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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Slovakian Problem: The European Union and the Democratic Deficit

Monday, October 03, 2011

In 2004, for two months, I travelled across Eastern Europe, from the Czech Republic through to Turkey. As well as being the closest I came to a "gap year," one aspect of the trip was to look at those former Soviet Bloc countries that had recently or were shortly to accede to European Union membership. My overall impression emerging from the journey, which I chronicled in my journal East of Europe, was that the people of these countries were almost unanimously enthusiastic about European membership. Every major city had factories and outlets for major Western brands that would have been anathema under Communism twenty years previously. Shopping malls and supermarkets were springing up everywhere. Although the countryside was far less developed, it was clear that the iron curtain had been well and truly pulled back, and the eyes of the people were looking to the future in the West, rather than nostalgically back to the East.

At the time, the Iraq war was in full swing, and I was feeling a great deal of resentment about the vestiges of colonial militarism that impelled Britain's involvement in the conflict. The period of accession from 2004 to 2007 also saw the insular racism of the tabloid press and of the Conservative right-wing reaching fever pitch. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of Eastern Europeans, and wanting to dissociate myself from little Englandism, I was at my most highly pro-European. I even felt very strongly that Britain should join the Euro as soon as possible, to open our markets to the expanding economies of the likes of Hungary or Slovakia.

Fast forward to 2011, and I have seen that my earlier self was somewhat blinded by enthusiasm, and did not appreciate the problems of the European project that came about with this expansion of its territories and powers. This problem is illustrated by Slovakia and the leading role this small country is currently playing in the current Eurozone crisis.

The Eurozone needs all its member countries to approve changes to the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), in order to prevent the collapse of the Euro that has been precipitated by the troubles in Greece. At present, there are just four nations that have not yet signed the new agreement, with Slovakia being the most resistant. The centrist Slovakian Prime Minister Iveta Radicova is keen to sign. But to push the necessary bill through the Slovak parliament she needs the agreement of her right-wing coalition partners, the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS). They are a small and relatively new party, and are using the issue in order to bolster their popularity among right-wing voters. If they refuse to ratify the bill in parliament as they are threatening to do, not only would this cause a crisis in the Slovakian government, it could cause the collapse of the entire architecture of the Euro.

The issue highlights the problems of the democratic deficit that exists in European government, about which the UK right-wing have long shrilled, and to which I have previously closed my ears. There is an inherent problem in democracy that political scientists have struggled to answer. Parliamentary elections are almost never decided by a single vote, and so no one voter has any ability to change the outcome of an election. Why, then, does anyone bother to drag themselves to the voting booth in large elections?

This question becomes progressively harder to answer as one moves up the scale of government. In a parish council election, my one vote just might make a difference. I may even know the candidates at a personal level, and feel obliged to vote out of friendship. In council elections, I may vote for a local councillor who particularly appeals to issues on my doorstep. In parliamentary elections, in principle (though probably not in the mindset of most voters in practice) I vote first and foremost for a local MP not for a national party, and at the constituency level my one vote just might be sufficient to tip the balance in their favour.

But in what way does my vote count at a national level? No person in the UK voted for a coalition (this would be impossible, since one can only cast one vote in the first past the post system), yet this is what we got. And if this is a paradox enough, in what way can my vote be said to count at a European level? I voted for a European MP, in a parliament which is modelled along the same grounds as a national parliament. But the Slovakian issue illustrates that this parliament is essentially a sham, that pretends to connect voters in individual countries with Europe as a whole when in fact it is individual, national parliaments, voted for by an electorate within those countries alone, which make the most crucial decisions.

No vote I could cast for has any way of influencing the direction of Europe at the present time. Potentially, the decision about the future of the Euro - and in turn the future of the European Union - rests with a minor party, in a coalition government, in a comparatively small country. No vote for any member of the European Parliament, left or right wing, can influence the decision of the SaS, which is appealing purely to its own local voters in threatening to defeat the bill. In much the same way, Nicholas Sarkozy in France is unlikely to support a renationalisation of the French banks, because he is up for re-election next year. In the UK, the right-wing of the Conservative party, which had agreed to put European issues on a back burner in the interests of the coalition, now sees the Euro crisis as an opportunity for immediate renegotiation of our European treaties.

This, then, is the problem of the democratic deficit. This moment of crisis has led me to recognise that actually, economic problems can only be legitimately dealt with at a national level, where people have the opportunity to vote for a government which is thereby licensed to cut public spending by the same electorate who will suffer from that decision. Whilst I remain largely pro-European, and accept that Europe's economies benefit by being joined together, I am, with the benefit of hindsight, glad that the UK remains detached from the Eurozone, where such a connection between a country's voters and European decisions cannot practically exist.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:04 am


Blogger Shane said...

Your thoughts bring to mind an article I read recently on the problem of "bigness" here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/25/crisis-bigness-leopold-kohr

While I'm inclined to agree that smallness appears to lead to a greater sense that one's voice can be heard, I do wonder to what extent the advantages of scale outweight these concerns. A troubling problem - my own inclination is always to live in 'small' places. Perhaps in that respect I'm voting with my feet.

12:30 pm  

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