The Return of Politics

Market integration in Europe far outstripped political integration. We’re now reaping the consequences of that imbalance. Instead of giving up on the nation-state, we must turn it into a legitimate political force for the 21st century.

Europe, and indeed much of the world, is facing a crisis of democracy. The economic crisis is not the cause of public unrest; rather it has provided an opportunity to bring public concerns about the way they are governed into the open.

Eurobarometer figures show a pervasive loss of trust in government and in political parties in all European countries. More than half the population, and in some cases 80-90%, do not trust their government or political parties. The slogan of the Spanish indignados ‘Real Democracy Now’ implies that formal representative democracy no longer is able to meet the aspiration of citizens. What this means is that the economic crisis cannot be solved without addressing the democratic deficit and vice versa. Without a rethinking of democracy our economic problems will not go away.

So how do we explain this profound loss of legitimacy? And what does it mean for the future of the nation-state? After all, the triumph of the nation-state was to provide a site for representative democracy. And what does it mean for the European Union?

One explanation is the phenomenon known as globalization. Because of extensive interconnectedness of societies and economies, the decisions that affect people’s lives are no longer taken in national capitals. The power of governments is primarily the power to negotiate with other governments, international institutions, and multinational corporations. However perfect the democratic procedures, it can be argued, governments no longer have the capacity to respond to the demands of their electorates—hence, endless broken promises and lack of trust.

This is particularly salient in Europe. By pooling sovereignty, it was argued that the European Union represented the ‘rescue of the nation-state.’ And for a while this seemed to be the case. However, instead of protecting the power of the nation-state, the growing emphasis on markets and convergence criteria have greatly limited national choices. One of the ways in which governments explain broken promises is by blaming directives from Brussels.

A second explanation is what Colin Crouch calls ‘post democracy.’ Government, he asserts,  has increasingly been captured by business interests, especially media companies, and elections have become a spectacle to manage expectations and to continue policies that favor a small private elite. This has something to do with the wave of neo-liberalism since the 1980s that has freed capital from national constraints.

And a third explanation has to do with the way in which state apparatuses have become entrenched and ossified, blocking all forms of change. Government increasingly becomes an opportunity for private advancement rather than a vehicle for pursuing the public interest. The idea is that all institutions are prone to corruption over time without vigorous external pressures. The dominant political parties have used their power to preserve their positions through a whole new array of electoral techniques narrowing the space for challenges to the dominant discourse.

All three explanations need to be taken into account when imagining alternatives. The first explanation implies that either we need greater accountability at global levels or alternatively that we need to claw back power to the nation-state by reintroducing new regulatory frameworks at a national level. The second explanation suggests that citizens need to recapture the state. And the third explanation implies that we need to break the blockage at the national level, perhaps through multilevel governance -local, regional, or global.

This is very relevant for the future of the European Union. Even if it were possible to claw back power to national levels, the result would be closed in sluggish economic terms and rather undemocratic entities. The other face of the nation-state was, of course, authoritarianism and war. Yet the option of turning the European Union into a new nation-state is also unpalatable. Even if greater formal mechanisms for accountability were introduced, Brussels is far away from citizens, and the danger is the magnification of the disadvantages of the nation-state—a super power that becomes blocked and ossified and that manipulates mass public opinion.

What is needed is to rethink democracy from the perspective of the individual citizen. The European Union needs to be reconceptualized as a new type of polity designed not to replace the nation-state but to constrain its dangerous tendencies like war, and to protect its positive tendencies like democracy. The goal should be to enhance democracy at local and national levels by providing a framework that promotes subsidiarity—the idea that as many decisions as possible are taken at a local levels. It could be thought of as a filter for globalization controlling global bads that undermine capacity at local levels like short term capital speculation and, at the same time, contributing to global goods such as upholding individual rights. Of course it would need formal accountability but its main purpose would be to enable meaningful deliberation and participation at local and national levels.

Sovereignty has always been about membership in an international system of rules. But, in the past, those rules permitted war, authoritarianism, and imperialism. Global governance implies the survival of sovereignty, but within a much tighter framework of rules designed to uphold the right of individual citizens. The European Union should be conceived not as a new nation-state but a new form of accountable global governance.

This has to be reflected in the financial basis of the different levels of governance. As Max Weber pointed out, institutions are shaped by their revenue base. Sources of revenue need to be linked to the kind of services provided as well as the mechanisms of accountability. So as much taxation as possible needs to accrue to the local levels that are about the local environment and local services—property taxes or congestion and parking charges. The nation-state remains the repository of income and corporate taxation and the provider of social security, education, and health. The EU level needs to have a greatly enhanced budget; economists suggest that a minimum of 7% of GDP is the necessary condition for a currency union. But its new sources of revenue, in addition to Eurobonds, needs to come from new types of taxation related to its role in managing global capital flows and addressing problems such as global warming, most notably a tax on financial transactions and a tax on carbon emissions.

Of course, such far reaching changes can only come about if there is a profound change in political discourse so that restructuring fiscal mechanisms goes hand in hand with the rethinking of democracy. At present, there are stirrings of political mobilization against the increasingly sham character of representative democracy. Yet the ability to reclaim ‘real democracy’ depends on the form of emerging institutions. It is only through rethinking the meaning of sovereignty and the role of polities like the European Union that such efforts will be able to bring about meaningful change.

Read more in this debate: Robert Kappel, Russ Roberts, David Sloan Wilson.


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