European integration a la carte, where members would pick and choose which European Union policies they participate in would be the end of the EU, so goes a familiar argument in European integration studies. Even though we do have some member states opting out of some policies (most notably Britain, Sweden and Denmark from EMU), this has been considered by many a construction that, if applied across the board, would unravel the fabric of the EU and undermine the members’ commitment to comply with everything they have commonly agreed to, or , in EU speak, to apply the acquis communautaire.
This of course is valid for any system of interrelated rules where it is important that the bulk of these rules is applied equally. Democracy would be a good example. Treaty after treaty we have been trying to make the EU more democratic and to install some of the principles of the democracy at the supranational level. However, after years of talking about how to make the EU more democratic and countless pages written to explain the democratic deficit, to me it boils down to the crucial possibility to choose between governments (‘throwing the bastards out’) and policies which is still, at the EU level, not present. Now the Greek Prime Minister is apparently contemplating asking the citizens to approve some of the most far reaching reforms in Greek history – as well as, of course, the manner in which they will pay their debt. It seems as if it is the latter which has upset (‘shocked’ was the word used by many newspaper headlines) leaders in Europe. PvDA prominent Plasterk has even declared that his party will not support the vote on the package in Parliament if the Greeks hold a referendum. This is of course a demonstration of the trilemma between democracy, financial globalisation and national sovereignty which we wrote about a few posts back (see also here). As Henry Farrell argues in Crooked Timber, instead of a disaster, it may be the most positive development for the future of democracy in Europe. Yes, it would lead to new uncertainty. But politicians in Europe have procrastinated long enough, also on democratic grounds. They may do well to remember that they may like their electorate to have a voice if it ever comes to reforms as far reaching as what Greece needs to do.
I do not entirely share Farrell’s optimism that a much better package can be devised for the Greek reforms. My experience from Bulgaria suggests that whatever support is provided for economic growth, there is a bitter pill of reforms to be swallowed before things start getting better. In this sense, I do not think it is the Greek public’s democratic right to refuse to pay their country’s debt or to exercise some kind of invented non-existent option where someone invests a lot of money in Greece without asking for changes and austerity in return. The actual realistic choices that the Greeks have are few. However, it is only right that the citizens who will bear this burden inform themselves of the alternatives and have the chance to have their say. It could be that then they will also feel some joint responsibility ( as opposed to blaming the EU, Germany or their own government for having to pay the debt) not to oppose the next set of reforms. Arguments why we, in the rest of Europe, should be against this, can only be made from the perspective of the markets and represent a confirmation of the trilemma mentioned earlier. But leaving the markets aside for a moment, blaming the Greeks for taking the time to deal with the momentous decisions ahead democratically appears to me hypocritical (what about Dutch voters in such a situation?) and against the spirit of trying to transplant some democratic principles to supranational decision making. If we are serious about making the EU more democratic, then we must at some point give citizens choices about EU decisions which really matter to them.