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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

13 June 2005

EU elites

The refrain after the French and Dutch rejections of the European Constitution was that the voters punished the European Union for being remote and undemocratic. But this might not be the message to take from the referenda: the European project has been stuck because it cannot strike a balance between elite decision making and democratic legitimacy—in other words, it can neither bring the benefits of elite politics nor accrue the legitimacy required for failed politics to survive.

From the start, the European project lived by the premise that its electorates could not be counted upon to support a project that was unmistakably good. This logic demanded that European statesmen should take the lead and show to the people the prudence of integration; but people should be convinced of the merits of integration in hindsight, lest they block the road to providence.

The politics required to foster European integration could justify this syllogism. Brining France and Germany into any kind of union was politically sensitive in France; and the idea that the European continent, fragmented since the fall of Rome, could come together in peace and prosperity was revolutionary. It does not take cynicism to believe that the European peoples, still living in the ashes of World War II, would hardly rush to experiment with this idea.

What happened along the way was that the European Union failed to find a proper political role. Either it could continue along the path of European integration with the elite as its driving force—this would require that the elite make often unpopular or controversial decisions that would be justified by their positive results; or the EU could solidify its democratic base by diffusing its decision-making processes and bringing more people to the table. In other words, the European Union reached a bifurcated road: it could become results-driven or process-based.

In the end, the European Union chose neither. On one hand, the European Union became sufficiently democratic that it allowed powerful interests, usually meaning labor unions, to block necessary economic reforms. Hence, the economic fruits that matured in the early stages of European integration were overripe by now. Industrial upheaval in France and Germany effectively curtailed the ability of both governments to make reforms. So much for elite decision making.

On the other, the European Union turned inward, cultivating a bureaucratic culture in Brussels that was cryptic and aloof. The European Parliament made laws but few Europeans thought of this legislative body as truly accountable. Nor did the complex decision-making tree of the EU help bring the government closer to the people. Then came a European Constitution that was incomprehensible for the average citizen.

And so the European Union ended up with the worst of both worlds—neither bold leadership to push forward with new ideas and policies, nor strong institutions that would make people tolerate boring or failed politics.

All the same, this was almost inevitable; a war-torn polity has little to lose—it might tolerate experiments and can show patience for long-term policy that promises to raise living standards. But this appetite for change wanes as incomes rise. People become more protective—they want more as much as they want to keep what they have. This means that the European problem is not solely political, but the product of a social evolution. As Europe grew richer, becoming even richer required harder political decisions and economic sacrifices that Europeans were decreasingly willing to make.

It hard to know how to escape this dead end. On one hand, emerging farsighted leaders could convince Europeans to embrace change and globalization, to become less protective and more aggressive to protect their way of life. On the other, a gradual devolution of power to Brussels could lead Europeans to be more tolerant of a Union that cannot bring the economic benefits it once did. Either way, Europe will have to make a choice, for it cannot stand still forever.

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