Views on the European Union and Conceptions of Democracy

Debates about the European Union tend to implicitly invoke competing notions of democracy, since they are not often make explicit, I will do so here.

The two conceptions of democracy

1.  Democracy as direct expression of public will.  A conception that assumes at least a large degree of homology between public opinion, the views of legislators, and the views of the government.  Democracy as identity between public will and government.  Evidently requires the assumption that there is such a thing as public will, some collective will that has some degree of homogeneity at any moment and some endurance over time.

2.  Democracy as procedural expression of ideal outcome of rational debate.  A conception that assumes some possibility of finding an ideal rational outcome to debate about any public issue.  Democracy as institutional, where decisions are made that are accountable to the public through election of representatives, and maybe through use of referenda, but emerge from a process of discussion, and revisions, according to the constraints of rules and of balances between different public institutions.

This distinction is to some degree equivalent to the following distinctions: participatory democracy against representative democracy; plebiscitary  democracy against parliamentary democracy; mass democracy against deliberative democracy, populist democracy against elite democracy; Athenian Republicanism against Neo-Roman republicanism; Jeffersonian democracy against Madisonian federalism.  These distinctions are not all equivalent with each other or with the distinction between 1 and 2, or with different vies about the European Union.  However, we need to think in all circumstances about the way that confrontations emerge in politics, lining up equivalences in an implicit way which are likely to make supporters of either side uncomfortable if made fully explicit.  Crude over riding of detailed distinctions is part of the nature of concrete political debates.  Since all these distinctions could on their own lead to a lengthy discussion, I won’t attempt to define them any further.  Some of them refer to rather academic discussions, some are less tied to that context.  The act of putting together has I hope some force of its own, is a way of clarifying an issue.

The point all this revolves around is that opponents of the European Union, and its federalist aspects, and supports of the EU and of federalism, tend to appeal to different conceptions of democracy.  Opponents argue that any decision made without explicit public support in advance is lacking in democratic legitimacy.  They argue that decisions emerging form institutions which themselves have a legal basis ultimately authorised by democratic process, are lacking in legitimacy is not backed by explicit public support, preferably from the beginning.  If not from the beginning, then at least eventually authorised by national referenda, or at the very least a series of national elections in which European integration is a major issue.   They regard EU supporters as elitists who disregard democracy.  Supporters of European integration, argue that decisions to further integration are legitimate if the chain of procedures by which the decision was made is legitimate at each link in the chain.  Legitimacy is preserved from the forms of democratic legitimation in which national policies are made (informing the decisions of the Council of Ministers/European Council), governments appoint members of the Commission, and the democratşc legitimacy of the European Parliament.  These forms of legitimation all enter into the body of European law and the structure of EU institutions, which themselves gain legitimacy over time through the force of the rule of law, and the respects accorded to established institutions, both things that tend to increase in time.  On the European Union supporters’ view, critics of the EU are populists who ignore the need for stable institutions, along with responsible forms of law making and policy formation, independent of short term shifts of public opinion.

I like to think the above is an objective distinction.  As far as bias goes, I am a European federalist, I am also a critic of the forms of European integration and the mentality of the federalist establishment.  European federalists have slipped into an excess of smugness in dismissing all criticism, all differences of opinion in relation to their own as irrationalist populism.  They tend to appeal to a centrist techocratism, which behind a language of economic and social inevitably, represents the intents of those who work in politics, in political foundations, in NGOs linked to the world of politics, in those parts of big business who are most engaged in lobbying government at all levels.  The tendency of opponents to rely on angry reference to a  partşally defined democracy, and to sometimes slip into populist demagoguery, adopted by politicians on the make who wish to present themselves as outsiders, is also repugnant.   However, the federalists would do well to learn from the brutal populist manners of the other side.  Populist arguments are not always wrong.  In the end successful constructive politics must rest on mobilising ‘populist’ resentments in a positive project.  A European Union that has a genuine political basis will have ways of acknowledging and incorporating critical arguments, and bringing outsiders in from the cold.  Its politics will be led by politicians, not administrators, or politicians that behave like administrators, rather than political leaders,  in appealing to ‘technocratic’ arguments that themselves assume a consensus about policy. This is what Max Weber meant by charismatic leadership in politics.  Charismatic leadership is desperately lacking in European Union politics, in the most obvious sense of failing to produce exciting leaders, as well as the most subtle aspects of Weber’s argument.


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