Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver, 17.06.11.
Europe seems to have slipped almost imperceptibly in the space of only a few months into an electoral interzone, a crack in the pavement of democracy.
The formal trappings of clean elections – in which political parties with competing manifestoes contest a ballot free of voter intimidation – are all still there, but someone else has decided in advance what the result will be.
It’s not the voters that are intimidated any more: it’s the parties that are.
The count of EU member states now tallies to four – Ireland, Portugal, Finland and Greece – where this post-political phenomenon has materialised, but committed democrats across the Union should wonder which country is next.
This has not happened by putsch or coup d’etat, at least not one involving any guns or tanks. There are no colonels or partisans who have captured the garrisons and seized the telephone exchange.
Yet a junta has installed itself nonetheless, a junta of ‘experts’, technocrats, those educated in the knowledge of What Needs To Be Done.
These are the experts who, in the words in May of the president of the Eurogroup of states and Luxembourgish Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, believe that fiscal policy (that is to say almost all government endeavours involved in spending money that touch most citizens apart from home affairs and foreign policy) is “too important” for voters to have a say over, that would be better be agreed, again, in his words, in “dark, secret debates.”
They rule from a moveable, intangible palace: Sometimes the orders seem to come from Brussels, sometimes from Frankfurt or Berlin, sometimes from a Luxembourg castle or maybe just via a dinner-time teleconference over a dodgy line and lukewarm coffee.
But wherever these masters of the European universe happen to be hovering at any one moment, the refrain in effect is the same: ‘Of course, there is no question that you are still allowed to vote however you like. Nevertheless, the policies absolutely cannot change even if the government does.’
And in seeing how easy it is to intimidate democracy, they have have now gone so far, it appears, as to be on the verge of decapitating a government.
A brief history of the ascendency of the experts
The experts first acquired their taste for this way of ensuring policy stability when, confronted with the collapse of the Irish government late last year and opposition parties that then campaigned on platforms calling for a significant alteration to the EU-IMF memorandum that bailed the country, an agreement that imposed draconian austerity and structural adjustment to how the state was run.
After the presumed defeat of Fianna Fail transmogrified instead into an utter rout of the natural governing party of the country by one right-wing party and a slightly leftish one, but in which both had campaigned on a renegotiation of the memorandum that would be tougher on the international bondholders and easier on the regular people who had had nothing to do with the crisis, it was never going to be much of a surprise that the EU-IMF-ECB troika would do their utmost to press the new government to abandon its pledges and continue with the programme.
On the eve of the late-February election, the commission told the electorate that the EU-IMF bail-out could not be renegotiated as it was “between the EU and the Republic of Ireland, it’s not an agreement between an institution and a particular government.”
“The citizens of Ireland have an important date with democracy tomorrow,” economy spokesman Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio told the island. “They’ll have an important job to do because they will be applying the programme which was negotiated with the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank and their international partners.”
“It’s on the basis of a negotiated programme which was approved with the government of Ireland and which in its main outline has to be applied.”
But even months ahead of the election, when the EU institutions sensed Dublin was heading toward a vote, economy commissioner Olli Rehn on a whistle-stop tour of Irish decision-makers and their opposite numbers in November made it clear that whatever happens, the squabbling between political parties had to come to an end.
Then after the election, in March, at a summit of the conservative European Peoples Party in Helsinki in March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly told her newly minted fellow right-wing Irish leader, from the same European party, Enda Kenny, at his first European outing at Taoiseach, that as far as any changes to the bail-out are concerned, No dice. But not only that, but further pain will be required.
“Relief isn’t the issue. We have to find solutions that fit the bill,” she said, reporters recounted. “Further commitments, further conditionality will be necessary.”
Both wings of the government shortly thereafter capitulated on almost every aspect of their manifestoes, barring the totemic corporation tax, although one can hardly argue that Kenny put up much of a fight or even that Fine Gael went into the election expecting they would be able to keep their promises.
Apart from a handful of Irish democrats, on a European level, the democratic implications of this orchestration went largely unnoticed. It was only when Portugal became the focus of the European engineers that ears pricked up.
‘Let’s not have public dialogue every day’
After months of the country’s prime minister, Jose Socrates, refusing to acquiesce to pressure to accept a bail-out for the sake of the wider eurozone, the European Central Bank simply pulled the plug on his economy.
One week in April, Portuguese banks announced they would stop buying government bonds if Lisbon did not seek a rescue. Later that week, the head of the country’s banking association, Antonio de Sousa, admitted that he had been given “clear instructions” from the ECB and the Bank of Portugal to cut off the tap.
Without the support of domestic banks, Socrates had no choice but to request an external lifeline. Days before, the opposition Social Democrats withdrew their support for the government over an austerity programme they would later sign up to, forcing the minority government into a snap election.
The very day that Portugal finally capitulated, EU and ECB experts demanded that even though the parties were in the middle of an electoral campaign, all main parties sign an accord endorsing the bail-out memorandum, no matter the result of the vote.
“In the context of a difficult political situation and forthcoming elections, it is essential in Portugal to reach a cross-party agreement among the main parties ensuring that such a programme can be adopted in May,” said Rehn.
Cross-party agreement on this day became the watchword. However you vote, the result cannot affect any prior decision arrived upon by the experts.
European stability trumps democracy, as Rehn pointed out: “I trust all political parties of government and opposition realise their major responsibility in overcoming their current difficulties both for the sake of their own citizens and financial stability in Europe.”
The “main political parties” now had to negotiate amongst themselves and come to an accord on the austerity package.
Letting the people decide what was best for them was out of the question. “Let’s not have a public dialogue every day,” Rehn declared.
His ECB colleague, Jean-Claude Trichet, echoed his concerns, saying simply that bail-out negotiations were “certainly not for public” discussion.
All parties must act ‘responsibly’
Peripheral states under EU-IMF tutelage are not the only countries that have been subject to the unquestionable requirement that the imperatives of the wider project require a pre-emption of whatever outcome an election may deliver.
When Finnish elections produced an outcome with a new, anti-bail-out party the biggest winner of the night that threatened the Portuguese arrangement, EU economy chief warned all parties that if they did not act “responsibly”, then they would cause a European “Lehman Brothers”.
“I trust that Finland can support the programme for Portugal for sake of stability in Europe as a whole, including that of Finland. I hope Finland continues to play the constructive role as regards Europe that it has over the past decades and that has served Finland well,” he told reporters in the European Parliament.
The great and the good of Finnish society attempted to arm-twist the leader of the eurosceptic True Finns to act in the national and European interest, to no avail. The prime-minister-elect was thus forced to cobble together a parliamentary coalition for one single vote in favour of the bail-out while a more durable coalition of parties to this day has had to wait.
Parliamentary historians have searched in vain to locate a precedent whereby a majority has been formed in a chamber for just one vote, rather than to build a government.
But ultimately, the experts achieved their aim. And, given such a hat-trick of Irish, Portuguese and Finnish success, it was clear that the same ought to be possible in Greece.
Toppling a prime minister
And with the Hellenic Republic, the experts have gone furthest in their efforts to do an end-run around democracy, not merely requiring that Athens achieve a ‘cross-party consensus’, but that the country give up all remaining vestiges of its sovereignty, and, if necessary to win such national unity, even the office of the prime minister is negotiable.
Greece does not in theory need any cross-party consensus. Unlike in the previous three minority-party-run states, the centre-left Pasok administration has governed with a one-party majority, albeit with a slim five-seat lead.
But such a wafer-thin advantage was too fragile. Too many MPs have rebelled against austerity, and in recent weeks, ministers as well. The left parties that Pasok potentially could govern with are implacably opposed in principle, while the right-wing opposition also rejects the programme. Not because they oppose austerity, but because they think, not indistinct from the Portuguese right, that deeper austerity and tax cuts are the answer.
A robust supermajority in the chamber however would relegate such squabbles to the sidelines and, the experts hope, calm markets, who are not convinced that the government is capable of pushing through its adjustment plans.
So in May, the commission and the eurozone hawks began to demand yet another ‘cross-party consensus’.
Altafaj-Tardio again explained why national unity was necessary.
“It is very important for us that the political groups in Greece set their disagreements aside and clearly, unambiguously in public support the objectives and main economic policies for Greece,” he told reporters. “I’m not talking about detailed agreement on every figure, but on the political nature of programme.”
He said that it has been achieved elsewhere in Europe, so why not here as well?
“That was possible in Ireland and Portugal so [Rehn] does not see why it is not possible in Greece,” he told reporters. “We have to ensure there is a stable approach to the whole programme.”
Stability, above all things.
And now the experts have a gun to the prime minister’s head: Greece will not be given its latest tranche of EU-IMF funding if it does not achieve the European nirvana of cross-party consensus.
But addicted to the ease of being able to force through what they want without heed of democratic norms, they wondered why they need to stop here.
The proposals on the table under which Greece would be offered a second bail-out, pressed by the Netherlands and Luxembourg operating as proxies for Germany, now entail a sell-off of tens of billions – or perhaps, as some have tallied, up to €300 billion – worth of public assets, but crucially under the expert supervision of a privatisation agency independent of the government, staffed by eurozone overseers – or bailiffs as any indebted family would recognise them as.
Why, because, as diplomats have explained, Athens cannot be trusted to do it themselves. Tax collection may even be taken ‘off the hands’ of the Greek government for the same reasons of trust.
What sovereign government can describe itself as such if this most central of powers is taken away?
The European Commission at least, has said this goes too far. It compromises national sovereignty too much.
But that has not stopped some of the other experts from encouraging the government to fire some of its ministers and replace them with, well, as they describe them, as ‘non-partisan experts’ free of any link to political parties. Technocrats of a particular economic persuasion that the opposition can accept.
The government has entertained this idea, and negotiations have proceeded as to how this can be achieved.
But now, to achieve this, holy cross-party consensus, the opposition has demanded still more blood: The prime minister himself must go.
And he, for the sake of Greece, for the sake of the eurozone, at one point offered to fall on his sword for the sake of the national unity demanded by the experts.
Papandreou has reshuffled his cabinet, although without the handful of non-partisan experts replacing some ministers as had been expected.
But the new government may only last a few weeks – long enough to push through a fresh, five-year round of austerity and a €50 billion public-asset firesale, before fresh elections.
For all intents and purposes, the experts are in the process of overthrowing a government.
Experts and colonels
And here’s the kicker.
According to a poll conducted by Greece’s Kappa Institute two weeks ago, 30 percent of Greek respondents actually want the country to be led by “a group of experts and technocrats.”
A plurality of Greeks have now become so disillusioned with sovereignty and democracy that they think at least the experts could deliver something better than the seemingly insurmountable unemployment, corruption and economic collapse they see around them.
The same survey said that less than a quarter believed that a democratically-elected government will be able to overcome the ordeal they are going through.
But if the experts, the technocrats who are sidelining democracy in their subtle way, feel heartened by such polls, they should pause when they read the rest of this census.
A full 22.7 percent want “a strongman” to resolve the ongoing crisis.
“The state and the rule of law are being ridiculed on a daily basis,” laments the country’s conservative paper of record, Kathimerini, which also has taken to puffing up the “common sense” of the country’s main far-right party, the Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos). On 3 April, an opinion piece appeared that argued were events to spin out of control, the choice will be between a humiliating retreat for authorities and “a police state to enforce law and order.”
“It seems that if things were to get worse … then we should brace for tough law enforcement, and the people will be the first to ask for it,” the paper wrote.
None of this is abstract. This is not some polling company hypothetical. Those who answered the Kappa pollsters knew exactly what they were wishing for and Kathimerini cannot have forgotten its history either. Strong men did take power in Greece once, until the people overthrew them – as those of us outside the country sometimes forget was actually not so long ago – in 1974.
But Greeks remember it, or perhaps their parents tell them of those times, and too many now imagine it was or must be better than this.
When the experts who give lip service to how much they believe in European democracy treat it so cheaply, they should not be surprised when the real junta, the real colonels, take command.