April 15, 2002

Does Democracy Need Voters? : The question Europe still needs to answer (Jonathan Rauch, March 2002, Atlantic Monthly)

Let’s face it, voters are a nuisance. They have an inconvenient habit of refusing to follow where social reformers want to lead. And so reformers are always on the prowl for ways to bypass electorates. One such effort is the increasingly audacious campaign by American lawyers and activists to circumvent legislatures with lawsuits. Another is the attempt to set up a number of supranational agencies, including an International Criminal Court, whose functionaries would not be accountable to voters anywhere. A third, and at least until lately the most ambitious of all such projects, is the European Union.

The EU is a consortium of European governments (fifteen at the moment) that for most of its forty-plus years has drifted steadily away from the moorings of good governance. A good government should be delimited in its powers, but the EU’s guiding premise has been “ever closer union,” leading to a permanent constitutional revolution that has inexorably gathered power toward the center. A good government should be comprehensible in its structure and open in its workings, but the EU’s processes are bafflingly arcane, and many of its key deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. A good government should, above all, be accountable to voters in regular elections, but the EU has only one elected branch, which is by far its weakest: the parliament. […]

Europe’s unprecedented and, it must be said, surprisingly successful effort to create a Europe-wide democracy without a Europe-wide electorate has finally hit a wall. The EU plans to admit twelve new members in the next few years. Getting the existing members to agree on anything is hard enough; twelve new ones may cause total paralysis. Prompted by this realization, an especially prominent critic has recently pointed out many of the shortcomings delineated above, charging that the EU’s citizens “feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight,” that they believe “the Union is behaving too bureaucratically,” and that the EU “needs to become more democratic, more transparent and more efficient.” This critic is none other than the EU itself, which made these points in a formal declaration in December and announced plans for a convention, starting this month and continuing into next year, to draft a constitution for Europe.

Americans may yawn. During a war on terrorism, who can be bothered with “qualified majority voting,” “subsidiarity,” “variable geometry,” and the other tongue-twisting and brain-addling elements of the EU apparatus? Besides, no one would be surprised if a grandiose EU parley disintegrates into diplomatic pablum.

But the new convention looks to be different. Its mandate is sweeping, putting on the table everything from the Union’s basic division of powers with its member states to the direct election of an EU President. It will consult a wide range of real people–national parliamentarians, academics, members of private groups, business leaders–in addition to the usual coteries of EU ministers and bureaucrats. Above all, it is impelled by Europeans’ realization that today’s blob needs shape and limits if it is to grow without collapsing.

The EU can take on a host of new members, or it can become more democratic and open, or it can become more streamlined and efficient; to do all three at once, however, seems impossible. The EU’s constitutional convention, in short, faces a hopeless task–just as our own constitutional convention did in 1787. I wouldn’t bet that the talks will produce a turning point in Western history. But I wouldn’t write off the possibility either.

Unlike Mr. Rauch, we’ve written the possibility off. The sclerotic and authoritarian bureaucracy of the EU is merely the last nail in Europe’s coffin. Its more serious problems include : the passing of religious belief and the according death of morality; social welfare states that mitigate against productivity and creativity; declining birthrates; and dependence on immigrant labor. Overcoming this series of problems would require a conservative counterrevolution on a scale that we’ve probably never seen in human history. It would require dismantling the entire network of government benefits and required corporate benefits to which Europe’s citizens feel themselves entitled, making them dependent once again on themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their churches, for their social services. I suppose you can’t rule out the possibility, but it seems awfully far-fetched.

Europe fell prey to the precise danger–which America has, thus far, better avoided–that was enunciated by many of the great conservative critics of democracy; its citizens, born with the inclination and suddenly finding themselves with the power, have voted themselves an ever greater share of other people’s wealth while requiring ever less labor and social responsibility of themselves. In order to believe that Europe can reverse its century long decline, it is necessary to believe that it can overcome the natural acquisitiveness and selfishness of its citizens. This seems dubious enough even before you add in the disturbing decline of religion throughout Europe–a decline so complete that the Archbishop of Canterbury has referred to Britain as a post-Christian nation. In the absence of Judeo-Christian beliefs, from whence will come the morality and the ideology of freedom coupled with personal responsibility that would have to underpin such a counterrevolution? Certainly not from a gang of German and French bureaucrats.