Europe: The Faltering Project


I came across this quote from Habermas, written in the early 2000s, which seems now more prescient than ever. His analysis of Europe may not always be right – faith in the single currency, for example, prevented him from seeing that monetary union must be married with fiscal union – but his remarks about the democratic deficit provide us with stark analysis of the problems facing the European Union in the second decade of the twenty first century. Confidence in the EU is at an all time low according to polls of citizens in the six richest countries in the union. What is the solution? I wouldn’t dare to claim I could answer that, but the quote below provides fruitful avenues for continuing discussion.

The democratic deficit is especially drastic in the European Union. Without a European public sphere, even a sufficient extension of the competences of the European Parliament would fail to enable the citizens to monitor the ever-denser and ever more invasive political decisions of the European Commission and of the European Council of Ministers. Because no European public sphere exists, the citizens elect the European Parliament on the basis of the wrong issues – that is, national ones. At the same time, the legitimacy of the governments of the member states is being undermined because now they can only ‘implement’ the insufficiently legitimate decisions taken in Brussels. Since the public spheres within the national societies do not accord sufficient prominence to European issues, citizens cannot intervene in a timely manner in European decision-making processes. When these decisions finally trickle down to the national level, the political opinion and will formation of the citizens is no longer consulted.

Habermas, ‘Political Communication in Media Society’, pp. 182 – 3


Is the EU democratic?

I have visited this area before, specifically looking at the concept of a democratic deficit, but I have found it necessary to return to it again in light of reading some essays in Habermas’s publication Europe: The Faltering Project. Is the EU democratic? Of course, its laws and legislation are founded on democratic principles such as freedom and equality in participation, universal suffrage and so on. But in practice, do the movements of the EU really project an obvious European democratic flavour?

I’m not sure that they do. Two referendums failed, and that failure seems to preclude us from having another one to determine the future course of the EU. Politicking by the British PM and the Conservative Party suggest that, in our domestic policies, we want out of the EU. At least all of the parts that annoy us, presumably not the parts that benefit us like trade agreements and political co-operation. Thus, at the national level, the EU is perceived to be undemocratic by both politicians and the media where there is a vested interest in promoting sovereign interests at home and abroad…when your government is struggling in the opinion polls, it is an easy tactic to strike where there appears to be collective public sentiment. We don’t have any proper conversation about what it means to be part of the EU and what would happen if we left because everything that is reported is biased and tends to leave out the other side of the issue altogether.

Moreover, the European political institutions seem remote, slow moving, inefficient. The International Court of Justice has failed to make an impact. The European Central Bank, with no aligned financial policies at a national level, appears equally powerless, except, that is, when it comes to doling out money to those profligate southern states like Spain and Greece (please note the sarcastic tone). The people have no direct impact within current decision making structures at the Union level, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation. Above all, there is a deep suspicion in the UK that all of these institutions are in collusion to benefit Germany and France more than the other members.

But this is not the time to pull back. Instead of resigning ourselves to the negative image portrayed above, the question posed at the start of this entry could be: not as much as it could be. After all, as Churchill said, democracy is the best of the bad options of political governance that we have. We can always strive to improve what we currently have and, equally, there is nothing wrong with commending what has already been achieved.

Sometimes, it might seem that we are going backwards. In truth, it is only possible to take steps forward if we strengthen the Union to which we pledged our support four decades ago. That means addressing questions like the extent to which members at a national and public level can influence and have a say in decisions made at a higher level, also the questions that nobody seems to want to address like the issue of greater fiscal alignment in domestic policies. Such questions might not be political gold dust at the moment, but they need to be urgently addressed if we are to consolidate the efforts that have brought us to this point in the history of the European Union.