Unelected power: Democracy on the retreat in Europe
Last week we saw the unelected EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, meeting the new unelected Ukrainian “president,” Aleksandr Turchynov, who came to power following a violent overthrow of that country's democratically elected president – with the rebellion backed by the EU.
The hailing of a foreign-backed coup d’état in a country where fresh elections were only 12 months away as a “victory for democracy” was truly Orwellian. The wishes of the 2 million people who marched against the Iraq war in London in February 2003 were arrogantly dismissed, but the protesters in Maidan, though far fewer in number, simply had to have their way.
Ukraine, though a dramatic example, is not the only European country where democracy has been suspended in recent years.
In February, Matteo Renzi became Italy's third successive unelected prime minister. You've actually got to back as far as 2008 for the last time an Italian prime minister was democratically chosen by the Italian people.
From November 2011 until May 2012, Greece also had an unelected prime minister, Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank.
In Hungary, the unelected businessman Gordon Bajnai was the country's prime minister from 2009 to 2010.
You'd have thought there would have been a massive outcry about these undemocratic developments in three EU member states, but there wasn't – at least certainly not from the European elites.
What's going on? Why is democracy now on life support in Europe, that's if it isn't dead already?
The economic changes which have occurred in the last 30 years or so have played a major part.
The era of neoliberalism has seen political power shifted from ordinary people to the 1 percent. Today, even in European countries where the prime minister has been elected, governments follow policies aimed to suit and please the all-powerful global financial elites, as they know that if they upset them, they are likely to be forced from power. The introduction of the Euro as a single currency has undoubtedly made things worse, but even outside it, for example in Britain, democracy has been adversely affected by the impact of turbo-globalization.
The main parties of the left and right have become neoliberal and as friendly to capital as they possibly can. At elections we're faced with a choice between parties offering hard-core austerity and privatization, slightly less hard-core austerity and privatization and reasonably hard-core austerity and privatization. Yes, parties which offer real alternatives, such as George Galloway's Respect Party in Britain, do exist, but they are deliberately marginalized with their leaders branded as “extremists” and routinely smeared by establishment gatekeepers.
The reality is that only parties which accept neoliberalism can be considered for government and only politicians who genuflect to big business and finance capital can be considered for prime minister. The links between big business and government keeps on getting closer and as a consequence democracy is smothered. We saw a clear example of that in Ukraine, where the new 'democratic' administration in Kiev announced the appointment of two billionaire oligarchs to govern industrial regions in the east of the country.
It's all very different to how things were 40 and 50 years ago. Back then, western European voters had a real choice of alternatives: Socialism, De Gaulleism, social democracy, old-style Christian Democracy, communism, and traditional conservatism were all on the menu for us to choose from. Politics was interesting as there were real differences between the parties- and proper grown-up debate about important issues. Instead of bland technocrats in identikit suits, simply doing whatever keeps Goldman Sachs happy we had charismatic, conviction politicians who inspired their people with their visions for their country – the likes of De Gaulle, Kreisky and Palme. The trend was for greater democratization, not less: in the mid to late 70s, probably, the high water mark of democracy in western Europe, Spain, Portugal and Greece all returned to democracy after years of dictatorship.
It's interesting to reflect on what was possible in the pre-neoliberal era.
Forty years ago in Britain, voters elected a Labour government pledged to bring about “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favor of working people and their families.” They succeeded in reducing the gap between rich and poor to its lowest in British history. The Labour governments of 1974-79 extended public ownership, put the top rate of income tax up to 83 percent and introduced a state earnings related second pension. If we compare the truly socialist Labour manifesto of February 1974 with the far from socialist one of 2010 we can see how much things have changed. (And we shouldn't expect the 2015 Labour manifesto to be much different either). As I mentioned in my last Op-Ed piece in the 1979 Austrian General Election, Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky said he'd rather his government run up a deficit than people lose their jobs. As a result, the Socialists were re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.
Of course, there were flaws even before the neoliberal era, but as a whole, governments reflected majority public opinion much more than they do today. This democratic age was a period of great advances for ordinary people, who saw their living standards rise by the fastest rate in history. In the famous words of British Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, people had “never had it so good.”
Woe betide the European government today that dares to “do a Kreisky” and put the interests of its people ahead of bankers and foreign capital. Just look at the opprobrium heaped on Hungary, whose democratically-elected government has been trying to bring its energy sector back into public ownership to bring down prices. The Hungarian government received a letter from the EU attacking its policies in October. European Union energy spokesperson Marlene Holzner gave Hungary a lecture, warning that their plans to cut prices would deter foreign investors: If the consumer price fails to reflect the actual price businesses will likely not enter this market because of the expected low profit.
Since the 1980s, and particularly in the last decade, European politics has become Americanized. Important topics like renationalization are deemed “off limits” but we are allowed – in fact encouraged – to talk and debate issues that in no way adversely affect the bankocracy or elite interests, such as same sex-marriage reform.
As in America, we're persuaded by the elite to fight culture wars, so that we don't have the time and energy to fight the elite. We used to joke about how little difference there was between Democrats and Republicans, how they were just two wings of the same pro-big business party and be thankful that in Europe we did have more choice. Little did we think that one day European politics would be the same.
The EU, for all its spiel about “promoting democracy” has, like the US's badly misnamed National Endowment for Democracy, played a key part in destroying genuine democracy. All over the continent people are protesting over Troika-imposed austerity programs, but there is no establishment support for the protestors in Western Europe, even though they have been much more peaceful than their Maidan counterparts.
We saw a classic example of the EU's contempt for democracy when the people of the Republic of Ireland had the temerity to vote 'No' to the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum in June 2008. Ireland was pressurized to hold another vote, a year later. The EU approach is if you don't vote the 'right' way, ie the way we want, you have to keep on voting until you do. “Just look what happens when we vote No,” bemoaned anti-Lisbon campaigner Eugene Gorman, “They make us vote again!”
Also note the attacks on democratic non-EU member Switzerland for having a referendum on immigration and voting for curbs. The European elite were furious. How dare a country in Europe ask its people directly what to do? “The Swiss have damaged themselves with this result. The fair cooperation we have had in the past with Switzerland also includes observing the central fundamental decisions taken by the EU,” warned German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that the EU would have to review its relationship with Switzerland.
The point about the Swiss referendum is not whether we agree with immigration curbs, but whether we believe countries have the right to make their own decisions on this and other issues. But today's European elite hates countries – and the people of those countries – deciding for themselves. In February EU Commission vice-president Viviane Reding questioned whether British people would be able to make an “informed decision” on EU membership.
The greatest irony is that as Europe has become less democratic so European elites have become more vocal in lecturing others on democracy. “Democracy promotion” has been become a big business at a time when people power has been snuffed out at home.
Only a radical reform of the EU, or its total abolition, together with the ditching of the neoliberal model which transfers political power from the ballet box to the wallet, can reverse the damaging trends. For if the organization which dominates Europe and the economic system under which the continent operates is fundamentally undemocratic, how on earth can genuine democracy exist?
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.