Democracy, the EU and Greece’s austerity referendum

It looks like Greece could be headed for a referendum over the austerity measures it is being forced to implement by Brussels. The bureaucrats in Belgium would like Greece to reduce its deficit through various reductions in spending and increases in taxes and the like. These measures are part of the bail-out package for Greece approved by EU leaders at last week’s EU Summit.

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell excellently analyzes some of the issues surrounding a Greek referendum. Basically, he argues that although certain financiers and Euro technocrats would like to see Papandreou dial back the referendum talk, essentially so as to not further destabilize mercurial international markets and the project of the EU, such a move might in fact not only be in the best interest of Greece and Greeks, but it also might be in the best interest of the EU, qua emergent entity, as a whole.*

[T]he European Union is at a point where it actually has to start taking enormous – and explicitly political – decisions about what kind of entity it wants to be… European politicians have preferred to integrate by stealth rather than public debate. But they cannot do that any more.

The EU is facing the proverbial Yogi Berraen fork in the road, and they have to take it. EU policymakers and technocrats would prefer to tinker with the issues themselves in that they fear, perhaps legitimately, that handing decision-making authority over to the public would undermine the project of EU integration. The public would prefer “beggar-thy-neighbor” strategies that could lead to eurozone and perhaps even EU dismemberment.

The problem with this strategy is that even if it correctly assesses the mindset of average Europeans, it conveniently ignores the basic tenets of democracy laid down in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. And if the public isn’t afforded the proper time, space and tools to openly debate issues in which it has a stake, i.e., policies handed down from Brussels, then the legitimacy of the union disintegrates.

And actually the next post in Crooked Timber builds on this idea of an EU “democracy deficit” by referencing the larger dilemma faced by democracies in general. And this is that although democracies gather their governing legitimacy through their citizens, at the same time, they are pulled by the notions of freedom, equality and human rights by which they choose to define themselves. That is to say, a democracy is both a government by the people and also a government which upholds certain “democratic principles.”

The problem currently facing Greece, the EU and many democracies in general is that these two constraints may prove to be divergent. Thus the principles of accountability and responsibility collide leaving otherwise reasonable politicians forced to make seemingly unreasonable decisions.

* W/r/t the sovereign debt issue, Farrell argues that even if Greece votes ‘no’ on their referendum, and by doing so defaults disorderly (to the nightmarish fear of economic pundits the world over), things might not turn out so bad. After a difficult while a deal likely would be agreed upon wherein Greece receives a write down on its debt in return for implementing major structural reforms regarding revenue collection and the like.

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