Politics Life at 28

Debate: Defending European democracy

29 August 2012
Dilema Veche Bucharest

Weakened all over the world, democracy now appears to be under attack in Europe. Discussing the political crisis that has struck his country, a Romanian commentator remarks that the EU should perhaps be better equipped to defend such a core value.

Just as the situation of Greece and the context of financial crisis has led to the adoption of the fiscal compact designed to impose budgetary discipline in EU member states, the democratic crisis in Romania, could lead to the adoption of measures to bring about greater political integration.

Romania's crisis following the suspension by parliament on July 7 of President Traian Băsescu has now eased after he returned to work following the constitutional court’s ruling that the July 29 referendum on his impeachment was invalid.

The idea that the threat to democracy could bring about further political integration was put forward by Suzana Dobre, an analyst for Expert Forum, a Romanian NGO that has played an increasingly active role since the onset of the country’s political crisis.

Her reasoning is largely focused on the risk of contagion: the failure of one EU member state would have consequences for all the others, thus the need to avoid such a situation.

Compromised democracy

But what can be done in the event that democracy in a member state is on the point of being compromised? Dobre acknowledges that the threat of anti-democratic contagion is not as obvious as it would be in a financial crisis, and as a result the political support required to avoid such a state of affairs is unlikely to reach the same intensity.

Nonetheless, there is a danger of contagion. Given that the rules of the game have been so brutally subverted in Romania and that the EU is unable to take action, it is worth wondering how we would respond in the future if let’s say... Slovakia was suddenly marked by the emergence of a political leader convinced that the people wanted him to remain in office for life, or if Lithuania was taken over by a colonel with a mission from God to take power.

In short, how would the EU fare with a few Belarusians at the negotiating table?

The truth is that sooner or later, the EU is going to be confronted by dilemmas along these lines, which, dare we say it, are part of the logic of history.

Third wave

It is shameful for us that we are the means through which such a dilemma has emerged, but it was to be expected. Let’s look back for moment. The year 1990 marked the beginning of what Samuel Huntington has termed "the third wave of democratisation".

A decade later, we now have to contend with the undertow from this wave and the sad reality that for many countries democracy is not irreversible, not even in our day.

In Russia, democracy has been and gone. In fact, it has been and gone in all of the countries of the former USSR with the exception of the Baltic States and the Republic of Moldova.

In Africa, the democratic experiment has only partially worked. In Latin America, the great wave of hope has progressively foundered with the emergence of a growing number of Hugo Chávez clones among the continent’s socialists.

The regression of democratisation is a fact. Can the EU lay claim to the sole exception? Does it function like a hothouse where plants can thrive, in spite of the weather conditions outside? This is the assumption inherent in the system: not least because in advance of accession negotiations, candidate countries are required to satisfy the Copenhagen criteria, which ensure they are democratic.

But bear in mind, they are obliged to respect these criteria while negotiations are in progress. And thereafter? And thereafter, nothing

Stifling democracy

But isn’t membership of the EU restricted to democracies? So it is, but let’s not forget that democracies are dying off all over the world. And in the EU? Of course that could never happen in Europe. At least so we believe, and this conviction is reflected in the rules that structure the EU, which assume that it will remain a club of countries where such problems no longer exist. However, the reality is that democracies can be stifled.

Romania is the most recent example of just such a fate, and certainly the worst one. The sinister goings on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary paved the way for this development, but we should not forget that virtually all of the states that joined the EU in 2004 have experienced political crises and drifted down the rankings for political stability and freedom of the press.

And that is not to mention Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi waged war on the justice system once he had succeeded in cornering the country’s media. A government gains control of the press and the system of justice – is it a coincidence or is that how the decline of democracy begins?

The European Union has a problem: democracy can be compromised even within the EU. Will the political pressure it has brought to bear on Romania be sufficient?  Or will it have to do more? There is no denying this is an interesting dilemma. Of course, it would be a lot more amusing to follow the development of this story if Romanians were not the main protagonists.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.