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Euro vs democracy?
by Newropeans-Magazine
2011-02-24 09:58:29
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Every year the town of Davos hosts the World Economic Forum ( WEF ) which is attended by representatives of the business world, politicians, writers, thinkers, actors and former presidents like Bill Clinton. And don’t forget Bono of course. It’s like a music festival for people who are interested in politics, economics and future developments in our world. The location is stunning since Davos is part of Graubünden, one of the most beautiful regions in Switzerland.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Davos during the WEF and attended a public debate about the Euro. Speakers were among others Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, Nouriel Roubini, professor in economics, also known as Dr. Doom and Wilhelm Hankel, professor in economics and author of a book about the Euro. At this moment professor Hankel is part of a citizens’ initiative against the EU-bailout programme at Germany’s Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

The debate became spirited when professor Hankel addressed not only his economic concerns in regard to the Euro, but also the lack of democracy within the EU and its institutions. For example, the people who manage the Euro lack a proper democratic legitimization to do just that. Besides, solving the Euro crisis means giving Brussels more authority at the expense of national democracies. There are many who disagree with professor Hankel’s views, especially when it comes to democracy.

Because isn´t democracy following a certain procedure? First, we have elections. Then, officials are sworn into office. They take seat in various parliaments in EU-states and work according to certain rules and regulations. Finally, if a decision is reached according to these rules and regulations, it is given a stamp, which tells us that it is democratic. The EU is the result of this procedure too, so both the EU and the Euro are considered to be democratic as well. Let´s call it democracy by law.

Abraham Lincoln once said that democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. A perfect democracy of course does not exist, but words and expressions used in various languages are often expressions of societal structures or aspects of life. The French for example speak about “joie de vivre”, which can be translated in words of another language, like Dutch. These words however will lack meaning in Holland, a country with a culture deeply rooted in Calvinism.

One of the oldest democracies in Europe is Switzerland. As a guest of this country I regularly encounter words or expressions that make me think about the meaning of democracy. The word sovereign for example is used differently in Switzerland in comparison to my home country Holland. In the Kingdom of Holland the word sovereign is used in reference to Queen Beatrix. In Switzerland however the word is used in reference to its citizens. In Switzerland the people are the sovereign.

Germans refer to themselves in a different way. The German word for citizenship is “Staatsangehorigheit”. The last part of this word is an archaic word for slave and is still used today by people who are into SM. The German word for citizenship therefore means slave of the State. In Switzerland however people not only refer to themselves as citizen sovereigns, but also as those who are part of their democracy, which is called “Mitbeteiligung”.

A similar word in the Dutch language is “zeggenschap”, which means to have say in something. This word is used for example in corporate law, but is not commonly used in reference to citizenship. Therefore, the right to vote doesn’t automatically imply that you have a voice, let alone that you have a say in matters of the State. And without “zeggenschap” or “Mitbeteiligung”, politicians in Holland, or within the EU for that matter, can pretty much do whatever they want.

Somehow we seem to be back in the nineteenth century. An era in which we witnessed attempts to draft democratic constitutions in European countries like Holland. If I understand history correctly these drafts were meant to safeguard people from abuse of power by the sovereign and the aristocratic elites. Today however political elites in Europe use their respective constitutions the other way around to protect themselves from citizens.

This is possible because a loophole exists in most constitutions which allow political elites to sign treaties on their own. These treaties in turn are used to transfer our sovereignty from the nation state towards institutions of the EU in which EU-elites are accountable to themselves alone. Constitutions, that were once meant to transfer sovereignty from the sovereign towards citizens, like you and me, are used today to transfer sovereignty back to a sovereign EU-elite. Isn’t history ironic?

After several referenda in countries like Holland, France, Ireland and Denmark, it is clear that the European populace at least is sceptical of the EU-project. But there seems to be no imperative for politicians in Europe to take that scepticism seriously. It is frustrating for citizens who have to live with the consequences of decisions that they themselves did not make. It is frustrating not having the possibility to co-decide which direction your own country is about to take. Is that democracy?

Therefore, I think there can be made a distinction between democracy by law and democracy in spirit. Democracy by law can do without its spirit, which, let’s be fair, is better than nothing at all. Democracy’s spirit on the other hand is reflected by its laws and practices. That is why Switzerland has referenda and its political infrastructure is set up in such a way that politicians face imperatives to serve their citizen sovereigns. Suffice it to say that Switzerland makes quite an impression on me.

Recently, I was reminded of professor Hankel’s warning that saving the Euro will have consequences for European democracies. Dutch television showed a documentary about a possible future in which a political union will be formed under the leadership of France and Germany without the approval of citizens in order to save the Euro. A first step towards such a scenario was taken by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy when they announced a far reaching proposal at the beginning of this month.

The Euro leaders are well within their rights to apply legislative procedures, which allow them to transfer more sovereignty to the EU in order to solve the Euro mess. Stuttgart 21 and the rise of populist parties however ought to be reminder that they are not the sovereign. They have no right to keep citizens out of their plans for our future. Are we therefore reaching the limits of democracy by law and is it time to rekindle democracy’s spirit on our continent? Only the future will tell.


Bouke S. Nagel
St. Gallen - Switzerland

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