The Corner

Ruling the Void

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne discusses a fascinating-sounding new book (Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy by Peter Mair and Richard Mulhern) on the malaise now affecting contemporary western democracy. The second half of the book examines the question of what the impact of the EU has been. Clue: It’s not positive.

Oborne explains:

Mair argues that political elites have turned Europe into “a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives”.

This European political directorate has taken decision-making away from national parliaments. On virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere. Professor Mair argues that many politicians encouraged this tendency because they wanted to “divest themselves of responsibility for potentially unpopular policy decisions and so cushion themselves against possible voter discontent”. This means that decisions which viscerally affect the lives of voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters.

Though the motive has been understandable, the effect has been malign, making politicians look impotent or cowardly, and bringing politics itself into contempt. In Britain, for example, David Cameron can do virtually nothing to head off Bulgarian or Romanian immigration. The prime ministers of Greece, Portugal and Spain are now effectively branch managers for the European Central Bank and Goldman Sachs. By a hideous paradox the European Union, set up as a way of avoiding a return to fascism in the post-war epoch, has since mutated into a way of avoiding democracy itself.

In a devastating analogy, Mair conjures up Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French thinker who is often regarded as the greatest modern theorist about democracy. Tocqueville noted that the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy fell into contempt because they claimed privileges on the basis of functions that they could no longer fulfil. The 21st-century European political class, says Mair, is in the identical position.

To sum up, the European elites have come very close to the abolition of what we have been brought up to regard as politics, and have replaced it with rule by bureaucrats, bankers, and various kinds of unelected expert. So far they have got away with this. This May’s elections for the European Parliament will provide a fascinating test of whether they can continue to do so….

They will indeed. And as I have noted before, that’s beginning to worry a few of the sharper sorts within the Brussels sphere.

Sure enough, right on schedule, Lionel Barber has a piece in the Financial Times, a newspaper that generally reflects the views of the EU establishment.  Barber duly notes “the decline in public confidence in Europe’s governing classes,” an awkward reality, of course, that no one, however close to the apparat, can now sensibly deny. The article is well worth a read, but it ends with two suggestions that, even if only accidentally, are a telling reminder of just how profound the challenge to democratic legitimacy really is.

Barber’s second suggestion — that the voices of national parliaments should count for more — is spot on, but it’s not going to happen. To restore lost power (or even any material degree of that lost power) to national parliaments would be to run against the legally-binding principle of “ever closer union” that was first incorporated in the original Treaty of Rome (1957) and which has — even if sometimes somewhat haltingly — driven the EU forward ever since. Looked at another way, this concept was the primary tumor that metastasized across the democracies of Europe with the devastating consequences that we see today. To believe that it can be cut out of the EU’s current institutional framework is, to put it politely, a contradiction in terms or, to put it impolitely, well, choose your own adjective.

No matter, Mr. Barber has another proposal to beef up confidence in European politics:

Leaders must educate citizens better on the benefits and responsibilities of eurozone membership.

In that astounding, numbing, laughable sentence you have it all: the condescension, the nothing-learned, the perpetual trudge towards a goal that only a few seem truly to want.

And as a piece of strategic political advice, it ranks somewhere below “let them eat cake.”

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