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Would consensus on EU foreign policy decisions lead to ‘democracies without choices’?

In a refreshingly sophisticated interpretation, Alexandre Afonso ascribed the victory of Syriza in Greece is a logical result of what he has called ‘cartel politics’  in the South of Europe, the forming of political alliances between left and right parties to fulfil a specific goal linked to debt payments and implementation of austerity policies. The South European states Afonso refers to are not the only ones to have followed a fairly uniform course in terms of economic policy. In Central and Eastern Europe, as Ivan Krastev has argued, success in joining the European Union and following the EU’s economic rules and prescriptions have brought, next to the great improvements in institutions, governance and investment, a constraint on choices in economic policy that led him and others to label post communist states ‘democracies without choices’. Membership of the EU was a goal shared by all political parties and major stakeholders in Central and Eastern European states, albeit in different ways and sometimes, as in the case of the Czech republic’s Vaclav Klaus, with a eurosceptic tint; There is no doubt that striving for eurozone membership in particular (Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and since this year also Lithuania are euro members) has limited the spectrum of choices in economic policy, leading, as Krastev pointed out, to the rise of populist parties. Without entering into the huge debates around the rules of the eurozone and especially the effects of the convergence criteria on different types of economies in the EU, from a political science point of view the question of effects of key policies on national democracies continues to be a vexing one. The dangers of one size economic policy fits all EU member states may have been made painfully obvious by the sovereign debt crisis, but the question about continuity and commitment at EU level versus democratic choice at national level can be asked about all policies.

What are the effects on EU member states’ democracies when mutually agreed policies – in the past  – do not leave much room for change, for parties to campaign on and voters to choose from at present? This is clearly a question of EU democracy as a whole and so far no answers have emerged so far from the middle rather than extreme parts of the political spectrum to square the circle between democratic choice and supranational commitment.

An interesting variation on this theme has been the statement of the new Greek government’s foreign minister, Mr. Kotzias, that media reports that Greece did not agree with extension of Russian sanctions by the European Council were mistaken. Greek objections were only about the EU partners not having consulted the new Greek government before bringing a common position to the press. Mr. Varoufakis, the new finance minister and well known academic and blogger, provided clarification in his blog saying the objections were about not being consulted, so a question of respect. Yet earlier reports suggest the ambassador of Greece was well aware of the proposal, as all EU ambassadors are active participants in the formulation of such positions. Elections can and have led to change of positions of course, yet keeping to agreements made in ongoing consultations appears to be a matter of professional courtesy while a new government has the time to take a more active stance. The debacle with the Greek position on the extension of Russian sanctions appeared to be a case very important for the new Greek government, so one cannot blame commentators for wondering whether a change to a pro-Russia stance was on the cards.

Governments can and have dissented from common EU positions on foreign policy before, sometimes for many years, as the Greek position on the name of one of its neighbours shows. In this case, given that foreign policy decisions at this level in the EU are always based on unanimity (unless the devilishly complicated constructive abstention provisions are evoked) Greece as a member state and a democracy clearly has a choice, just like a number of Central and Eastern European states have followed their own foreign policy course, leading a famously irate former French President Chirac to comment that  when they signed letters backing the US position in Iraq in 2003, CEE states missed ‘ a good opportunity to keep quiet’. The question in the case of the EU’s stance towards Russia at the moment is whether it is possible for the new Greek government to respond to certain expectations or pro-Russian feelings that some of Syriza’s electorate may cherish without squandering good will that Greece may need from its partners on other issues. In other words, it may be a question not of respect, but of democracy and diplomacy.

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Coming up: What do citizens make of enlargement?

We have been quiet in eurosearch, as we have been busy completing data collection under our ongoing project, MAXCAP‘s workpackage dealing with citizens’ perceptions and understandings of enlargement. The Leiden team and our collaborators from the Balkan Civil Society Development Network, the Free University of Berlin, Sofia University ‘Kliment Ochridski’ and many other colleagues committed to help with this project have worked hard to complete data collection from six countries. During the two stages of MAXCAP field work, we have gathered and filtered more than 8000 statements in 6 languages, visited 70 locations (you can see them here and here) – villages, towns and cities in Bulgaria, FYROM, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland and Serbia and interviewed more than 500 citizens of different backgrounds. The focus groups and interviews we conducted followed the steps prescribed by Q methodology,  seeking to understand what citizens of these countries make of enlargements past and future in a manner that left participants to interact with us and shape the data with their views. Our goal was to let citizens speak about what they expected, understood and felt about the 2004-2007 enlargement of the EU, but also about possible enlargements to come. The focus groups and interviews were an enjoyable and interactive experience in themselves for all of us and one thing we already discovered is that for most citizens of the member states that have joined the EU recently and for candidates, enlargement is closely interlinked with European integration, but for citizens of the older member states, this is not always the case and there is a clearer distinction by what we call in the EU literature widening and deepening.

We are currently analyzing our second stage interviews with 240 participants (40 subjects per country) and we are looking forward to discussing some first, very preliminary results of the analyses, at the House of Europe in the Hague on 14 January 2015. We would be happy if readers of this blog interested in our work  and able to do so would join us, you can find details of the event here. For those of you farther away, we will be publishing results as working papers in the coming year. The MAXCAP working paper series is being actively updated with lots of interesting work also from other teams of the project and our latest newsletter came out in December and may also be worth a visit.

More generally, I would like to wish you all a successful and interesting 2015 in which we can all follow our common interest in European politics, economics and societies and especially in the EU’s neighbourhood.