The diminishing democracy in Europe.

The quiet days in August are a good time to reflect on the coming year. When I look at my calendar for 2024, the European Parliament election stands out – unfortunately, it no longer inspires me as it did five years ago. In 2019, I ran for the EU Parliament in Germany, while a German colleague did the same in Greece. With DiEM25, our pan-European movement, we wanted to highlight that European democracy will remain a sham unless it transitions to complete transnationality. In 2024, such gestures no longer hold even symbolic significance. My fatigue regarding the European election in June 2024 is not because I have lost interest in European politics or experienced recent political defeats, of which I have had quite a few. What exhausts me is the difficulty of imagining that the seeds of democracy could still flourish within the European Union in my lifetime.

The Europa loyalists will criticize me for this statement. How can I dare to call the EU a democracy-free zone when it is led by a council composed of elected prime ministers and presidents, a commission appointed by elected national governments, and a parliament directly elected by the European people with the power to dismiss the appointed commission?

The hallmark of any democracy in deeply unequal societies is institutions that are intended to prevent the sum of all human interactions from being reduced to power relations. In order to keep despotism in check, the discretion of the executive must be minimized by a sovereign community equipped with the necessary means. The member states of the EU provide these means to their communities. However limited the choices may be, the citizens of a country retain the authority to hold the elected bodies accountable for their decisions (within the external constraints of the country).

The council members pass unpopular decisions without resistance.

Unfortunately, this is not possible at the EU level. When our heads of state and government return home after an EU Council meeting, they immediately distance themselves from unpopular decisions and instead blame their fellow council members: „It was the best I could negotiate,“ they say with a shrug. EU officials, advisors, lobbyists, and European Central Bank officials know this. They have learned to expect representatives of member states to adhere to this line and tell their national parliaments that while they may not agree with the Council’s decisions, they are „responsible“ and committed to European „solidarity“ to resist.

And therein lies the democratic deficit of the EU. Decisive political measures that are rejected by a majority of council members are often adopted without resistance, and there is no community that can judge the council itself, hold it accountable, and ultimately dismiss it as a body. When the council reaches a reasonably sensible agreement (such as the one between Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte on the reform of the EU fiscal pact), national elections, which never focus on decisions at the EU level, can cause them to dissolve into thin air. Furthermore, the formal power of the European Parliament (which still lacks the ability to initiate legislation) to dismiss the Commission as a whole is about as useful as equipping the Greek Navy with a nuclear bomb to counter Turkey’s threats to occupy an island off its coast.

Nichts davon ist neu, trotzdem, bin ich heute noch müder. Drei Entwicklungen haben die Idee, dass die EU eine wirksame Kraft für das Gute innerhalb und außerhalb Europas sein könnte, nahezu zerstört.

Zunächst einmal haben wir die Hoffnung verloren, dass gemeinsame Schulden der Hamilton’sche Kitt sein könnten, der unsere europäische Konföderation in etwas verwandeln würde, das einer zusammenhängenden demokratischen Föderation näher käme. Ja, die Pandemie brachte Deutschland schließlich dazu, die Aufnahme gemeinsamer europäischer Schulden zu akzeptieren. Aber wie ich damals warnte, waren die politischen Bedingungen, unter denen die Mittel flossen, der wahr gewordene Traum eines Euroskeptikers. Das Ergebnis? Statt eines ersten Schritts in Richtung der notwendigen Fiskalunion, schloss NextGenerationEU (Europas Pandemic Recovery Fund) eine Hamilton’sche Umwandlung aus.

The EU has constructed walls that Donald Trump must envy.

Secondly, the war in Ukraine has undermined Europe’s efforts for strategic autonomy from the United States. Despite the official niceties following Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020, the US still sees the EU as an adversary to be kept in check. Whatever a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia may entail, the irrelevance of the EU during the diplomatic process of reaching a peace settlement remains undisputed.

Thirdly, the EU can no longer pretend to be a champion of principled cosmopolitanism. Europeans despised Trump’s „Build the Wall“ rallies, but the EU has proven to be more adept at building walls than Trump ever was. From Greece’s border with Turkey, to Spain’s Moroccan enclave, to the eastern borders of Hungary and Romania, to the Libyan desert, and now in Tunisia, the EU has financed the construction of abominations that Trump can only envy. And not a word is spoken about the illegal behavior of our coast guard operating under the guise of Frontex (the EU border agency), which undeniably contributed to thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean.

After the 2019 European elections, the liberal press expressed relief that the far-right did not perform as well as feared. However, they forgot that unlike the fascists of the interwar period, the new far-right does not need to win elections. Their great strength lies in gaining power by causing conventional parties to attack each other and eventually embrace xenophobia, authoritarianism, and ultimately totalitarianism, regardless of winning or losing. In other words, autocratic European leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán do not need to lift a finger to spread their chauvinistic creed in the EU and Brussels.

These are not the thoughts of a Eurosceptic who believes that European democracy is impossible because a European demos is also impossible. It is the complaint of a European who believes that a European demos is indeed possible, but that the EU has moved in the opposite direction. We have observed how the rapid economic decline of Europe and its democratic (and ethical) deficits have developed in parallel. Despite my concerns, I find it easy to make the decision to run again in the European elections – this time in Greece with MeRA25 – precisely because I need to express my concerns during the campaign. The paradox is that I must first convince myself that EU election politics is worth the effort before I can do so with others.