A long time has passed since the days of Athenian direct democracy. Even though it certainly had its faults (women, slaves and non-citizens had no voting rights, for example) it is probably as close to the meaning of the word we ever got (democracy, loosely translated, means people power).
Today’s democracy is of a different nature. It has the word ‘representative’ attached to it. We, the people, mandate politicians to take decisions on our behalf. Perhaps this is a simplistic explanation of our system but that’s what it boils down to at the end of the day.
The plot thickens when we talk about supranational democracy. The European Union is a unique undertaking in history, where a collection of sovereign nations have come together and mandated intergovernmental and supranational institutions to make decisions on their behalf and on the behalf of their citizens.
For federalists the system makes sense, some of them will argue that it does not go far enough. But for others, those that argue that decisions must be made as close to the citizen as possible, democratic representation at the European level is an anathema.
Without going too deep into the debate the issue here is what decisions you take at what level. The EU itself is recognition by nation states that there are certain things they cannot deliver on behalf of their citizens any more. So they have grouped together in an effort to provide inter-national solutions for challenges that do not recognise borders. That is what lies at the heart of the process of the European integration, and institutions like the European Parliament and the EU Council (assisted by a supranational civil service in the shape of the European Commission) take decisions on policy areas that are better served at the EU rather than the national or local level. The people have a say in the way these institutions are run, by electing Members of the European Parliament and national politicians that sit in the Council of Ministers. Leaving aside Europhobic claims of a democratic deficit, claims based on ignorance and demagogy more than facts, this kind of supranational democratic representation has been doing the job, more or less, for the past 30 years.
But things are becoming more complicated in the age of economic, monetary and fiscal integration. The creation of the Euro, the EU’s common currency, and the recent sovereign debt crisis, have made the need for more decision-making at the EU level, for more pulling of sovereignty, pressing.
It has become obvious that a monetary union cannot be run without fiscal, budgetary and inevitably political integration. Decisions on how Eurozone Member States raise and spend money at the national level need to be taken collectively at the Eurozone (and EU) level, because our economies are integrated to such an extent that what happens over here has a profound effect to what happens over there. Eurozone Member States are shareholders of the common currency so they (and independent institutions like the Commission and the ECJ) must be able to scrutinise each other’s budget to make sure that decisions are taken with the collective, as well as the individual, interest in mind.
New measures, rules and structures have been put in place and we are already witnessing the next stage in Eurozone governance. But changes have gone even further. In cases where a Member States fails to manage its affairs in a responsible and communitarian way, its partners and the EU institutions have the right to step in and tell it what to do to put its budget and finances in order. When a member requires assistance the Eurozone can even actively get involved with the management of the economic decision-making structures in that country
Some are concerned with this brave new world. But it is an inevitable, and very necessary indeed, evolution. We need to add the fiscal and the political dimension to the economic and monetary integration. Being a member of the eurozone brings with it great benefits, but it also implies great responsibility. It is imperative that this responsibility is exercised individually as well as collectively.
We cannot stop there though. If we are to charge individuals and institutions with deciding economic and fiscal policy we need to equip them with the necessary democratic legitimacy. We cannot separate the running of an economy from the political process (tempting as the incompetence of certain political elites might render it). We cannot separate the demos from the decisions that affect it.
Which is why this new architecture of Eurozone governance cannot be complete without the addition of directly accountable (and it some cases, elected) posts. If the Council of Ministers is to scrutinise national budgets then the European Parliament must be able to keep the Council and the Commission in check. If the Commission’s powers are to increase then the EP must have a stronger say as to who heads the EU civil service. And if the Commission starts assuming executive powers then its leading officials, starting from its President, should eventually be directly elected.
The Eurozone is doing what is necessary to put in place the necessary governance structures that will ensure the long term success of the single currency. But something will always be missing unless national political elites accept the need to enhance the directly elected institutions of the EU and entrust politicians elected at the EU level to deliver on behalf of the citizens of Eurozone and EU member states.
Petros Fassoulas, Chairman of the European Movement UK
From the February 2012 Issue of The European