Democracy Redefined


April 3, 2005 10:59 | by Steve McGiffen

One of the most disturbing political developments of the last two decades has been the way in which the meaning of the word 'democracy' has been redefined.

I am not simply talking about the extreme redefinition to which Michael Bywater refers when, in a passage from his book Lost Worlds*, he writes "Democracy is the ultimate unarguable good...Do you have that straight in your mind? Or would you rather be persuaded? repeatedly? By dogs? Through a hood?"

Just as sinister, in its way, is the manner in which so many people in public life seem to have no clue as to the word's meaning. Not surprisingly, this is most visible in those nearest to that wholly undemocratic institution, the European Union.

I was recently reminded of this when the deputy leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, described the European Commission's allocation of 59,000 euro (about £40,000) to a group called Attac, as "scandalous".

As many readers of Spectrezine will know, Attac is a loose collective of activists and intellectuals, founded in France but now organised in many countries, whose goal is the introduction of a tax on cross-border financial transations, the proceeds of which would be used to address global inequality.

It is true that from this starting point, Attac's concerns have broadened. It sees itself very much part of the broadly anti-capitalist movement whose slogan is "another world is possible."

It is also true that it sees the European Union's economic policies as very much part of the problem. it was present in March 2005 at the massive demonstration against the Bolkestein Directive on Services organised in Brussels by the European Trade Union Confederation - a body, incidentally, which has had a great deal more than 40 grand out of the EU.

All this is too much for Ms Koch-Mehrin, who believes that "We need a set catalogue of criteria so that organisations that are clearly against the basic principles of the EU do not get any more money."

As the Bolkestein Directive has been criticised by every political faction in the European Parliament, including her own group, as well as by a number of EU member state governments, and even the Commissioner that succeeded its instigator Frits Bolkestein, this principle should at least save a great deal of taxpayers' money!

Ms Koch-Mehrin has tabled a question to the European Commission asking why critics of the EU are getting their hands on its cash. In reality, she will be told quietly but firmly that allowing democratic dissent is one of the EU's principles whilst a proposed Directive which no-one much seems to like is not.

Unfortunately, whilst the Commission is still committed to bravely emitting a smokescreen to disguise the erosion of real democracy in Europe, it is Koch-Mehrin's attitude which is increasingly typical of what is sometimes called the "European political class".

The Commission itself is appointed, in a thoroughly undemocractic manner, to further the so-called Lisbon process which, under the guise of stimulating economic growth, forces the member states to deregulate labour markets, expose essential services to ruthless competition, and scale down their welfare states.

In a democracy, the people and their elected representatives are supposed to decide just what mixture of social ownership and private enterprise they favour. Yet the Lisbon process cannot be changed by the electorate of any member state, nor can any country opt out of it.

As Louis Weber, president of a French trade union research institute, says in this month's issue of left monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, proposed education "reforms" which will hugely narrow opportunities for all but an elite are designed to win EU brownie points under the Lisbon Process, an externally-imposed neoliberal economic agenda. "This way of thinking abour educational 'reform'", Weber points out, "is at the extreme opposite of a true public debate on our schools."

This is how the EU works, replacing democratic decision-making with a pre-programmed process which is defended in the name of what was once, under Thatcher, dubbed TINA : there is no alternative. This is the excuse for handing decision-making to technocrats, for example for the way in which the wholly unelected European Central Bank now dictates vital monetary policy, protected by Treaty from any democratic influence.

Maastricht, the Euro, the Constitution, all are without alternatives, driven by some historical necessity blamed on globalisation, on the need to be 'competitive'. So of course the EU authorities, if they don't like the result of a referendum, have no choice but to order a replay, as has happened in recent years in Denmark and Ireland and will happen again if the people of any country planning to hold a referendum on the proposed Constitutional Treaty get the "wrong" answer.

Meanwhile, it would be a mistake to rely on the members of the EU's sole elected institution to try to put any of this to rights. Unfortunately, Ms Koch-Mehrin's views do not set her apart from many of her colleagues. This is, after all, the body which voted to spend half-a-million euros celebrating its own approval of the Constitutional Treaty before it had actually voted on the Treaty itself - there being no alternative to its enthusiastic 'yes'.

This has its amusing side, though the joke quickly wears thin when you realise that, while Koch-Mehrin is technically wrong to see neoliberal economic policies as part - at least officially - of the European Union's basic values, that same Constitutional Treaty would mean that they would become precisely that.

*Michael Bywater Lost Worlds: What have we lost and where did it go? (Granta, 2004)

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

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