Debate: The disenfranchisement of Europe

 Masks hung by protesters at the occupied central Athens Syntagma square. July 2011.
Masks hung by protesters at the occupied central Athens Syntagma square. July 2011.
12 October 2012 – Der Hauptstadtbrief (Berlin)

With acronyms like EFSF or ESM and mantras that preach that there are no alternatives, such as “If the euro fails, Europe fails”, politicians are undermining Europe’s historical democracy. And they won’t pull through that way, writes German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

Crisis? What crisis? The cafes, bistros, and the beer gardens are overflowing, German airports are bustling with tourists, and one hears talk of record exports and falling unemployment. The summits scaled weekly by the politicians and the confused disputes of the experts provoke yawns. It all seems to be played out in a rhetorical No Man's Land full of incomprehensible language rules that have nothing to do with the everyday routines of the world we live in.

What’s least noted is that the countries of Europe for a long time are no longer ruled by democratically legitimate institutions but by the horde of abbreviations that have usurped them. Where it's going is spelled out by EFSF, ESM, ECB, EBA and IMF. Only experts can puzzle out these acronyms.

Not just that: the who, what and how of decisions in the European Commission and the Euro Group are revealed to insiders only. What all these “facilities” have in common is that they are not mentioned in any Constitution anywhere in the world, and that no voter has the slightest say in their decisions.

The equanimity with which the inhabitants of our small continent have accepted their political ouster seems a little eerie. This may be because it is a historical novelty. Unlike the revolutions, coups d'état and military putsches that European history is so rich in, this is happening to us silently and without violence. No torchlight processions, no parades, no barricades, no tanks. Everything is playing out calmly in the back room.

Abolition of the rule of law

That no heed is paid to treaties surprises no one. Existing rules such as the principle of subsidiarity in the Treaties of Rome or the no-bailout clause from Maastricht are being undermined at will. The principle of Pacta sunt servanda (“Agreements must be kept”) is reduced to an empty phrase dreamed up by some legal fussbudgets of antiquity.

The abolition of the rule of law is proclaimed openly in the ESM treaty. The decisions of the controlling members of this rescue team are effective directly under international law and are not bound to the approval of parliaments. As was customary in the old colonial regimes, they call themselves governors and they are, just like directors, not accountable to the public.

On the contrary, they are expressly sworn to secrecy. This is reminiscent of the Omerta, which is part of the code of honour of the Mafia. Our own Godfathers are beyond any judicial or legislative control. They enjoy a privilege that not even a boss of the Camorra deserves: absolute immunity from criminal prosecution. (It is written down in Articles 32 to 35 of the ESM treaty.)

And so the political dispossession of the citizenry has, for the moment, reached its climax. It started out much earlier, at the latest with the introduction of the euro. This currency is a result of political horse-trading that has meted out punishment indifferently to all the economic preconceptions of such a project.

The people will finally wake from their political siesta

Far from acknowledging and correcting the birth defect of the design, this regime of saviours insists on staying the course at any cost. The unvarying assertion that there is “no alternative” denies the explosive force of the widening differences among the participating nations. The consequences have been emerging for years: cleavage instead of integration, resentment, animosity and recriminations in place of understanding. “If the euro fails, Europe fails” – with this ludicrous slogan a continent of half a billion people is committed to the adventure of an isolated political class, as if two thousand years of history were mere small beer next to a newly invented paper currency.

The so-called Euro crisis is proving that the situation cannot rest at the political expropriation of citizens. It is leading, by its own logic, to its counterpart: economic dispossession. Only when the economic costs come to light will it become clear what that means. The people of Madrid and Athens pour out onto the streets only when they have, literally, no other choice. This will not fail to spread to other regions.

What metaphors politicians adorn themselves with, whether they baptise their latest shapeshifter a “rescue umbrella” (a bail-out), a bazooka, Big Bertha, euro bonds, fiscal-, banking- or debt union, does not matter: when they have to reach into their pockets, the people will finally wake up from their political siesta. Sooner or later, they suspect, they will have to answer for everything that the rescuers have wrought.

The number of possible options is limited. The simplest way to liquidate the debt – and savings – is through inflation. Tax hikes, pension cuts and compulsory levies may also be considered, however. As a last resort, currency reform may even be on the table – a proven method of punishing small savers to shield the banks and shrug off the obligations of state budgets.

European policy has mocked the principle of subsidiarity

No straightforward way out of the trap is looming over the horizon. All carefully hinted possibilities so far have been successfully blocked. The talk of a multi-speed Europe has died away unheard. Diffidently proposed opt-out clauses were never written into a treaty. But above all, European policy has mocked the principle of subsidiarity – an idea that is much too obvious for it ever to be taken seriously.

This foreign word means no more and no less that, from the municipality to the province, from the nation-state to European institutions, the authority closest to the citizen must always regulate everything it is capable of, and that each higher level may be left only those regulatory powers that otherwise cannot be exercised. As the history of the Union shows, this principle was merely an empty word.

A bleak outlook, one might say? Good times for disaster enthusiasts who are heralding not just the collapse of the banking system, the bankruptcy of indebted countries and, preferably, the end of the world! Like most prophets of doom, however, these soothsayers are probably rejoicing too soon. For five hundred million Europeans will not be ready simply to give up without a fight.

This continent has already instigated and survived entirely different and much bloodier conflicts than today's crisis. We will not be able to back out of the blind alley the ideologists of disenfranchisement have led us into without costs, conflicts and painful restrictions. In this situation panic is the worst advisor, and he who thinks Europe is singing its swansong does not know its strengths. The motto is from Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.”

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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