Most European countries today face a gap between procedural and substantive democracy, writes Mary Kaldor (LSE). She argues that substantive democracy can only be restored through a combination of political engagement at European levels and the introduction of policies that would make possible meaningful devolution to regional and local levels.
Political theorists often make a distinction between procedural and substantive democracy. Procedural democracy refers to the procedures that are a necessary condition for the participation of citizens in public life – a rights-based rule of law, full adult suffrage, elected power holders, a plurality of political parties, civilian control over the security services, and freedom of speech and association. Substantive democracy refers to political equality – the ability of individual citizens to influence the decisions that affect their lives – as well as the culture of democracy – the ‘habits of the heart’ in De Tocqueville’s words. Procedural democracy is a necessary condition for substantive democracy. And despite historic claims to the contrary by communist regimes, it is not possible to have substantive democracy without procedural democracy.
Most European countries today face a gap between procedural and substantive democracy. Everywhere, procedures are more or less in place. All European countries hold regular elections that are more or less fair and free. And yet everywhere there is a pervasive sense of disempowerment. ‘We have a vote, not a voice’ said the Spanish Indignados. It is this sense of disempowerment that is the best explanation for the rise of right-wing populism. The slogan ‘take back control’ in the British referendum of 2016 had such resonance because it reflected the widespread feeling of not being heard. Whether we are talking about Brexit, or the rise of the AfD in Germany or the populist parties in Central Europe, this rightwards trend has to be understood as a howl of frustration especially among people hit by the decline of traditional industries who have been unable to influence political decision-making.
In this blog, I make the argument that substantive democracy can only be restored through a combination of political engagement at European levels and the introduction of policies that would make possible meaningful devolution to regional and local levels.
The weakness of substantive democracy
The most obvious explanation for the lack of substantive democracy is globalisation. Whatever the causes, globalisation has meant that some of the most important decisions that affect our lives are taken in the headquarters of multinational companies, on the laptops of financial speculators, or in Brussels, Washington DC and Beijing. That means that however, perfect our procedures at the national level, we cannot influence the decisions that affect our lives because they are not taken at national levels. The Greek crisis was a classic illustration of this point, where the democratic popular will expressed in two elections and one referendum was overturned by decisions in Brussels. Indeed, in this complex networked world, it may be difficult to identify where, if at all, key decisions are taken.
This bleak assessment, however, should be tempered by the knowledge that globalisation also offers the possibility of going around the nation-state where states block progressive policies. Human rights activists can appeal to the European Human Rights Court. Climate change or digital rights activists may find they have greater access to government at European levels than at national levels. In some respects the globalisation of political institutions – the way in which national ministries are tied into a plethora of international arrangements – can be interpreted as both a limitation on the possibilities for exerting influence at national levels, and as a new form of check and balance that potentially restrains the absolutism of the nation-state even when democratically elected.
But globalisation is evidently not the whole reason for the decline in substantive democracy. It also has to do with the inadequacies of the state and the failures of politics. In terms of politics, many commentators have pointed to the way in which Social Democrat parties have tended to shift towards occupying what is seen as the centre-ground, accepting the neoliberal mantras, and resembling mainstream parties on the centre-right (see for example Chantal Mouffe); the choices facing voters have been thereby narrowed down, and those on the margins on both left and right feel unrepresented. This shift is linked to changes in the nature of political parties – from fora for debate and mechanisms for channelling political participation to top-down electoral machines. In part, this is a consequence of the technology of elections: focus groups, polling data and an array of marketing techniques enable contemporary politicians to construct narratives designed to win votes instead of making arguments about substance.
This degradation of politics is also associated with far-reaching changes in the very nature of the state. It is worth noting that the problems thrown up by four decades of neoliberalism are not solely those connected with austerity and inequality. The late Robin Murray was already pointing out in the early 1990s the consequences of what was known as ‘public choice’ and later as ‘public financial management’ – the privatisation of state functions and the contracting-out culture that now pervades the public sector. In former communist countries, the way in which privatisation gave rise to a new oligarchic class is well known. But in the West as well, the application of neoliberal principles in the public sector has given rise to a form of crony capitalism, as politicians hand out contracts to their supporters and retired politicians routinely take positions on the boards of companies.
And yet another factor that weakens substantive democracy is the heritage of what might be called the deep state, especially in the UK and France and the former Communist countries – the military-industrial complex, the security services and the nuclear weapons establishment.
Restoring substantive democracy
If we want to influence the decisions that affect our lives, we need to be able to engage politically with the European project. It is worth recalling that the EU began as an institution that aimed to prevent the recurrence of war, fascism and imperialism on our continent. Indeed, for the first two decades after the war EU policy aimed at building solidarity through common infrastructure, regional funds, agricultural policy, cultural and educational exchanges and collaborative research. It is only since the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 and the establishment of the euro that a divisive neoliberal set of rules has been institutionalised.
The European Union has the potential to address issues that cannot be addressed at national levels; in that sense, it could be considered a potential model of global governance. It is powerful enough to introduce 10 taxes on carbon emissions or on financial speculation, for example, or to close down the tax havens of multi-national companies, or to address global poverty and conflict. It is not an inter-governmental organisation because it has powers that supersede inter-governmentalism. But nor is it a state in the making; rather, it is an additional layer of governance able to restrain the worst aspects of the state. It has the capacity both to restrain dangerous unilateral measures by states and, at the same time, to protect decision-making at national and local levels from the winds of globalisation. In other words, restoring substantive democracy is partly about political participation in European institutions so as to influence decisions made at a European level. But it is also about pushing for measures like controlling financial speculation that would enable genuine subsidiarity – the EU term for taking decisions as close as possible to the citizen. This would make it possible to make meaningful decisions at local and national levels. Already in the 1970s, Alan Milward was making the argument that membership in the European Union had actually saved the nation-state.
It is often argued that the EU is unreformable. The neoliberal rules are enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty that serves as a constitution and came into force in December 2009. But the difficulties are less procedural than substantive. The European Parliament, which is elected, does have the power to make decisions along with the Council of the European Union (which represents national governments). It is able to amend legislation and has considerable powers over budgets and appointments. In addition, there are forms of access for civil society to the European Commission, and one fairly recent innovation – introduced in the Lisbon Treaty – has been the European Citizens Initiative. By collecting over one million signatures, European citizens call on the Commission to take action, as they successfully did for the abolition of roaming charges for mobile phones within the Union, for example. The case of the ‘Stop TTIP’ citizens’ initiative is interesting because the Commission initially refused to recognise this initiative when it was first started in 2014, only to be overruled in 2017 by the European Court of Justice when the organisers appealed the decision. Over 3 million signatures helped defeat this neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with the USA, especially since many European Parliamentarians were also clear 11 they would refuse to ratify a deal which had inspired such a wave of public opposition. These examples show how the different institutions and tools of the EU can be used strategically to force change.
The problem is that, up to now, as Altiero Spinelli pointed out years ago, there has been very little substantive political engagement. European elections have tended to be the expression of national preoccupations, proxies for national elections, with little consideration of European-wide politics and policies, and the centre parties have dominated the Parliament. But this is beginning to change, in part because of Brexit and the rise of the far-right across Europe. On the one hand, right-wing Euro-sceptic populist parties have abandoned their stances on leaving the European Union and instead have chosen to compete to control the European institutions. On the other hand, progressive parties are finding it necessary to mobilise to counter the right-wing challenge.
The 2019 elections can be regarded as the first elections that were about the future of Europe. Turnout was over 50 per cent, higher than it has been for over two decades. The far-right did less well than expected, except in Britain and Italy. An analysis of party manifestos shows that the centre consensus no longer exists and that a progressive vision emanating from socialists and greens (and perhaps also Macron’s En Marche party) is beginning to take shape. The rise of right-wing populism may have unleashed the beasts of racism and scapegoating and, indeed, in some places, this is undermining procedural democracy and not just substantive democracy – representing a dangerous authoritarian turn. But at the same time, it has galvanised a new generation of European activists who have the potential to reconstruct the substance of politics.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. “The future of European democracy” series is part of an on-going collaboration between the Visions of Europe project at the London School of Economics and the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. Image by European Parliament / (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.
Mary Kaldor CBE is Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit.