de Richard Seymour
The EC presidential debate was a bad advert for democracy in Europe
This is the first time that there will be an election for the European commission president. We are surely, at long last, living the European dream.
In practical terms, not much has changed. You still vote for your preferred party in the European parliament elections, and its chosen presidential candidate is then proposed to the European council. The difference now is simply that the council has to take the outcome of the elections into account in selecting the president.
This where the problems begin. First, German chancellor Angela Merkel has let it be known well in advance that the election may not count. There is “no automaticity” in the most popular candidate being made president, and there would have to be many discussions behind the scenes to make the right choice.
This made for some mediocre theatre in last week’s presidential debate, as candidates queued up to assert that the popular choice should be respected, otherwise the doors of the European parliament may as well be shut, and the EU’s democracy acknowledged as a sham. And no one wants that.
Yet the situation is replete with grim ironies. For if the democracy of the union is so sacrosanct, why are there so few discernible differences that are not of emphasis or style between the major candidates? Why were their shibboleths – transparency, democracy, jobs – all practically identical?
And if the Lisbon treaty is to be invoked as the mandate of democracy, as it was by Green candidate Ska Keller, how do we account for the way in which it was devised and imposed? The major provisions of the treaty that mandated these elections were drafted under the influence of the business lobby, the European Roundtable of Industrialists, whose leading lights are currently overseeing the development of a new “competitiveness pact”. And where states called referendums on the treaty, they generally only did so where they were confident of getting the result they wanted. And when they didn’t, as in Ireland, they simply staged the referendum again, with more economic blackmail, until they won.
This indicates the next problem, which is that while every candidate has to pretend to believe in a vision of Europe as a democratic community, united in interests and values that they can articulate, no one can articulate our values if we don’t know who they are. And 60% of Europeans have no idea who the two major candidates, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, are. Anyone watching the debate would still be at a loss, because they are technocrats working in an institutional framework that has only the thinnest veneer of representative democracy.
And there has been precious little evidence of shared interests or values. Put crudely, a German banker and a Greek pensioner seem to have little in common. European Left party candidate Alexis Tsipras, whose Syriza party has just performed very well in the Greek elections, was the only one to acknowledge that Europe does not embody a community of shared interests, and that class conflicts and quasi-colonial relations between core and peripheral states structure the whole project. Yet, of course, even he was compelled to state the problem in terms of “disastrous policies” inflicted on “the grassroots”, threatening support for Europe and creating more Eurosceptics.