Three steps towards post-democracy

Tensions are running high in the European Union right now. First, a cold putsch was carried out against a left-wing government in Greece, combined with the threat of throwing the country out of the euro area. Second, the Brexit debate is being waged over whether the UK would be better off outside the EU. And, third, secret negotiations with the USA about TTIP are causing a stir.

On top of this, the elite’s large-scale strategy to further the European Union – the Five President's Report – points towards a largely market-compliant, Merkel-style democracy. As if that were not enough, we are currently witnessing three assaults on the sovereignty of parliaments in the EU. According to the familiar neoliberal interpretation of the current crisis, the EU is over-regulated and its institutions could become more credible in citizens’ eyes through more efficient regulation. Here “efficient” is naturally taken to mean less legislation, and above all business-friendly legislation.

The most prominent attack is likely to be “regulatory cooperation” as part of the planned TTIP free trade agreement. Under that framework, transatlantic committees would debate potential legislation and discuss whether specific proposals are in the interest of businesses in the USA and the EU. The European Commission would only be able to submit a legislative proposal to the European Parliament (EP) if those committees considered the proposal to be reasonable. MEPs will hardly make independent legislative proposals if they know that the Commission’s proposal represents the agreement of the relevant capital factions on both sides of the Atlantic. Regulatory cooperation is part of most modern free trade agreements, and as such is not purely an EU phenomenon. Its advocates argue that it is necessary in order to regulate global value chains, including in the interest of European companies. They describe it as an adjustment to the transnational structure of production under international capitalism today, necessitating legislation to be organised across national borders.

In addition, the Council (which represents the governments of the EU Member States), the Commission and the EP agreed at the beginning of 2016 on a set of measures called “better regulation”. It is based on models from the UK and the Netherlands and will significantly influence the EU’s legislative process. The USA made “better regulation” a pre-condition for signing the TTIP, since the measures will give even non-European companies far greater influence. Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the Commission, a Dutch social democrat, has declared it his primary task – a clear sign of how important the project is to the executive body of the EU. They key figure in the background is Martin Selmayr, Jean-Claude Juncker’s German head of cabinet and a member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU).

Even before that, the Commission was reorganised based on the recommendations of big business, with the result that the commissioners are no longer on an equal footing. There is now a super-commissioner, who can halt all legislative proposals as he or she sees fit. Nobody learns why a legislative proposal has not reached the EP. Moreover, Timmermans has said on the record that the EP in future will, in general, receive fewer legislative proposals from the Commission. Since the EP does not have a right of initiative – it is possibly the only parliament in the world not to have such a right – it will simply have less to do in the future. Its rights are being undermined, without its external form being changed. As a result, it will become a meek partner in legislative processes. Welcome to post-democracy European style.

The reasons given to justify “better regulation” are largely the same as for “regulatory cooperation”, namely more targeted legislation and protection of European companies from over-regulation. The Commission, however, is not basing its arguments on the structural effects of capitalism. Instead, it is extolling its project as a means of combating the EU’s loss of legitimacy. That is true to the conservative myth of ungovernability, according to which citizens accuse the EU of over-regulation.

The conservatives and social democrats are putting forward similar arguments in their negotiations with smaller EP groups on new rules of procedure for the Parliament. In doing so, the large parties are making a fundamental assault on minority rights in the EU. They are seeking to limit the possibilities of the small parliamentary groups to be heard and influence legislative proposals. In everyday parliamentary life, the small parliamentary groups often seek to implement changes to the original legislative text by forging clever voting alliances. That, however, requires a minimum number of MEPs, which the conservatives and social democrats now want to increase to 151. Which groups in the EU have that number of seats? That’s right, only the conservatives and social democrats. However, this attack on democratic rights is not EU-specific either. The parliamentary rights of the opposition are also under threat elsewhere – see the current developments in Turkey or in Germany, where news magazine Der Spiegel recently published an article titled “The left goes before the constitutional court: Gysi’s shattering defeat”.

It is important here to keep in mind the political levels at which this is happening. The parliaments are not being attacked by an evil EU, but by certain social forces that have an interest in undermining democracy. The campaign concerning the EP’s rules of procedure is driven by the typical complaints of those in power that the party landscape of the parliaments is becoming fragmented, as a result of which clear majorities are lacking and the work of the Parliament is suffering. As with “regulatory cooperation” and “better regulation”, the Parliament is being undermined from within, rather than direct damage being done to its external form. Conservative views of authoritarian governance and the subservience of the political elite to international capital, which is eager to increase profit rates in international value chains, are pivotal to the curtailment of democratic and parliamentary rights against an increasingly brazen executive authority.

As with “regulatory cooperation” and “better regulation”, the example given above of amending the EP’s rules of procedure shows that it is not the EU that is attacking democracy. No, it is always the same social groups that want to restrict the citizen’s right to co-determination. Here the EU institutions are at most an additional point of attack against democracy, but no more than that. However, anyone arguing for a purely national strategy in the fight against post-democracy has failed to learn the lessons of history – the still decidedly national “glorious thirty” years (Les Trente Glorieuses) following the Second World War were the exception, rather than the normal state of affairs under capitalism.

Video on Better Regulation: How democratic is EU law-making?