Europe’s Paradoxical Elections

June 9, 2009

In the 1980s, large swaths of the developing world became democratic.  Autocracies in Latin America and Africa fell, and with the downfall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe too became democratic.  Political scientist Samuel Huntington called this the “third wave” of democratisation.  Despite the initial euphoria, the new democracies did not always turn out to be liberal democracies with strong civil societies and democratic accountability.  In many places, elections were held (though they were not always free and fair), and constitutions existed (though they were often contradicted), and much of the day to day governance was not democratic all. Theorists of this phenomenon argued that elections were a necessary but not sufficient indicator of democracy.  A term, “procedural democracy,” came about to describe this state of affairs.

Today I’ve been wondering whether procedural democracy would be the right label for Europe.  Last week Europe held elections.  Those elections were to elect members to the European Parliament (MEPs).  If you are an American or other non-European citizen and you’re reading this thinking “gosh, how ignorant of me to not know there were European elections going on” you shouldn’t beat yourself up.  Lots of Europeans didn’t know there were European Parliamentary elections going on either.  Voter turnout was less than 50%, and many, if not most people,  did not vote on the basis of issues that have to do with governance of Europe, but rather to express their dissatisfaction with their own national governments.  In fact, many people don’t know what the European Parliament does at all: as a friend noted, it was both telling and unhelpful that the BBC waited until broadcasting election results to tell voters what the European Parliament does. One of the greatest thinkers on democracy, Robert Dahl, has argued that genuine democracy requires an educated electorate.  It’s highly problematic that Europeans don’t know (or care) what the European Parliament does.  I took a poll amongst one class of my master’s students at LSE last term, asking how many of them knew who their MEP was.  Not a single person raised their hand.

While this in and of itself does not mean that Europe’s democracy is only procedural, it’s at least worth point out that there are some paradoxical things going on with regards to democracy at the European level.   For example, an increasing number of anti-Europe MEPs are being elected. Wait,  you might be thinking, members of the European parliament that want to abolish Europe?  Yep, that’s what’s happening.  In Britain, a party called the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), who advocates withdrawing the UK from the EU, got more votes than the Labour party, which is currently in power.   A party called “No2Eu, Yes to Democracy” got 1% of the vote.  And the Conservatives, who are skeptical of further European integration, got 27% of the vote.

A further problem for European democracy is one that is long standing and much acknowledged: citizens often to seem to reject further European integration, which national leaders are in favour of.  The most recent example of this, is the long and winding road to ratifying a constitution for Europe.  The constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters, renamed the Lisbon Treaty, and then rejected by Irish voters.  So the Irish are being asked to vote again on it, in hopes they’ll give a different answer.

European leaders are now worried that the UK could derail the process.  Why?  Because the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, plans to ask the UK public in an referendum whether or not they want to ratify the treaty if (or more likely when) he is elected. European leaders thus hope that the current government, led by Gordon Brown, can stay in place long enough to allow the treaty to be ratified. There is something terribly un-democratic about this.  The fact that the public would reject the treaty if given the chance to vote is important, even if not all political issues have to be solved by an open vote.

Perhaps the most telling quote about the current woes of European democracy came from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.  Discussing a dispute about whether an Italian or Pole should become the parliament’s president he said: “If we can’t negotiate, then democracy will come into play.”  Any statement of European politics which puts democracy as the second option is highly problematic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: