EU's democracy problem goes all the way down

The creation of a bureaucratic European order has become as transcendent a cause as loyalty to the Soviet Union was for many a last century West European Marxist

Barroso and Van Rompuy: no friends of democracy
Tom Gallagher
On 15 September 2013 09:45

It is natural that Jose Manuel Barroso should last week have expressed his displeasure at the British Conservative contingent in the European Parliament for faltering in their commitment to the European cause. He presumably sought to embarrass them by warning that they were in danger of becoming another UKIP.

In 2008, he unwisely remarked that the Eurosceptic views of the British public didn’t really count because ‘the people who matter in Britain’ want to adopt the Euro. A super-bureaucrat who wags his finger at whoever dares to break the top-down European consensus is a gift for those who wish to tilt the balance back to a Europe of democratic nation-states.

Barroso will be gone by next spring; his hopes of becoming the next secretary-General of NATO hopefully staying unfulfilled.

On the morning of his ‘State of the Union’ address, I happened to be attending a conference on the campus in the Portuguese capital where, back in 1975, he had organized student unrest in his days as a Maoist law student.

I listened to a group of Ph.D students with enquiring minds explain why for many of their generation the only option was to leave as quickly as possible. The country is in the grip of a devastating economic crisis that has produced record youth unemployment and business closures. But the instinct of the dominant political blocs on the rhetorical left and centre-right is to sit out the crisis and postpone change indefinitely.

Parties which have substituted each other in office in recent decades accuse each other of  being the guilty ones for ensuring that Portugal ran out of money in 2010 and had to subject itself to a ‘rescue’ from the European ‘troika’.

But behind the scenes, they share a commitment to preserving a ruling order that disproportionately rewards insiders – civil servants, lobbyists, economic forces that survive through doing business with the state – and casts adrift much of the rest of society.

Thus, a ‘partyocracy’ drives politics for the benefit of an underperforming political elite, bloated state and its myriad hangers-on.

This is the political quagmire from which Barroso emerged. For a decade he has ruled the roost in Brussels where funding streams are also allocated on a discretionary basis to politically favoured groups ranging from the many-headed environmental lobby to corporate big business.

He cannot conceal his irritation that a new politics might challenge the one of bogus rhetoric and sleazy deals that has dominated the European scene, alienating voters in their millions.

He and other European grandees began to see the writing on the wall last February when a restive Italian electorate returned dozens of women and young people to the Italian parliament due to the rise of Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star movement.

Lashing out at the Conservatives was Barroso’s way of saying that the established political forces need to close ranks to keep the great unwashed from ever shaping decision-making at the European level.

Currently, in both Portugal and Spain, the initiative is still held by parties on the left and right with a deep attachment to European integration. They actually fear remedies to the economic crises crippling their countries that might place a question-mark over the continuation of the European project.

The abandonment of the Euro, the temporary suspension of some members, or breaking up the currency union into different parts are rejected even if a case can be made that a new departure stands a chance of bringing the EU’s southern periphery out of its desperate crisis.

The creation of a bureaucratic European order mimicking practices in their own country has become as transcendent a cause as loyalty to the Soviet Union was for many a last century West European Marxist. But the basis for faith is more materialistic than ideological or devotional.

For a quarter-of-a-century, EU funds in Iberia, Italy and Greece have been vital currency enabling mainly left parties to build up patronage networks which keep them going irrespective of their electoral performance. The Mediterranean party blocs of Left and Right are usually relaxed about the so-called democratic deficit in the EU because, too often, in practice, democracy is even more flagrantly  manipulated back home.

Even with the crisis in full spate, a large, centralised EU, controlling vast funding streams, inspires devotion for southern European party elites. It offers a channel of recruitment for politically adept figures that old imperial structures in Spain and Portugal may have once possessed.  

No exit from the crisis that places the continuation of the European empire in doubt, is acceptable, especially for those countries whose own debased political arrangements have been reproduced in Brussels. So the people whom the Southern European parties supposedly ‘represent’, will just have to  endure hard times  for as long as it takes until the European project is restored to health.

But the youth of Portugal are flooding abroad, leading to a process of creeping desertification. With a shrinking labour force, there will be insufficient people left to pay pensions and welfare bills. Due to the family declining as a powerful social institution, migrants are likely to send back only a fraction of the money (in the form of remittances) needed to support their parents and regenerate the economy.

As for Barroso, it is possible he will one day end up elected as Portugal’s President by an ageing electorate in a stagnant country. His contacts with the oil-rich elite in the former Portuguese colony of Angola could   provide alternative funding streams for a while.

We should at least be thankful for his candour as he struts the European stage: clearly he is determined that neither Britain, nor any other part of Europe, should slip the leash and re-establish a politics based on the genuine representation of national citizens’ interests.

One only hopes that if the drive to creating a new feudal Europe is checked in Britain or elsewhere that those in southern Europe keen to break the hold of the army of Barrosos over public life will rally and drive them from power.

Tom Gallagher’s book, "Monetary Union and the Crisis of European Integration" will be published next spring

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