All the powers of the European Union have entered into a Holy Alliance to exorcise this spectre: the European Council, Commission, Central Bank, Court of Justice, German Chancellors, French Presidents and national politicians who are prepared to do almost anything ‘to save the euro’
The fundamental struggle in each eurozone Member State is now between those that stand for basic principles of democracy and those that represent a Brussels dictated agenda that puts the interests of foreign creditors above the economy at large and would have national parliaments relinquish ever increasing swathes of policy making powers. The count of EU member states now tallies to four – Ireland, Portugal, Finland and Greece – where this post-political phenomenon has materialised, but committed democrats across the Union should wonder which country is next. These countries have become the litmus test for whether economies will be sacrificed in attempts to pay debts that cannot be paid.
The formal trappings of clean elections – in which political parties with competing manifestoes contest a ballot free of voter intimidation – are all still there, but someone else has decided in advance what the result will be. It’s not the voters that are intimidated any more: it’s the parties that are. This has not happened by putsch or coup d’état, at least not one involving any guns or tanks. Yet a junta has installed itself nonetheless, a junta of ‘experts’ and technocrats.
These are the experts who, in the words in May of the president of the euro group of states and Luxembourgish Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, believe that fiscal policy (that is to say almost all government endeavours involved in spending money that touch most citizens – apart from home affairs and foreign policy) is ‘too important’ for voters to have a say over. It would be better if agreed, again, in his words, in ‘dark, secret debates’.
Wherever these masters of the European universe happen to be hovering at any one moment, the refrain is the same: ‘Of course, there is no question that you are still allowed to vote however you like. Nevertheless, the policies absolutely cannot change even if the government does.’
The most recent stage of this erosion of democracy started in Ireland late last year with Fine Gael and Labour campaigning for a significant alteration to the draconian austerity and structural adjustment of EU-IMF-ECB ‘bailout’ programme. But given Brussels’ political and economic philosophy it should not have been much of a surprise that the troika would do their utmost to press the new government to abandon its pledges and continue with the programme.
On the eve of the late-February election, the commission told the electorate that the EU-IMF-ECB bailout could not be renegotiated as it was ‘between the EU and the Republic of Ireland, it’s not an agreement between an institution and a particular government’. Even months ahead of the election, Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn on a whistle-stop tour of Irish decision-makers and their opposite numbers in November made it clear that whatever happens, the squabbling between political parties had to come to an end.
Then after the election, in March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly told Enda Kenny, at his first European outing as Taoiseach, that it was ‘no dice’ as far as any changes to the bail-out are concerned. But not only that, further pain would be required.
‘Relief isn’t the issue. We have to find solutions that fit the bill’, she said, reporters recounted. ‘Further commitments, further conditionality will be necessary.’ Both wings of the government shortly thereafter capitulated on almost every aspect of their manifestoes, barring the corporation tax, although one can hardly argue that Kenny put up much of a fight or even that Fine Gael went into the election expecting they would be able to keep their promises.
Or take the recent case of Portugal, after months of the country’s prime minister, Jose Socrates, refusing to acquiesce to pressure to accept a bail-out for the sake of the wider eurozone, the European Central Bank simply pulled the plug on his economy. One week in April, Portuguese banks announced they would stop buying government bonds if Lisbon did not seek a rescue.
Later that week, the head of the country’s banking association, Antonio de Sousa, admitted that he had been given ‘clear instructions’ from the ECB and the Bank of Portugal to cut off the tap. Without the support of domestic banks, Socrates had no choice but to request an external lifeline.
Days before, the opposition Social Democrats withdrew their support for the government over an austerity programme they would later sign up to, forcing the minority government into a snap election. The very day that Portugal finally capitulated, EU and ECB experts demanded that even though the parties were in the middle of an electoral campaign, all main parties sign an accord endorsing the bail-out memorandum, no matter the result of the vote.
Cross-party agreement became the watchword. However you vote, the result cannot affect any prior decision arrived upon by the experts. European stability trumps democracy.
Letting the people decide what was best for them was out of the question. ‘Let’s not have a public dialogue every day’, Commissioner Olli Rehn declared. His ECB colleague, Jean-Claude Trichet, echoed his concerns, saying simply that bail-out negotiations were ‘certainly not for public’ discussion.
When Finnish elections produced an outcome with a new, anti-bail-out party the biggest winner of the night that threatened the Portuguese arrangement, EU economy chief warned all parties that if they did not act ‘responsibly’, then they would cause a European ‘Lehman Brothers’. The eurosceptic True Finns would not oblige. The prime-minister-elect was thus forced to cobble together a parliamentary coalition for one single vote in favour of the bail-out while a more durable coalition of parties to this day has had to wait.
Parliamentary historians have searched in vain to locate a precedent whereby a majority has been formed in a chamber for just one vote, rather than to build a government. But ultimately, the experts achieved their aim.
The spectre of democracy that is haunting EU Europe is best seen in Athens and other Greek cities. Socrates said that ignorance must be the root of all evil, because no one deliberately sets out to be bad. But the economic ‘medicine’ of driving debtors into poverty and forcing the sell-off of their public assets has become today’s economic orthodoxy. But every government has the right and indeed the political obligation to protect its prosperity and livelihood so as to keep its population at home rather than drive them abroad or drive them into a position of financial dependency on rentiers.
At the heart of economic democracy is the principle that no sovereign nation is committed to relinquish its public domain or its taxing, and hence its economic prosperity and future livelihood, to foreigners or for that matter to a domestic financial class.
The democracy spectre will continue to haunt official Europe.The People’s Movement has launched a new pamphlet entitled The European Stability Mechanism and the case for an Irish Referendum (click on the title to access).