• Burn down the disco (Photo: dat')

Opinion

The EU's 'techno party' is hollowing out democracy

30.11.11 @ 12:56

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - Not everybody's into techno music. Some folks are a little bit country; others a little bit rock and roll.

But under what one Brussels wag recently called the EU's 'techno-party' strategy - replacing elected representatives with technocrats and an end to consideration of fiscal policies by parliaments in favour of fiat by civil-servant 'experts' - nobody has any choice any more about what kind of music they want to listen to.

Economic policies will be decided for them, by the experts, by, if you will, those bangin' bureaucrat and banker DJs in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Fiscal policy, like monetary policy, is simply too important for it to be 'politicised', the argument goes. The eurozone cataclysm is so serious that we no longer have time for "political games", as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso put it last Monday (21 November), speaking alongside Greece's new unelected leader, ex-European-Central-Bank (ECB) man Lucas Papademos.

And so in Athens and Rome, EU power-brokers have imposed a pair of temporary technocratic governments that claim to be above politics - a former central banker to head Greece and an entire cabinet of technocrats to shepherd Italy along the path of austerity and structural adjustment.

But technocracy is not to be limited to the allegedly wayward southern pair of states. It is such a grand wheeze, believe the project's deep thinkers, that under proposals for deeper economic integration unveiled by the European Commission last week, the unelected EU executive and the ECB are now to dictate national budgets of all eurozone states.

Goldman Sachs has not been made king of Europe

Firstly, let us be clear about what has not happened. Goldman Sachs has not been made king of Europe, as some recent articles in the French press have hinted at, given the association of Mario Monti, Lucas Papademos and the new head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, with the organisation that American journalist and professional muck-raker Matt Taibbi described as a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

The reality is far worse than a cabal of undead 'banksters' imposing their will. It is systemic and not a conspiracy by a coterie of Trilateral Commission members, Bilderberg Group attendees or Goldman Sachs staff.

The latest developments are simply the logical conclusion of structures and processes inherent to the way that the European project has been constructed - the famous 'democratic deficit' that has never been fully addressed - and how so much international decision-making is increasingly being achieved. There were EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) actors who together with the participation of domestic collaborators from both the centre-right and centre-left orchestrated the ouster of the governments of Greece's George Papandreou and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and the stultifying consensus of centre-left and centre-right at the European level has been midwife to imposition of undemocratic economic governance across the eurozone.

The focus must first be on the self-selected Frankfurt Group, the shadowy forum that brings together German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, IMF boss Christine Lagarde, ECB chief Mario Draghi, eurogroup chair Jean-Claude Juncker, the two EU presidents, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy and economy commissioner Olli Rehn. Designed to bypass the often serpentine European decision-making process, the Frankfurt Group has also been the channel through which much of the pressure on the eurozone periphery has been applied.

After Papandreou pulled his 'maverick' manoeuvre offering a referendum to the Greek people over externally imposed decade of austerity and restructuring - a gesture denounced by Barroso as "a breach of trust" - the leader was ordered to the G20 summit in Cannes where he was told enough was enough: a national unity government without a popular mandate had to replace his own. The opposition made it very clear that Papandreou had to go if they were to participate in a coalition.

If the private missives were not clear enough, and knowing that a national unity government in effect meant the end of Papandreou, Barroso then publicly said that if the Pasok administration was not sidelined over the course of a weekend, the country could kiss goodbye any hope of receiving the next, €8 billion tranche of its EU-IMF bail-out. "I am sure that the majority of the Greek people do not want this kind of chaos," he warned darkly.

The eurozone's de facto government then quickly moved to set loose the Italian buffoon. It is still unclear who precisely took the decision to transform the ceremonial office of the Italian president into a genuine seat of power, which group of lawyers decided that the president's appointment of Monti as senator-for-life - a laurel normally accorded to Italians who have achieved "outstanding patriotic merits in the social, scientific, artistic or literary field" - could work as a springboard for the premiership while overcoming constitutional concerns, or how Monti himself was picked as The One.

But the ECB's tepid purchases of the country’s bonds was signal enough to the markets to let them do their worst, while the IMF's announcement that Rome would be subject to inspections akin to those that Athens, Dublin and Lisbon are subject too - even though the country had not applied for any bail-out - tied a cement cinder-block to the leg of the already drowning Italian leader. An official at the time quoted by the UK's Spectator magazine put it: "We're on our way to moving out Berlusconi."

Managing democracy in Portugal

The overthrow of Papandreou and Berlusconi is not the first time a government has been thrown under the bus since the start of the crisis.

The ECB pulled the plug on the Socrates administration in Portugal in spring, when the chief of the central bank ordered domestic banks to stop lending to Lisbon in order to force the prime minister into the arms of an EU-IMF bail-out programme he was reluctant to sign up to.

In March, Portuguese banks announced they would stop buying government bonds if Lisbon did not seek a bail-out. Without the support of domestic banks, Socrates had no choice but to request an external lifeline.

Although the then ECB chief, Jean-Claude Trichet, later denied it, the head of the country's banking association, Antonio de Sousa, said that he had "clear instructions" from the ECB and the Bank of Portugal to turn off the tap. Socrates at this point was a dead man walking. A package of additional austerity measures proposed by the then minority government was defeated when the conservative opposition that would subsequently push through still deeper austerity voted against it. The government immediately fell, the predictable outcome of what Frankfurt had ordered.

Last Tuesday, upon Mario Monti's first visit to Brussels after being installed as premier, Barroso argued that the need to take economic decisions out of the hands of politicians is in fact the EU's raison d'etre: "After the the Second World War, the countries that founded the European Community created supranational institutions, and now we have the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and the ECB. Why? Precisely to have independent assessment and monitoring and also if possible independent enforcement mechanisms that are not subject to political manoeuvring."

As shocking as the overthrow of a pair of elected governments in Rome and Athens has been, this gelding of democracy is the plan for the entirety of the eurozone, as Brussels made clear last Wednesday.

The already radical shift in fiscal policy making powers from national parliaments to the EU under only recently passed economic governance legislation clearly has not gone far enough for the markets, and, according to fresh legislative proposals unveiled the middle of last week, the commission will now in effect be ordaining national budgets. Fiscal plans must be sent to Brussels for vetting before domestic politicians get a look, and if the commission does not like what it sees, it can order changes.

But even before this stage, countries will have to base their budgets on the reports of independent 'fiscal councils' unaccountable to parliaments. Expert overseers are to be sent to any country the commission deems to be in financial difficulties and, should this new legislation be passed, Brussels will in effect be awarding itself the power to order a country into a bail-out programme against its wishes.

EU economy commissioner Olli Rehn explained why this was necessary: "Recent experience has shown that a member state normally wants to avoid a [bail-out] programme until the very last moment," he said in the EU capital.

"This has caused the situation to worsen in the meantime both for the country concerned and for the whole euro area and increased costs to other member states and increased the financing needs as well."

"There are no volunteers for an EU-IMF programme," he said, in a clear reference to the recalcitrant Portuguese government of Jose Socrates.

Challenged by journalists to explain how such enormous powers could be taken out of the hands of elected representatives without a serious erosion of democracy, a testy Barroso countered that there is no threat to popular sovereignty so long as the member states in the eurogroup - comprising the leaders of the 17 states that use the single currency - vote to give away these powers to civil servants.

"It was their decision ... So in terms of democracy, let’s be clear. When democratic member states in full respect of constitutional rules entrust some entities with some powers, this is a fully democratic process and absolutely in respect of democratic principles."

He compared the transfer of fiscal policy to independent experts to the transfer of monetary policy to central banks that has occurred in many countries over the past two decades.

"Just as in our own countries, when we give some powers to a central bank, it is of course not accountable to a parliament, but of course the central bank was created through democratic procedures and is an institution that is absolutely built on a sound democratic architecture."

'Diseased democracy'

But Barroso is far from alone in expressing such contempt for politics. The breadth of support for this objectively anti-democratic response to the crisis is chilling.

Most mainstream parties have signed up to the rule of the technocrats. In the European Parliament, conservatives, liberals, and social democrats have consistently since the start of the crisis voted in favour of drives toward deeper economic integration that takes decisions out of the hands of elected chambers. Indeed, the sole EU institution with a direct electoral mandate has gone further in insisting on a gelding of democracy than even the commission or Council of Ministers would have done.

One journalist colleague, arguing that trusted, proven and capable technocrats are superior to elected representatives, recently tweeted: "Monti and Papademos are not the end of democracy. They are the cure against its chronic diseases."

A different colleague who does worry about what is happening to European democracy noted how an Italian friend goes even further in his disillusionment with the vote: "It's not like democracy has been working so great for us ... I felt powerless before with Berlusconi in power. At least this way I'll be powerless with a competent government."

Indeed, one of the main defences mounted by EU leaders against accusations of the overthrow of democracy in the south is that a majority of Greeks and Italians support the new technocratic administrations.

On the day that Monti announced his government composed entirely of unelected technocrats, bankers and diplomats, a poll for La Stampa newspaper by the Piepoli Institute put support for the new administration at 73 percent.

And three separate polls taken just after Papademos assumed office showed that between 72.9 and 79.1 percent believe the establishment of an emergency technocratic government to be "positive".

These four defences of technocracy appear at first glance to be powerful arguments, so it is useful to restate them boiled down to their essence: a) Politicians are a bunch of scheming idiots that 'politicise' the process and the experts, free of private interests, know better; b) There is little difference between the establishment of independent central banks and making fiscal policy independent of politics; c) The Council of Ministers, representing elected governments, has voted to hand over power to the commission and ECB; and d) The Greek and Italian people back the new governments.

But ultimately, all four represent the same appeal to elite rule rather than rule by the people. It is essential given the gravity of what is happening to revisit precisely what we mean by democracy and not take as a given that those who claim to defend it indeed do so.

Philosopher kings

Let us unpick the four arguments in reverse order.

The appeal to passing popularity in the polls offers no proof of democratic accountability. However popular a king may be, this fact does not make a monarchy a democracy. A more contemporary example could be to say that the popularity of Russia's Vladimir Putin lessens in no way his hollowing out of democracy in that country.

Of course, as far as support for the new regimes in Greece and Italy is concerned, it is more than understandable that people should cheer the fall of the vile, unprosecutable Berlusconi. Indeed, watching the overthrow of Berlusconi was akin to watching a football match between two teams you hate: you want them both to lose. And Papandreou was so reviled for his imposition of austerity that has so impoverished his people that a change, any change, might bring hope.

Thus this 'pox on both your houses' attitude of regular voters comes from a very different instinct to the elite idea that governance needs to be de-politicised, even if this disillusionment that ordinary people have in the political class unfortunately dovetails very easily with the contempt the political class has for ordinary people.

It need hardly be mentioned that language describing democracy as 'chronically diseased,' as my colleague suggested, has a very sombre European precedent indeed. It was precisely this popular disenchantment with politicians that has at dark times in the past allowed strongmen to arrive, welcomed by flag-waving crowds and promising an end to tribulation.

The passage of decisions from elected individuals, however flawed, to those without any popular mandate has always been a precursor to an even more fearful shackling of liberties.

Some even at the top of the EU are quite aware of these very risks and do not expect the strategy to be successful for very long. One senior EU character whose identity this reporter has been sworn to not reveal on pain of defenestration, recently opined that the popularity of Monti and Papademos will likely only last a few weeks or months at most, until the technocrats begin to execute austerity measures and structural adjustment - the very reason that they have been parachuted in.

If one polled the electorates of any number of countries, not just Greece and Italy, large numbers of them might support the arrival of Platonic philosopher kings.

Yet as soon there is an unpopular decision, then people will begin to say: 'Who are these people? Who elected them?'

Remember that Berlusconi himself arrived on a wave of popularity based on the idea that as a wealthy businessman, he was above politics and incorruptible.

'Too important' for democracy

The argument that the assumption of power over fiscal policy by unelected experts remains a democratic move because Eurogroup leaders have voted to do so is equally easily dismissed.

Elected representatives have many times in history voted to pass decision-making power over to unelected figures. Indeed, such developments have regularly been a precursor to autocracy. It should be self-evident that voting away democracy is an insuperable contradiction.

But one can go further and also ask how democratic the eurogroup or Council of Ministers or European Council (all of which are variations on the same intergovernmental theme) actually are. They are only indirectly elected and at no point are these senate-like formations ever confronted with general elections, despite their legislative power.

Policy in these closed chambers is essentially decided by unelected diplomats long before anything arrives on a minister's desk in any case. Far away from public scrutiny, everything from climate policy to agricultural subsidies and food labelling are wrapped up in the kind of secrecy that historically had once been the sole preserve of the building of foreign military alliances and peace negotiations. Beyond just concerns about economic policy being insulated from democratic influence, all these areas of policy making must be snatched away from the diplomats and returned to the democratic arena.

And the argument that monetary policy has anyway long since been taken out of the hands of politicians and given to 'independent' central banks and so now is the time for fiscal policy be made 'independent' as well - in essence is defended by the same logic: that it was elected representatives over the past two decades that voted to outsource this key policy area and thus the move is grounded in a democratic process.

But we must ask why was monetary policy ever allowed to be removed from the field of democratic contest in the first place? We have seen in the last few months how powerless elected leaders are in attempting to press the ECB into doing what must be done.

There is no policy area that is 'too important' for democracy.

Furthermore, if monetary policy has long been insulated from politics and now fiscal policy is to be as well, what on earth is now left for an elected chamber to deliberate on? Judicial and foreign policy? Why not abandon these fields to the ‘experts’ as well? Why bother with elections at all?

Jefferson vs. Hamilton

But the toughest argument of the technocrats to counter is the one that exploits the quite understandable popular contempt for the current generation of politicians, the argument that pretends to be the tribune of this legitimate frustration.

However sympathetic one may be on the face of it to the view that politicians are vile creatures, the implicit suggestion in the idea that now is not the time for "political games" is that politics is mere sport, a distraction that sullies and perverts the One True Path for a society, at all times known by economists (and at that, only certain flavours of economist). It is all right for this dilletantism to proceed at normal times, but, confronted with the worst crisis since the Great Depression, the potential destruction of the eurozone and even the European Union, we must put away these childish things, even if only for a brief period.

Consider for a moment the utter contempt for democracy that silently inheres in such an attitude.

What is democracy but the battle between political ideas - sometimes slightly different, sometimes profoundly or even radically different - and the ability of voters to choose between them? Doing away with politics is the same as doing away with democracy.

And even further beneath such sentiment lies a still darker cynicism, not just about politics but about people themselves. A common complaint one hears in the bars and cafes of the European quarter in Brussels is that people are far too stupid, too ignorant of what is in their own best interest.

On many occasions, EU officials have said privately that governments need the discipline of markets, otherwise they would just keep spending and spending in order to win votes. If we unpack this, this is equivalent to saying that the markets know better than voters, than people.

Yet what are markets, but the actions of people, albeit wealthy, institutional investor-type people? It must then be concluded that those who put forward this argument do not in fact believe that all people are too stupid, just that most people are - apart from those with sufficient wealth to play the markets. Elites, in other words.

This is not a new perspective, but is instead one side of an old debate that dates back to the earliest days of modern democracy.

At the time of revolutionary France and America, some favoured an extension of democracy to the widest possible geometry. Others viewed the masses with suspicion and, while opposing absolute monarchy, felt that it would be in society's best interest if the cleverest, most educated and most virtuous held the reins of power. At the birth of the United States, the more egalitarian Thomas Jefferson, believed in equality of political opportunity (admittedly only to white males) and favoured "plain folk" and the "yeoman farmer" over the "cesspools of corruption" inhabited by financiers, bankers and industrialists. His nemesis was the proto-technocrat Alexander Hamilton, who feared ordinary people’s capacity for self-government, the tendency of them for "factiousness" (i.e., politics) and the "unsteadiness" of governments, preferring rule by elites instead.

"Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens ... that our governments are too unstable and that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties," he wrote in the Federalist Papers.

The echo of Hamilton can be heard today down Bruxellois, Parisian, Berliner and Frankfurter corridors.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

But we should go further still, and disabuse ourselves of the idea that there can ever be some group of individuals that is free of political ideas or of a set of private interests that they serve, that there are virtuous men and women that will benevolently, competently watch over us independent from political selection.

Let us assume that there is out there some group of 'experts' that is genuinely distinct from Hamiltonian elite interests and at the same time that really do know better than regular people what is in the best interest of society.

How would we know that they do?

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" asked the Roman satirist Juvenal, or: "Who watches the watchmen?"

These imaginary experts would have to present their ideas and list their interests and be checked by, well, whom? Is there a group of technocrats that are expert in choosing technocrats? And if so, how is that group checked? The proposition leads to infinite regress. Alternately, if we say that technocrats are by definition self-selecting, how is this different from dictatorship, when the ruler places himself in power upon his own authority? This is Napoleon crowning himself emperor.

So the only possible answer to Juvenal's question is: We do. We, the citizens of Europe, are the only ones capable of watching out for our own interests. And if we are the ones watching the watchmen, this is the same as saying that we are electing them: We are electing politicians.

We like elections, but we do not like politicians. But you cannot have one without the other. Politics is inescapable.

And indeed, our real-life group of experts, whether in Brussels and Frankfurt or now Athens and Rome, are in the end very much politicians too, just ones of a very particular ideological stripe and over whom we have the most attenuated democratic control.

The evidence of this is given by comparing what happened ahead of the elections in Spain to what happened ahead of elections in Ireland, Portugal and even Finland. In the latter cases, EU and ECB officials - the technocrats - sharply remonstrated to domestic political parties that national consensus was required and lectured voters that they had a "responsibility" to in effect vote the right way.

Yet there were no such admonitions in the weeks leading up to the Spanish vote. If national consensus is imperative in the current climate, why did such exhortations fail to materialise?

The reason is that it was long since clear from the polls that those voters that might have challenged the austerity consensus - the programme of measures the EU technocrats demand - were disillusioned with the centre-left government of Zapatero and were going to stay at home or drop blank votes into the urns, giving the right a clear run at an absolute majority.

So national consensus and technocratic rule appear only necessary when the market-fundamentalist right does not have an absolute majority. Berlusconi's government may have been of the right, but there was no absolute majority in favour of all the austerity that was demanded. From this, it follows that the technocrats are not in truth indifferent experts at all, but experts of a particular hyper-free-market flavour. Keynesian experts for example need not apply.

The 'Techno Party' may come dressed up as a coterie of independent academics and specialists, but is in fact the party of the market, composed of the very same people that created the crisis in the first place.

"What is pretending to be a technical, consensus solution, above the fray of politics, is itself deeply political and this is being hidden from the European people,” says Niccolo Milanese, the director of European Alternatives, a Rome-based EU affairs think-tank that has been critical of the drive toward technocracy.

"Under the guise of technocratic governments, a series of policies is being foisted upon them as if there is no choice," he argues.

"The correct response to the crisis is not less democracy, but more; not cosy consensus, but rather the re-invention of clear, stark ideological choices with parties presenting competing visions of which direction we want society to go in."

Given the utter capitulation of Europe's social democratic parties to the will of the Techno Party - Papandreou and Socrates were both men of the left while Italy's centre-left party, the Democrats, has given Monti a blank cheque - this is a big ask. Can we really say that there is a stark ideological choice between left and right, at least on economic questions, any more? What force is able to take the Techno Party on and present an alternative vision of Europe?

The solution to the problem of the current class of politician that pays no heed to the interests of ordinary people is not to do away with politicians in favour of 'experts', but to elect a better class of politician that will represent our interests.

But this does require a new politics and a democratisation of Europe. And this will only happen when the Greek and Italian people themselves, alongside the Spaniards, Portuguese and Irish, and all Europeans together refuse to keep dancing to the techno beat.

It is time for all those who hold democracy dear to speak out against these moves without fear of being cast as eurosceptics. Indeed, if one believes in Europe, we must speak out all the more loudly. In counterposition to the anti-democratic panic in the chancelleries of Europe that has led to the rule of the Techno Party, it is time to burn down the disco and, as the song says, hang the blessed DJ.

Because the music they constantly play says nothing to ordinary Europeans about their lives.

Leigh Phillips is EUobserver's finance reporter.