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Democracy in Europe

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
06.11.2001 | BOOKS

Democracy in Europe
by Larry Siedentop
Penguin Books, 2001

Most books about the European Union read like technical manuals. They're either statistics-rich analyses of the Common Market or layman guides to the modern Byzantium of bureaucracy that is Brussels.

Larry Siedentop, Professor of Political Thought at Oxford, has zero interest in writing another such manual. Democracy in Europe is his protest against treatments of the EU that fail to address the larger questions at the heart of the European project: what is the proper relationship between citizens and the state? Between center and periphery? How are these relationships best nurtured among the various political cultures of Europe? What is the pace at which deepening integration should proceed? What are the minimum prerequisites of European civil society before further integration can succeed?

More than a protest, Democracy in Europe is a warning. Siedentop is deeply alarmed that these fundamental questions are absent in the debate over Europe, and lays out a case that unless they get serious and sustained attention, Europe will develop continental-wide institutions that are devoid of democratic content, and thus doomed to failure. Without the rigorous and ongoing kind of discussion had by the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution, he argues, Europe has little hope of binding its member states into a system of functional representative government.

Siedentop attributes this lack of profound political debate to the rise of what he calls "economism." By this he means the dominance of economic language in elite discussions of public policy, where economic growth has become a self-justifying end in itself. This supremacy of economism--dating back to the 1950s but accelerating since the fall of communism--has led to the belief that political development is the natural consequence of economic growth.

For Siedentop this is "vulgar Marxism" and a dangerous fallacy. This view of the state--as the background for the creation and satisfaction of material wants--fails to provide a language of rights and justice through which Europeans can publicly engage as citizens. The vision of Europe as a mere Supermarket creates passive populations that feel estranged from the sources of power are thus more susceptible to populism.

In contrast to this vision of Europe, Siedentop offers the older, less fashionable models of liberal constitutionalism and participatory democracy. A scholar of 18th and 19th century political philosophy, he discusses the theory and benefits of constitutional forms in a federal system in depth. According to the author, only a devolved federalism grounded in a quasi-religious respect for a constitution document can make a continental-wide democracy work; for it is the only system that disperses power, protects rights and encourages civic involvement. This is the key to American democracy he wants Europe to learn, and thus eschew both the powerlessness caused by the bureaucratic centralization of the French model and the confusion wrought by Britain's unwritten constitution and anachronistic aristocratic traditions.

But it is the French who have been the impulsion force behind post-war European integration, and the EU has been largely modeled on the French state. Siedentop argues this is a recipe for disaster, and points to the violent track record of French democracy as proof.

The French model of the state is the one least likely to foster a culture of consent in Europe. The ability of a central agency to impose its will quickly, and despite widespread misgivings or against important local interests, is calculated instead to foster a culture of suspicion and cynicism--to generate a view that power is always in the hands of others, who exercise it not in the fashion of a conscientious justice of the peace…but rather in the fashion of a military chief who expects his orders to be obeyed.

Because this French model currently dominates the structure of the EU, Siedentop believes that European integration is in "crisis." This crisis has intensified since the re-unification of Germany, when France accelerated integration as a way to control Germany within the French dominated EU. Siedentop argues that such rapid integration under French guidance and without the aforementioned "culture of consent" must be slowed or stopped until the body politic of Europe has matured.

Siedentop admits that this maturation is a multigenerational project, and suggests some interim projects to help get us there. First among these is a European Senate, which would connect prominent members of national political classes to the decision-making process in Brussels. Second is the consolidation of English as the official language of European politics, which is necessary to create a common democratic idiom. Third is an opening up of the legal profession in Europe, which in America has led to a sense of access to leading positions in society.

Siedentop's fourth recommendation is most likely to be controversial. It is a call for Europeans to refind and re-affirm their Christian heritage (albeit in a constitutional form). For it is this heritage which can bind all Europeans into a sense of shared heritage of respect for legal and moral equality. For Siedentop believes deeply in the liberal values of Europe, and argues that they must be protected against the relativistic tendencies of multiculturalism and the antidemocratic nature of Islam.

For democracy in Europe to flower, a European political identity must be forged and strengthened beyond that of a passive consumer of goods; to do this requires a lot of time, a constitution and new political institutions. This is Siedentop's urgent message. And in making it so eloquently he has written an important book.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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