As part of our on-going Thinkers on Europe series, EUROPP’s editors Stuart A Brown and Chris Gilson spoke to Professor of Sociology William Outhwaite about the EU’s democratic deficit, the rise of the far-right, and whether sociologists should do more to engage with the subject of European integration.
Does the European Union suffer from a democratic deficit?
People have been talking about the democratic deficit for a long time and I think that discussion has become particularly acute at the moment. The way the EU has developed has made the demands for further democratisation greater at the same time that pressures have been moving us in an inter-governmental direction: towards what I call, following Jürgen Habermas, ‘post-democratic executive federalism’. By that I mean heads of government and heads of state getting together to negotiate deals at the last minute. The incredible mess in Cyprus is illustrative of the worst form of that kind of decision-making.
Part of the problem is that the EU is still tied somewhat to the models that it used in the past. What worked for the six members of the European Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950s is not going to work so well with a European Union of 27 members in the 21st century. I think upgrading the role of the European Parliament is going to be crucial. My former colleague at the University of Sussex, Christopher Prout, used to say that parliaments always take time to develop their powers – look at the way the English Parliament developed, and so forth – but the Parliament is really so marginal to the political lives of Europeans at the moment that this is a really serious problem. There may be a lot of deliberation in parliamentary committees and a lot of other good work being done, but it’s not on the radar for most European citizens who think that politics is what gets done in London, or Paris, or Berlin – not what’s happening in Brussels or Strasbourg.
Can there be such a thing as a European demos?
I don’t see why not. People seem to assume that it’s impossible – even Timothy Garton Ash has argued that there’s no European demos – but I think it depends on what you count as the base. Take a state like the UK or Spain: these states are incredibly diverse nationally, yet there does seem to be something like a UK demos, and something like a Spanish demos despite the regional, ethnic and national differentiations. It isn’t necessary to ‘ethnicise’ the demos. People can get together for political purposes and identify with a supranational political structure, given the right conditions.
Ulrich Beck has argued recently that Germany has created an ‘accidental empire’ in Europe. Do you think this is the case?
I think it’s true that Germany has been somewhat pushed into its role. It started in the period when Sarkozy was still President of France, but was a ‘lame duck’. The British and Italians have more or less excluded themselves: the British with their refusal to participate in anything European, and the Italians through Berlusconi’s bizarre antics. Without equating Cameron’s country suppers to Berlusconi’s ‘bunga bunga’ parties, they had something like the same effect as political leaders in excluding their countries from any meaningful role in European politics.
Many commentators are concerned with what they see as anti-democratic tendencies in countries in Eastern Europe, such as Romania, Ukraine, and Belarus. Should we be worried about these developments?
Yes, not just in Eastern Europe, but across Europe. I think that the new type of ultra-right populism – the sort of chic version of Geert Wilders, and earlier Jörg Haider and Pim Fortuyn – is certainly worrying. I don’t think it helps to think of it too sharply in east/west terms: it can happen anywhere. And the kind of thing that’s been done to Greece over the past year is clearly going to make the prospects for Greek neo-fascism better than they would have seemed before.
In terms of dealing with the rise of the far-right, a more sensible strategy for tackling issues such as the Greek economic situation would be a big help. Although with that said, you can get these parties developing in rich countries as well, so there isn’t a single magic solution. I think in particular that reconnecting European politics to European citizens would improve things because clearly a big element for many of these parties is a critique of Europe and the European Union, of foreigners, of Germans, and so on.
The current furore in the UK around Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, for instance, is completely ridiculous, like so many pieces of British political discourse. The British Foreign Office produced a report completely rubbishing the kinds of scare stories that David Cameron and other people have been presenting about floods of people from Bulgaria and Romania coming to the country. At some level one has to accept that freedom of movement within the European Union has been a principle right from its inception, and if there are migratory flows then those have to be handled. The kind of thing that the current UK government is doing to social policy in all areas, combined with the unpleasant xenophobic rhetoric designed to match the United Kingdom Independence Party, is not helping.
Is there a need for more sociological analyses of European integration?
Yes, absolutely. I recently presented a paper at the British Sociological Association conference which asked why sociologists have taken so long to develop an interest in the European integration process. It was partly a self-criticism of my own lack of interest in the European Union as it developed. I think that’s changed over the last 10-15 years, particularly in British sociology, and we’ve developed something more of a ‘Euro-sociology’, as we might call it.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Shortened URL for this post: http://bit.ly/11aRoH9
William Outhwaite – Newcastle University
William Outhwaite is Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University. His recent books include Social Theory and Postcommunism (Blackwell, 2005); European Society (Polity, 2008); and Habermas: a critical introduction (2nd edition, Polity, 2009).
Pim Fortuyn shouldn’t be in the list of ultra-right populism. Yes, he was a populist but he never had a xenofobic nor an anti-islam agenda. The political earth quake he caused in Dutch politics and the assassination shortly just before his entry in the Dutch parliament might cause the picture of an extremist. That some ultra-right political leaders sympathised with him later took him as an example could be an extra reason to categorize him as ultra-right.
Although entirely opposing his populist views I feel that Fortuyn deserves a better place in history as he gets here and unfortunately in many other publications.
Thanks. He’s certainly hard to place.
At a rough guess,I would say that the majority of academics who write about the EU and European integration are supportive of the status quo in the EU.Those academics who are against,i.e.,against the forced integration and de facto federalisation of Europe may not be all genuine in their ‘euro-scepticism’.Why should one doubt academics who are said to be eurosceptic?Well,for a long time now there has been a concerted campaign on the part of they who are financially/economically advantaged in the EU scheme to try everything in their boxes of tricks to persuade the people who are citizens in the EU countries that they should accept whatever is decided by EU commissars and its backers/controllers.People are left in no doubt by most pushers for this scheme that there is no alternative-Either you’re with us all the way as it is decided for you or you’re against Europe,people are told.Now we are also told time and again,as above,that certain political ideas and the parties which represent them are far right and populist,and that their very existence and growing popularity(where applicable) is wrong.However,the very undemocratic,neo-feudal and,I would say,fascist forces at work who lead people to resist their railroading into the corporate globalisation to effect a world government are not,or seldom put in the picture.Certainly not by those commentators and hired pens who are pushing neo-feudalism.The blogger in question,William Outhwaite,may very well not believe that federalisation in Europe will not lead to the extinguishing of democracy in Europe,or,if it does,that people will have nothing to worry about.There are certain crucial issues at play here which are not acknowledged by those who are doing the pushing here,the plugging of the pro-federalisation scheme.These crucial issues can be denied,deflected or poisoned with false debate,but they will not go away.Academics and others on this federalisation train/steamroller have every right to try to influence public opinion to effect a course of political action which they believe to be in their best economic interest,without telling the public or even admitting it to themselves.They may even so do try to influence the public while enjoying economic security and good financial returns as a consequence of so trying to influence the public,and not admit of it.However,the people who are disenfranchised as a result of this huge stitch-up(my view) have every right to object,whether they are,or believe themselves to,economically disadvantaged now,sooner or later.The pushers of this neo-feudal scheme(my interpretation) should be aware that the so disenfranchised may be forced to comply to its political-economic straightjacket by means of the police-security-military apparatus controlled by the federalists.Those objecting to such force will be called insurgents,yes?Terrorists,yes?Political and economic disenfranchisement leads to struggle,leads to subversive political,economic and diverse other defensive action,leading to a-symetrical struggle.Marginalisation is not a wise policy to support,even when you are well paid for it and looking to get a good pension.Or is it?
In the UK at least, there are a reasonable number of “Eurosceptic” academics. However you’ll be hard pushed to find any academic who believes some of the stuff you’ve written here – the idea that there are EU “Commissars” with “backers/controllers” pushing us towards a “world government” is something very few academics will buy into because it’s quasi-conspiratorial gibberish.
The chief objection to parties like UKIP isn’t that they’re anti-EU, it’s that their platform is based almost entirely on misinformation. Instead of discussing the genuine issues with EU democracy (transparency in the Council, weak role of national parliaments in the legislative process, etc.) they discuss a caricature, in which an unelected Commission dictates laws to powerless governments and national parliaments simply rubber stamp the diktats.
It’s perfectly legitimate to be against European integration, but politics requires engaging with the real world, not concocting fantasies.
Yes,thank you for that.I understand your perspective.But even if you are informed through the popular media channels and take your clues from your personal private and professional environment,there is no excuse for dismissing so-called conspiracy theories as gibberish if they pertain to analyses of the facts.Quite apart from my comments about a feudal or otherwise anti-democratic government,it is a fact that an increasing percentage of EU citizens are being politically and economically marginalised.Are we to revert back to a situation where a large minority is to be shut out from effective political input and the chance to make a life for themselves materially?
Even the mainstream has commentators writing about this.Say,Ferdinant Mount,not a radical by any means(The New Few,about Britain,but applicable to all of the West.)It is unlikely that,given the experiences of people in the West in recent times,the excluded and marginalised will just roll over and accept the new deal.In this day and age,or your idee of a workable future,what do you propose to do about the disenfranchised in Europe?Ship them to third-world corporate colonies if they buck up?Are you unaware or unconcerned about the ongoing developments in security and law and order,privatisation of correctional facilities and gradual take-over of policing in western democracies by US corporations?
Altogether,it seems you are not well-informed,or sanguine about these strong trends which indicate conclusively a move away from self-determination in the West.As to UKip and like parties not engaging with the real problems,another bit of conspiricay gibberish.In the real world politics is more Machiavellian than you realise.The people who control political affairs get there not by ignoring any possible opposition.Grillo seems genuine,I’m not sure about Wilders,but UKip seems to me a spoof opposition run for the benefit of the oligarchy in charge.Its membership is not in control.However,it is also a fact that many people drawn to radical Right parties are genuine nutters,not oligarchic plants.
Anyway,if you prefer the risk society being lauded by many academics(Giacome Marramao,for instance) it seems to me that you,as many others,are not aware of the consequences.