens to democracy? Change without violence? This is hard to bring about if one does not even know who does what, when and how. It could be argued that all international agencies should apply an equivalent of the Twenty second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and impose strict limits on the terms of office of their leaders. That might solve one problem. Checks and balances? This is arguably the area on which we should concentrate in years to come. There are ways of controlling the exercise of power in a globalized environment. In part they are judicial in the widest sense of the term, including regulators and arbitrators. In part, and at an earlier stage in the process, auditing international decision-makers is a prerequisite of control. Information technology helps bring to light relevant facts and figures. In some cases, national parliaments could gear themselves up to scrutinize international decisions without jeopardizing the advantages of global spaces in the process.

This is a list of items on the agenda for a democratic response to the emigration of decisions from traditional political spaces, but it fails to address the remaining and fundamental issue: How can the people have a say in processes for which there are no appropriate institutions? The large, and at times violent, demonstrations in Seattle and Washington and Prague and Genoa are clearly not the answer, though they do underline the question. They show that people want a say, that they resent the removal of important decisions from their grasp. This conclusion is derived not so much from the slogans of demonstrators convened over the Internet, but from the quiet support that they get from many who would not dream of setting cars on fire or smashing shop windows, though they enjoy reading the anti-capitalist diatribes of Viviane Forrester and others. As a result the "politics of cultural despair" is once again with us, and with it the political dangers that led Fritz Stern to write a book of this tide about ant imodernism Imperial Germany.2

It is hard to escape the conclusion that democracy and the nation-state are tied to each other. The weakening of the nation-state by a process of internationalization is by the same token a weakening of democracy. So far we have not been able to apply the principles of democracy to political spaces beyond the nation state. What, then, may be said about the European Union? Is it not an example, even a successful example, of democracy beyond the nation-state?

It is true that recent years have seen a shift in the arguments advanced for Europe to form an ever-closer union. Few now argue that the motive force should be to prevent war, or even to keep Germany under control. Some think that the main purpose of European integration today is to enable Europe to hold its own vis-a-vis the United States. At times, an anti-American sentiment creeps into such views, but it is animated more often by a belief that a "European model", notably of economic and social policy, is worth defending. Many of a more liberal persuasion, however, see the institutional Europe as a step toward coping with globalization by democratic means. If we cannot have global democracy just yet, we can at least begin the journey to that goal by creating a large world region, Europe, along democratic principles.

One may appreciate the intention, but it is far from the reality of the European Union. The Union has now laid down very serious tests of democratic virtue for so-called accession countries. If, however, it applied these tests to itself, the Union, the result would be dismal. It is not just a joke to say that if the EU itself applied for accession to the EU it could not be admitted because it is insufficiendy democratic. The Union was, of course, set up as a Common Market, later extended by its greatest leader so far, Jacques Delors, into the Single Market. For this purpose the very French--indeed Cartesian--construction of its institutions may well have been appropriate. The right to propose rests with a Commission constructed to embody the common European interest; the right to dispose, to decide, remains with a Council of Ministers that assembles the various national interests. A Court of Justice makes sure that both institutions remain on the straight and narrow.

And democracy? I am convinced that the European Assembly (as it was then called) was an afterthought when the Treaty of Rome was drafted in 1956. It had no real function, and since that time has only gradually acquired further rights, though even now these do not include the right to determine its own seat, or to raise funds for its own budget, or indeed to pass legislation as the sovereign representation of the people of the Union. It is directly elected, but sovereignty remains elsewhere--in nation-states, in the executives, in elusive spaces beyond the grasp of the people.

In any case, what people are we talking about? There is now a lively debate on such issues among both speech-making politicians and puzzled academics. But the key is this: There is no such thing as a European demos on which to build a European democracy. Public opinion, even published opinion, is fragmented into national segments at best (and often into regional enclaves within the countries). European elections leave most voters uninterested; turnout in many countries is below 50 percent. Those who do vote in fact vote on national issues, notably on the popularity of their own government at the time. The resulting parliamentary assembly is similarly fragmented. More than fifty of its members never turn up. Those who do are frequently people who failed to get into national parliaments, or have retired from more important national positions.

As a result, the decision-making process of the European Union is an insult to democracy. This is all the more important at a time when the Union is trying to venture out of the constraints of the Single Market into all kinds of new areas, not ably in foreign and security policy and in the justice and home affairs field. (At the same time, it is useful to remember that, in budgetary terms, "Europe" remains a rather minor power, disposing as it does of less than 1.2 percent of the GDP of countries which themselves give their parliaments and governments control over 40 percent and more of their GDP.) It would be possible, and perhaps rewarding, to look in more derail at the decision-making processes of the European Union, but such a closer look would not dispel the conclusion that Europe's institutions fail the democracy test. Far from being a successful step in the direction of applying democracy beyond the nation-state, Europe proves that this is all but impossible to achieve.

HAVING SPREAD almost unmitigated gloom on the subject, it is time to look for encouragement. This is not so simple, but one can point to three sets of ideas, of hints, about the future of democracy from a European perspective.

First, it is important to remember that the nation-state is still the single most important political space at the beginning of the 21st century. It may have lost some of its strength, but it remains the relevant inclusive community for most people. For those who have just escaped from imperial domination, like the formerly Soviet-ruled countries of central and eastern Europe, the nation state embodies not just sovereignty, but freedom. Everywhere in Europe, key social policies are decided by national parliaments. The varieties of economic and political culture bear witness to the strength of nation-states.

This means that parliamentary democracy is not a spent force. It has to be, and it can be, defended against all pressures. Within countries, the main danger today is, on the one hand, the creeping authoritarianism noted above, and, on the other, a new regionalism. While this regionalism often appears in the name of self-determination, it is a very dubious contribution to democracy. Beyond countries, another dubious trend must be resisted: the use of "globalization" as a pretext for decisions that have nothing to do with such trends. Rural post offices do not have to be closed for reasons of globalization. Thus there are plenty of themes for the vigorous defense of parliaments and representative democracy generally.

Secondly, as we move beyond the nation-state, we must beware the pretense of democracy when, in truth, the voice of the people does not reach decision-makers in any regular and constitutional way. It is quite likely that this central feature of true democracy will for some time be lacking in international political spaces all the way from the European Union through NATO to the UN and its agencies, including as well the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. This means that, for the time being, we have to concentrate on setting up effective and transparent checks and balances. There are many ways of going about this task. I have alluded to the Twenty-second Amendment, and also to judicial and auditing institutions. Publicity itself is an instrument of controlling those in power.

This still leaves the third and most difficult task unresolved, which is giving people a voice in matters that are decided beyond the nation-state. Unfortunately, this will have to remain unresolved. For some time to come, we shall live with a confused and rather uncomfortable mix of highly imperfect attempts to democratize global decision-making. One may with good reason speak unkindly of the European Parliament but, of course, it documents at least good intentions, as do the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the North Atlantic Assembly, and other similar institutions. There is also the array of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At times they aspire to be more governmental than is good for them; at other times, they are more anti-governmental than is good for the rest of us. But in their chaotic way, they express the views of many people. The same is true in an even more diffuse fashion for the "Internet debates" that are going on everywhere. And soon we are back to Seattle and all that- -inchoate expressions of frustration by people who have a right to be heard, but cannot find a way to give voice to their views. For the moment, there is no way to give true democratic shape to this cacophony.

Except for one final point, perhaps. Germany's Weimar Republic has been well described as a democracy without democrats. This was one of the reasons why Weimar democracy could not last. However, the opposite condition offers more hope. If we cannot have world or even European democracy, at least we can have democrats: people who are conscious of their rights as citizens, and take seriously the responsibility actively to defend them. Citizens do not just let things happen. They speak up, and even if they are not always heard, their voices still matter. They use all non-violent means to check the untrammeled exercise of power. They support visible initiatives, such as the counter-World Forum at Porto Alegre earlier this year. They form an invisible network of defenders of freedom that, in principle, spreads all over the world. Democrats without democracy offer a more hopeful prospect than the reverse. Perhaps this was the secret of postwar Germany: there were democrats, like Gerd Bucerius, who were prepared to practice what they believed, and thus created a working democracy.3 For all we know, something of this kind may one day be achieved beyond the nation-state.

1 Siedentop, Democracy in Europe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

2 The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1961).

3 Gerd Bucerius was the founder of Die Zeit and a Christian-Democratic member of the first Bundestag. See my Liberal und unabbangig: Gerd Bucerius und seine Zeit (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2000).

Ralf Dahrendorf is a member of the House of Lords. German-born, he was a Professor of Sociology, a Member of the Commission of the European Communities, and 1974-84 Director of the London School of Economics. This essay is based on a lecture, delivered by Lord Dahrendorf on June 5, 2001 under the auspices of the German Historical Institute, inaugurating the Gerd Bucerius Lecture Series. The full text of the lecture can be found in the Institute's Bulletin, No. 29 (2001).

Essay Types: Essay