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Europe Is Trapped Between Power and Politics


That the disease which brought the European Union into the intensive-care ward and has kept it there since, for quite a few years, is best diagnosed as a ‘democratic deficit’ is fast turning into a commonplace. Indeed, it is taken increasingly for granted and is hardly ever seriously questioned. Some observers and analysts ascribe the illness to an inborn organic defect, some others seek carriers of the disease among the personalities of the European Council and the constituencies they represent; some believe the disease has by now become terminal and beyond treatment, some others trust that a bold and harsh surgical intervention may yet save the patient from agony. But hardly anyone questions the diagnosis. All, or nearly all, agree that the roots of the malaise lie in the breakdown of communication between the holders of political offices (policy-makers in Brussels and/or the politicians of European Council) who set the tune and the people called to follow the set score with or without being asked and offering their consent.

At least there is no deficit of arguments to support the diagnosis of the ‘deficit of democracy’ inside the European Union. The state of the Union, no doubt, calls for intensive care, and its future – the very chance of its survival – lies in a balance. Such a condition we call, since the ancient beginnings of medical practice, ‘crisis’. The term was coined to denote precisely such a moment – in which the doctor faces the necessity to urgently decide to which of the known and available assortment of medical expedients to resort in order to nudge the patient onto the course to convalescence. When speaking of crisis of whatever nature, including the economic, we convey firstly the feeling of uncertainty, of our ignorance of the direction in which the affairs are about to turn – and secondly the urge to intervene: to select the right measures and decide to apply them promptly. Describing a situation as ‘critical’, we mean just that: the conjunction of a diagnosis and a call for action. And let me add that there is a hint of endemic contradiction in such an idea: after all, the admission of the state of uncertainty/ignorance portends ill for the chance of selecting the right measures and prompting the affairs in the desired direction.


Let’s focus on the most recent economic crisis largely responsible for laying bare the critical state of the political union of Europe. The right point to start is to remember the horrors of the 1920s-1930s by which all and every one of successive issues of the economy have tended to be measured since – and ask whether the current, post credit-collapse crisis can be seen and described as their reiteration, throwing thereby some light on its likely sequel. While admitting that there are numerous striking similarities between the two crises and their manifestations (first and foremost massive and prospectless unemployment and soaring social inequality), there is, however, one crucial difference between the two that sets them apart and renders comparing one to the other questionable, to say the least.


While horrified by the sight of markets running wild and causing fortunes together with workplaces to evaporate and while knocking off viable businesses into bankruptcy, victims of the late 1920s stock-exchange collapse had little doubt as to where to look for rescue: of course to the state – to a strong state, so strong as to be able to force the course of affairs into obedience with its will. Opinions as to the best way out of the predicament might have differed, even drastically, but there was virtually no disagreement as to who was fit to tackle the challenge thanks to being sufficiently resourceful to push the affairs the way the opinion-makers eventually selected: of course the state, equipped with both resources indispensable for the job: power (ability to have things done), and politics (ability to decide which ones of the proposed things ought to be given priority). Alongside the overwhelming majority of the informed or intuitive opinions of the time, John Maynard Keynes put his wager on the resourcefulness of the state. His recommendations made sense in as far as the ‘really existing’ states could rise to such popular expectations. And indeed, the aftermath of the collapse stretched to its limits the same post-Westphalian model of a state armed with absolute and indivisible sovereignty over its territory and on everything it contains – even if in the direction as diverse as the Soviet state-managed, German state-regulated and US state-stimulated economies.


This post-Westphalian ideal type of an omnipotent territorial state emerged from the war not only unscathed, but considerably expanded to match the comprehensive ambitions of a ‘social state’ – a state insuring all its citizens against individual misfortune (selectively striking caprices of fate) and the threat of indignity in whatever form (of poverty, negative discrimination, unemployment, homelessness, social exclusion) that haunted pre-war generations. It was also adopted, even if in a somewhat cut-down rendition, by numerous new states and quasi-states emerging amidst the ruins of colonial empires. The ‘glorious thirty’ of years that followed the war were marked by the rising expectations that all harrowing social problems had been or were about to be resolved and left behind; and the tormenting memories of pre-war poverty and mass unemployment were about to be buried once for all.


Something largely unforeseen happened, however, that jostled most of the Europeans off the then selected track. In the 1970s the heretofore uninterrupted economic progress ground to a halt and was supplanted by a seemingly unstoppable rise in unemployment, seemingly unmanageable inflation and above all the growing and ever more evident inability of the states to deliver on their promise of comprehensive insurance. Gradually yet ever more starkly, states manifested their inability to deliver on their promises. Gradually, but apparently unrelentlessly, the faith and trust in the potency of the state started to erode. Functions claimed heretofore and jealously guarded by the states as their monopoly and widely considered by the public and the most influential opinion makers and guardians of common sense as the state’s inalienable obligation and mission seemed suddenly too heavy for nation states to carry. Peter Drucker famously declared that people need, should and shortly will abandon hopes of salvation descending ‘from above’ – from the state or society; the number of ears keen to absorb that message grew at accelerating pace. In the popular perception, aided and abetted by the chorus of a fast growing part of the learned and opinion making public, the state was degraded from the rank of the most powerful engine of universal well-being to that of a most obnoxious and annoying obstacle to economic progress and indeed efficiency of human enterprise.

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