Expert Comment: Europe’s deepening democratic crisisWednesday 28 May 2014
Following on from last week's European Parliament elections, Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Michael Holmes looks at the looming problems for democracy in Europe.
The European elections this month have highlighted a deepening crisis of democracy in the European Union. The EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ has long been recognised: the gap created when national parliaments have ceded power but the European Parliament has not been able to replace them. But this gap is now creating a serious problem for democracy in Europe.
While there was already a problem with the perceived remoteness of the EU’s institutions, the situation has been significantly worsened due to the euro crisis. This has heightened a sense of disillusionment with the perceived ‘political establishment’, and has also led to sharp growth in support for parties campaigning on anti-EU and anti-austerity programmes.
People in the UK will be familiar with UKIP’s success. However, that has been matched by surges in support votes for other right-wing Euro-sceptic parties, such as the National Front in France and the new ‘Alternative for Germany’ party. Several countries also saw a dramatic increase in votes for radical left-wing parties, such as Syriza which topped the poll in Greece, the United Left and the new Podemos (“we can”) protest movement in Spain, and Sinn Féin in Ireland.
The problem is that impact of these new parties threatens to worsen the democratic deficit in the EU rather than help to resolve it. The various EU-critical parties have too few seats to be able to influence the direction of new policies, and in any case do not form a coherent movement: there is a huge political difference between the far right and the radical left that cannot be bridged. However, they are strong enough to be able to block and frustrate policies being proposed by others.
The result is likely to be a creeping paralysis of the European Parliament, and this in turn will make it easier for the two other main EU institutions – the Commission and the Council – to keep control of policy. Since these are the two bodies most strongly identified with pro-austerity policies and a lack of democratic accountability, the outcome will in fact only serve to worsen the democratic deficit.
Europe needs to strengthen its democratic structures rather than see them weakened. However, the political will to do so simply does not exist. Simply returning powers to the national level would be inadequate for dealing with the extent of the financial crisis in Europe – and it is a crisis that extends far beyond the euro-zone countries to include all member states, including the UK.
The best hope for the development of a coherent alternative to austerity policies would be for increased cooperation between the three main left-wing groups – the social democrats, the greens and the radical left. Any such realignment would need this broad left formation to build a new vision of European cooperation. And for this to happen, the social democrats in particular must become more critical of the existing EU structures.