There’s been some discussion online recently about whether or not the eurozone bail-outs (and, specifically, the austerity measures attached to them) are undemocratic. Leigh Phillips, a Brussels-based journalist, wrote an article arguing that it no longer makes any difference who is elected in Greece, Spain, Ireland or Portugal because policies are now dictated by conditions set out in the EU-IMF bail-out packages. Elected representatives have been replaced with a “junta of ‘experts’, technocrats [and] those educated in the knowledge of What Needs To Be Done.”
This is a sentiment shared by Bruno Waterfield, The Daily Telegraph‘s Brussels correspondent, who wrote much the same thing in his final blog post back in April. Likewise, Shawn Donnelly argues on his blog that “the colliding wishes, interests and values of certain euro member states make democracy and the euro incompatible.” In other words, “[Portuguese and Greek voters] wanted to join [the euro], but not pay the price in terms of budget restraint”. Donnelly argues that the only solution is for Portugal, Greece et al to leave the euro. It’s not possible to have the euro and democracy and lax budgetary discipline. One of them has to go.
There are two counterpoints that have been made to these arguments. The first is by Jon Worth, a UK blogger and federalist. Jon agrees that centralising budgetary control at the EU level is undemocratic – but he counters that when one country in the eurozone over-spends it affects all the others. It’s no good arguing for Greece to restructure if a Greek default would tip Portugal, Ireland and Spain into insolvency and drag the rest of Europe down with it. His solution is to propose that the directly elected European Parliament should take over more responsibility for setting budgetary rules for member-states.
We took Jon’s suggestion to the European Parliament to hear what MEPs thought. The first reaction was from Alexander Nuno Alvaro, a German liberal MEP.
Alvaro agreed that the Parliament should have more power, partly because otherwise the decision-making will be left to “those responsible for this situation”. However, he recognises that democracy and sovereignty are at issue here. Despite the fact that the European Parliament is directly elected, national governments still have greater legitimacy in the popular mind. Listening to Alvaro, there didn’t seem to be much appetite for the European Parliament to become the primary decision-maker in terms of budgetary discipline (as Jon seems to be suggesting). Rather, Alvaro saw the Parliament as having greater oversight on decisions coming out of the Council (i.e. being more “annoying” to the Council).
The final counterpoint comes from German blogger Ronny Patz. He sees the problem as being that the centre-right is too dominant in Europe – at both national and EU level. This is a problem not because Ronny doesn’t like the centre-right, but because it means there is no effective opposition to centre-right policies. The only way to change this situation, argues Ronny, is for opposition parties across Europe to do better in national and European elections and change the balance of power.