Democratic Deficit or Surfeit?

Does Europe need more democracy or less? In the late-18th to mid-19th century, the grand intellectuals of the era, such as Voltaire and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, also felt that Europe needed to overhaul its creaking system of governance. However, they were afraid of strengthening the role of parliament, fearful that this might further entrench the noble and clerical elites who most opposed liberal reform.

Instead, their favoured solution was despotisme éclairé: enlightened despots whose absolute power could push through progressive changes by decree. Napoleon Bonaparte may be the most famous such figure, but other examples included Prussia’s Frederick the Great, who eliminated use of torture and capital punishment, Joseph II of Austria, who eased the oppression of the Jews, and Catherine the Great of Russia, who reduced many of the taxes and tariffs preventing free trade and enterprise.

Fast forward to today, and I wonder whether anything has changed. Europe urgently needs to reform its economy, protect the rights of migrants, and open to foreign trade and investment, yet the scale of these tasks exceeds the petty provincialism of Europe’s peoples and their Lilliputian politicians. Popular parties in the Netherlands or Hungary call for the expulsion of hard-working newcomers, religious liberties are under threat, and even mainstream politicians in Britain and Germany indulge the tabloid taste for base economic populism.  Is this the ‘democracy’ of which Brussels apparently requires more?

I realise this will sound elitist. But then, the EU is an elitist project, and many of its achievements have been attained, not only in the absence of, but directly in confrontation with popular sentiment. The reconciliation between France and Germany would not have occurred had the choice been given to ordinary French men and women, many of whom in the 1940s still favoured the pursuit of war reparations. The abolition of the death penalty across the EU’s 27 member states flies in the face of opinion polls showing a majority in its favour across most new member states, and until recently even in Britain. And equal rights for ethnic and sexual minorities were made law in central and eastern Europe against the overwhelming tide of public opinion.

Is this a problem for a liberal-democratic approach to government? I do not think so. Liberty and democracy often come into conflict, and like the German or US Constitutional and Supreme Courts, the European Union has always been a liberal constraint mechanism, designed to prevent our peoples from descending into the tit-for-tat trade disputes, competitive devaluations, and human-rights violations that have characterised our not-too-distant past.

In the 18th century, Emperor Joseph II summarised his creed in the pithy statement: “everything for the people, nothing by the people” – which would also, it seems, prove a strangely apt slogan for the EU.

[Note: This entry was adapted from a recent commentary in E!Sharp. I had promised in my previous post to write an entry on prospects for a more open European foreign policy: I will postpone this to a future entry.]

Posted in: EU