What the Euro Crisis Means for Democracy in the EU

Andre Zimmermann
The democratic legitimacy of the European Union is thin.

Democracy in the EU is on thin ice due to the ongoing Euro Crisis.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently argued that the British peoples’ consent for the European Union is “wafer thin”. The democratic legitimacy appears similarly as thin; this may be the key reason for a growing skepticism among the European Union’s citizens. The phenomenon, however, is hardly new. Skeptic sentiments towards the European Union existed long before the Euro Crisis and they are as old as the project itself. Nationalist and populist anti-EU sentiments have always existed among people within member states.

Beyond the Euro Debt Crisis

Nevertheless, the Euro Crisis has drastically revealed a problem that has been ignored or overlooked by too many politicians, which forms the basis for a skeptic consensus amongst European citizens across borders and partisan lines: The European Union’s inability and partial unwillingness to integrate the political dimension of human behavior into the EU system beyond purely capitalistic contexts.

In sociological terms, man is a homo oeconomicus constantly involved in the competitions of life and striving for the maximization of utility. Designed as an economic project, the EU reflects this dimension of human behavior through its internal market. It guarantees competition, offers free movement of goods and capital, where deregulation has developed as the Union’s unofficial motto. The EU markets citizens as salesmen, customers, traders, and consumers.

As homo politicus, however, man also has the desire to participate in politics and shape decision-making processes through social interaction. The ideal EU homo politicus thus participates in the democratic community by casting his vote and by spending his resources on either individual or collective political engagement. The ideal political citizen further feels attached to the EU as a political system and bases his European identity on this attachment. He strives towards the European idea that, as is put by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, “Swedes and Portuguese, Germans and Greeks are willing to stand up for each other”.

The Rise of the Creditors and the Death of Democracy in the EU

The Euro Crisis threatens the fundamentals of an honorable “common European house”: The invisible hand of the ominous markets has proved insufficient to govern. A majority of EU helmsmen defend the status quo by investing everything (especially money) to calm the European “markets”. The creditors, the new pseudo-sovereigns, have achieved a powerful role by challenging the fundamental principle of western democracies: the sovereignty of the people.

The result of the European Union’s structural problem, which was created by European elites over the last decades and was enforced by the financial turmoil, is a crisis of democracy and an increasing frustration among citizens and their Union’s political system. Recent Eurobarometer survey data indicates that a majority of Europeans feel marginalized when decisions are made without their consent, that confidence in politicians has declined, and that the European electorate feels, to a great extent, voiceless.

There Is Hope from the Euro Crisis

The gap between the will of the people and the action of governments is growing steadily. Thus, the people are questioning a system in which the blind faith in markets demands political decisions to be “market conform”. In the end, the fundamental question revealed by the Euro Crisis is whether the primacy of politics rules over the economy or vice versa.

Skepticism has always been a driving force of progress. We would remain in dogmatic systems and rigid power structures without skepticism. Hence, it would be misleading to equate EU skepticism with a general opposition towards the EU, let alone Europe. Many citizens can appreciate the major achievements of the EU, such as the ability to bring peace to the continent; many citizens live Europe and the EU day by day, and some even dream ‘European’.

But the European people have understood what Thomas Jefferson wrote 200 years before the Euro Crisis hit the EU: “The end of democracy […] will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”