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10 March 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 11:01am

Why the EU’s hollowed out democracies are a product of the utopian illusions of the 1990s

The belief that democracy represented moral progress has led to an arrangement that itself compromises nation-state autonomy. 

By Helen Thompson

The democratic optimism that defined the 1990s has given way to considerable pessimism. Many of the problems that democracies in Europe and North America face originate from a set of illusions that emerged in the decade. These illusions encouraged complacency inside the polities of the West and also projected utopian democratic hopes on to the EU. The reckoning with democracy today is because, from the end of the Cold War, more was asked of it as a political system than it can ever offer or be.

In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Francis Fukuyama insisted that the success of liberal democracy in North America and Europe marked a summit for humanity. The collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, he argued, revealed that there was nothing contingent about the historical emergence of representative democracy in the West. Far from being dependent upon the accidents of Europe’s material and cultural civilisation and its American offshoot, the modern democratic turn expressed what Fukuyama called “the common ideological heritage of mankind”. What made democracies so stable, he continued, was their ability to meet all human beings’ psychological need for recognition by bestowing on citizens equal voting and constitutional rights.

[See also: Europe isn’t working]

Fukuyama’s faith in democracy reflected a decade of triumphalism in Western politics. During the post-Second World War period, it was accepted that there was an unbridgeable gap between the ideal of democracy and the reality. In the 1990s, this belief was supplanted by the idea that democracy was a source of moral progress: the spread of democratic rights, it was thought, was proof that the present was superior to the past.

But the equal right to vote cannot offer anything like equal recognition. Moreover, the extension of constitutional rights is always contested in democratic politics, especially in countries such as the US where judiciaries determine what those rights are. Democracies, therefore, necessarily yield losers who have to be reconciled to their defeat, especially when there are citizens who are, whether through economic disadvantage or social and political marginalisation, always on the losing side.

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By the end of the 1990s, there was a not insubstantial group of citizens whose votes were no longer of primary concern to the dominant political parties. Industrial and former industrial working-class voters became an insufficient electoral basis for European centre-left parties, such as the Labour Party and the French Socialists. These once social-democratic parties, and others like them across the North Atlantic, abandoned the idea that they existed to protect the interests of labour under capitalism.

The consequence was that elections became tied up with cultural identity. Those on the losing side feel that their whole identity is at risk when elected politicians continually represent different – so different as to be alien – parts of the electorate. That experience makes some believe that far from confirming their equal constitutional rights as citizens, democracy itself threatens them.

[See also: The new EU-China trade deal is driven by a commercial realpolitik – and the world knows it]

A second illusion of the 1990s was the lure of cosmopolitan democracy. Its proponents presumed that the existing democracies were being rendered meaningless by globalisation: the accelerating economic and human flows across borders. In this new world, democracy needed to be internationalised to catch up with the growing global consciousness of a collective human fate.

The EU appeared to vindicate such ambitions. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty bestowed European citizenship on the citizens of the EU’s member states. Between February 2002 and July 2003, the EU held a convention to draft a constitution for a democratic Europe. Acknowledging that the EU had begun as “more of an economic and technical collaboration”, the Laeken Declaration said that what was required was a “democratic and globally engaged Europe”.

This aspiration turned thinking about democracy upside down. Historical experience suggested that democracy could only thrive in nation-states, and it was empires that allowed for different ethnicities as well as language and religious groups to coexist under one political (cosmopolitan) arrangement. Ironically, this assumption that supra-nationalism and democracy are incompatible was particularly strong in Europe. It is why Charlemagne’s Carolingian empire, the Holy Roman empire and the Habsburg Austrian empire were so prevalent in 20th-century conceptions of the pan-European ideal articulated by writers such as Stefan Zweig.

[See also: The pandemic has revealed both the enduring wisdom and utopian delusions of Thomas Hobbes]

Now, historical understanding about the relationship between democracies and the nation-state appears vindicated. Instead of the EU becoming more democratic since the early 2000s, it has hollowed out various national democracies in the eurozone. The former European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi heads Italy’s second technocratic government in a decade. His appointment shows that Italy can only be governed by people in whom the ECB has confidence, regardless of whether they are elected or not.

Emmanuel Macron stands as the one European politician who continues to talk a language of democratic messianism. He still wants, he says, to see “a true European demos” emerge. He also laments the fall of the end of history: “We are… at a break point with respect to post-1989” because religion, he said in November 2020, has returned to politics. For Macron, democracy’s future has to be “the fight for the Enlightenment”. But the idea of equal recognition is absent in that notion. The secular and technocratic Enlightenment does not unite the citizens of European democracies. Democracies will not be stabilised by ensuring that those who do not share Enlightenment values, or the faith that democracy constitutes universal history, are made their permanent losers. 

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This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation