Last month, the French and Dutch voted against the European Union Constitution. Last week, EU leaders could not agree on the EU budget when they met in Brussels. The project of European integration is in crisis.
With all the positive predictions that were piled on the heads of Europeans by the mass media and political think tanks, this all seems very odd. The public is being offered the thin excuse that the summit was a failure because the French and British could not reach a compromise. Yet why could they compromise before, despite all the tensions in the past? Why can’t they agree now?
This logic is reminiscent of Rusia’s Unified Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais’ conclusion that the blackout in Moscow late last month was caused by the breakdown of worn-out equipment. But you don’t need to be an expert to figure that one out. The real issue is why the equipment was not replaced for all those years. The real reason for the disaster lies in the economy, not in the machinery.
The same is true of the EU. The current political disaster occurred against the backdrop of numerous economic and social problems that have been painstakingly and lovingly cultivated by EU leaders for years. These are not their problems but their constituents’. They have earnestly tried to please the banks, transnational corporations and bureaucracies, which have now swelled to Kafka-esque proportions.
For the architects of the united Europe, democracy is a naive and quaint tradition that reduces managerial efficiency yet is essentially harmless — sort of like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Democracy means that officials have to keep to various formalities and procedures, which means that prearranged decisions take longer to implement. Yet sooner or later they come into effect, and that’s all that matters. When the Danes or Irish refuse once again to accept a treaty, they are forced to vote over and over until the public, exhausted by this electoral water torture, finally gives in.
But now everything has changed, and the politicians know it. In Denmark and Britain, the referendums were canceled. The idea of forcing the French and the Dutch to vote again was stuck in limbo. If it came to a revote, the result would most likely be an even bigger “no.” French “no” to the Constitution was in fact a “yes” for democracy. Not only people rejected a text that was designed to turn neoliberalism into law, but they also rejected the method of governance based on elitist burocratic decision-making and turning democratic procedures into a post-factum formality.
In their initial reaction, the ruling elite seemed to takes their cues from the immortal words of Bertolt Brecht: Because the people proved unworthy of the government’s confidence, the government was forced to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Even before the results of the referendums in France and the Netherlands were known, the business media were abuzz with articles by the cream of the ideologue crop, stating that important matters should not be trusted to popular votes. The leadership of the French Socialist Party began to punish party activists and leaders who voted against the constitution. That the majority of party supporters and even members were opposed to the EU Constitution only poured more fuel on the fire. The resistance had to be broken.
If no one really cared, these methods might have worked. But the age of apathy is over. Public opinion has come out against the elite’s creeping rollback of democracy, and this has led to growing discontent.
The EU elite has been forcing the neo-liberal project on Europeans for decades and has carefully dismantled the social safety net under the pretense of continental integration. The public was told that they had to give up their benefits for the sake of a united Europe. In the end, they lost patience and decided that if integrating meant giving up Europe’s best achievements of the last century, then thanks but no thanks.
Since confidence in EU institutions is at an all-time low, Europe’s leaders have little choice but to rely on institutions at the national level. They have to do something to maintain at least a modicum of authority among their ever less reliable constituents. In a situation like this, it’s every man for himself. EU institutions will have to be sacrificed in order to save leaders’ skins.
The bickering that broke out at the EU summit is nothing other than a classic example of a “crisis at the top,” as Lenin described it. Those at the bottom want change, and those at the top cannot keep ruling as they had in the past. The most depressing part is that both sides know this all too well. There’s no hiding from history.
According to Lenin’s theory, this kind of crisis is a harbinger of revolution. Naturally, it seems silly to talk about a revolution in Western Europe. But hard times and radical change have only just begun for the EU elites.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.