Kick ‘em all out? Anti-politics and post-democracy in the European Union

A paper I wrote for the journal of Statewatch, the EU civil liberties watchdog. It can be downloaded in full from the Statewatch website (pages 9-20).

One of the more cringeworthy moments of the last few years of sometimes ideological, sometimes street-fighting – but rarely parliamentary – combat between the European superintendents of austerity and their subjects came in October 2012 upon the occasion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens. Two Greek protesters had dressed themselves up in Nazi regalia, rode through the streets as if conquering soldiers in imitation of so many wartime newsreels, and burnt a flag emblazoned with a Swastika as a piece of radical theatre mocking the Berlin-led imposition of cuts and structural reforms.

Thousands of police were enforcing a ban on all gatherings and protests across much of the city, which became awash in tear-gas when citizens rejected this lockdown. And the anger at Merkel’s visit was more than understandable given the profound Troika-orchestrated social destruction being wrought in the country and the less-than-democratic means by which this is being instituted. In any case, one is not looking for analytical complexity in the banners and slogans – or fancy dress – of demonstrators. A march, a protest, a strike is a performance, not an academic treatise.

Nevertheless, the incident, along with the usual Merkel effigies with scribbled black Hitler moustaches, was naturally a gift to German and international media, providing them with the perfect telegenic moment to reinforce the narrative of German generosity (or in EU-speak ‘solidarity’) for their bailing out of Athens, and of Greek ingratitude and fecklessness.

When one of the most urgent tasks at the moment is to break this false north-south narrative and overturn the racist stereotypes of industrious (Protestant) northerners and work-shy, corrupt (Catholic/Orthodox) southerners, and remind German ordinary people that they have more in common with Greek protesters than they do with their own elites, the Nazi uniform incident was very much an own-goal, however cathartic it may immediately have been to the nearby protesters who raucously applauded the ersatz Schutzstaffel unit.

But beyond the profound offence the incident caused in Germany, it illustrates how much at a loss we are in terms of a vocabulary to describe what has happened to Europe since the crisis.

It must be acknowledged that Merkel is plainly not a Nazi. There is no German military occupation of Greece or Italy (or Portugal or Spain or Ireland or Slovenia or Bulgaria or Latvia, etc., etc.) For all the attacks on Roma and immigrants across the bloc that have increased since the crisis, there is no proposition of a ‘Final Solution’. For all the shift in fiscal-policy decision-making away from democratically elected parliaments to unelected bureaucrats and diplomats within European institutions, the EU is not a military dictatorship.

So when critics point out the extra-democratic turn of the EU in its crisis response, the EU’s defenders and spokescreatures laugh derisively at such arguments, saying that the bloc is manifestly not North Korea or Belarus. The charge of anti-democratic manoeuvring is, they could say, an exaggeration akin to the teenager tearily calling their parents fascists for not letting them go to the disco.

But the sloppy convergence in the media and in popular understanding of the terms ‘despotism’, ‘authoritarianism’, ‘dictatorship’, ‘autocracy’ and ‘totalitarianism’ – which all mean slightly different things – leaves us without a language to describe what precisely has happened.

Between norms of liberal parliamentary democracy and Nazi dictatorship, there is a spectrum of democratic and less-than-democratic forms. I want to argue that it would be useful to revisit why it is we chose the democratic forms we did, and that in doing so, we will find that the EU crisis-response lies somewhere on this spectrum a goodly distance from the liberal democratic ideal.

To read the rest of the essay, download the PDF of the March 2013 edition of the Statewatch Journal (pages 9-20).

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