Democratization Can't Save Europe: The Need for a Centralization of Power

An Essay by Herfried Münkler

Part 2: Time for the Center to Take Over from the Periphery

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Europe was seen as a success in need of little maintenance -- one that could handle the Greeks. Instead of paying attention to the truly relevant factors, a religious and cultural identity debate was pursued -- a debate that made it possible to keep out the Turks while allowing the Greeks, Bulgarians and Romanians to join the EU. From the standpoint of financial and monetary policy, at least, Europe would be better off today if the opposite had been the case. Elites are characterized by the fact that they ask the right questions. The European elites did not live up to this requirement.

Another example of the failure of the European elites was their claim that the introduction of the euro on the Continent would not only create a market bigger than the US market, but also that the euro also would have what it takes to become the global economy's second reserve currency, next to the dollar. But the parallel to this idea -- the need for at least one European rating agency that could hold its own against the American rating agencies -- was ignored. The Europeans were determined to challenge the dominance of the dollar, together with all of the advantages it created for the United States, and yet they positioned the euro in an unprotected environment. It could be attacked at any time because the US rating agencies could seek out the weakest links in the euro group and apply pressure there. The prestige of the euro was and remains highly vulnerable. Instead, a project like the euro should have been prepared in a way that established strategic safeguards.

Only now are Europeans giving serious thought to such a rating agency, but now their intentions and the agency's function are all too transparent. Perhaps the only explanation for the strategic error is that the elites began to see themselves as administrators of prosperity and lost sight of the strategic struggle for power and influence. It's possible that the European elites became victims of the explanations they gave to their own population to legitimize the project. They saw themselves as something of a gentle giant and not as political players who fight for their interests abroad and prevail at home. In politics, confusing legitimization and strategy is an unforgivable sin.

Decline and Disintegration

There are undoubtedly numerous examples of serious failures of the elites at the European level. But the key issue is that these failures can only be corrected by the elites themselves, and that the attempt to compensate for the failures with forced democratization would lead to the disorderly disintegration of Europe. The instrument of the plebiscite, in particular, has proven to be a treacherous spanner that political players have thrown into the European works time and again. In the current situation, democratization would strengthen the capacity of anti-European players and significantly increase the number of those wielding vetoes in Brussels.

In Europe, it is unlikely that more capable elites will come into power or that the existing elites will make fewer mistakes, be more decisive and bring European interests more skillfully into play as long as the general framework of elite behavior -- the European constitution, so to speak -- is not substantially restructured. The current crisis may not be a good condition for democratization, but it is certainly an opportunity to amend the Lisbon Treaty. In the past, it was said that the Paris-Bonn or Paris-Berlin axis had to be intact for Europe to make progress. Today, the burden resting on this axis has become too heavy. The Germans are expected to provide more leadership, but as soon as they show only a small amount of leadership, it is rejected if not actively fought. In Europe, the periphery has too much power and the center too little. As long as this does not change, the EU and the euro will not emerge from the crisis. A redistribution of the political weight in Europe may be difficult, but this doesn't change the fact that it's necessary.

Prior to the EU's expansion into Eastern Europe, a debate was held over the EU's future development, but it was based on the false alternative of "deepening or expansion." The real question should have been how strong the center must be to handle a larger periphery. Now the periphery dominates the center and dictates both its political agenda and the rhythm of its decision-making processes. Even if Europe manages to muddle its way through the euro crisis and the Greek collapse, this underlying problem isn't going to go away. In fact, such crises can repeat themselves at any time. A more or less orderly national bankruptcy for Greece would be merely a tiny step toward saving the euro. The key step is a political reconstitution of Europe, a reconstitution in which democratization would be a real option and would not pose the threat of decline and disintegration.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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