Democracy in Europe – Its Origins and its Future

The history of modern European democracy is the history of misconceptions overcome. In order to honor this legacy, today’s Europeans must reignite the democratic spirit of a “New Hellenism”. By Oscar Clarke.

In January, Germany and France celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, which signaled an end to the historic Franco-German rivalry and the beginning of an alliance between the two countries. The German magazine Der Spiegel invited Jacques Delors, former President of the European Commission, and Joschka Fischer, who served as Germany’s Foreign Minister between 1998 and 2005, to discuss the impact of the treaty and relations between France and Germany today.

Delors, who is old enough to remember the Second World War, talked of the treaty as a part of something which began with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950s – which was the first baby-step of the European Union – applying a cliché excusable because of its moral seriousness to members of his generation: never again.

Almost as incomprehensible as WWII to young Europeans today is the idea of the cultural chasm which Fischer recalled from his youth. “When I travelled to France for the first time,” he said, I was entering a different world… Eating lamb chops with green beans in a French bistro, it changed the way you felt about life. Today everyday life has become very similar in many European countries, but in those days it was still an encounter between completely different cultures.

Democracy vs. Catholicism?

38 year after Franco's death, a new generation of Spaniards demands democratic representation

38 year after Franco’s death, a new generation of Spaniards demands democratic representation

Over the last half-century, two things have happened: the European Union has inched forward step-by-step, expanding its reach and creating an economic community of nations, and Europeans – certainly in the countries to the west of the iron curtain – have begun to resemble one another, and old ideas about the differences between national populations have begun to recede into the past.

It seems to me that there is a definite relationship between the two. A look at one of the old ideas will hopefully demonstrate my point. In the early days of the coal and steel pact, there was a strong argument for two corollary propositions, the first being that Catholics didn’t do democracy, and the second being that the “hot blooded” nations of southern Europe didn’t. They were similar prejudices with obvious overlaps – Spain, Portugal, Italy and Austria could qualify for both categories. But they were not entirely malicious prejudices. It was, after all, true that southern Europe had a fascism problem. Franco was in power in Spain until the 1970s, post-war Austria had to be stabilised by an Allied occupation, and, although Italy recovered pretty quickly after the War, the Italian Social Movement was still a major player in the country’s politics for some time. In Portugal, the Estado Novo came close to outlasting Spanish fascism.

In 1950 the New York Times best-seller list was topped for a while by a book called ‘American Freedom and Catholic Power,’ which argued that American democracy was incompatible with Catholicism because the religion was inherently anti-secular. Bertrand Russell and John Dewey were among the intellectuals who gave the book reasonably positive reviews, and their evidence was all over Europe. Christopher Hitchens, the late Anglo-American intellectual, gave an interview shortly before his death in which he put it like this: “if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascism,” if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extreme-right Catholic party.”

But of course, the old argument about Catholics and democracy made a category error, which is not to say that Russell, Dewey or Hitchens were guilty of this error. Whether or not the Vatican can be defended against charges of collusion with fascism, the Catholic populations of Italy and Spain – and of anywhere else for that matter – have never been naturally inclined against democracy, as though it were a genetic trait. And the European Union can be congratulated for proving this point. By its policy of only allowing democracies to join, the Union encouraged the middle classes of Spain and Portugal to rebel against fascism, who could see that it was not in their interest, since which time the old argument about Catholics and democracy has disappeared. And the variant of that argument was disproved also, as Greece made up a tripartite of nations helped towards democracy by the EU in the 1970s.

Eastern Europe: Democracy prevails again

But the old argument was never just about Catholics or hot-blooded southern Europeans, the argument has been at the heart of intellectual opposition to change anywhere in the world in which democracy has yet to flourish. Fischer was one of the popular leaders of the student insurrections which sprang up all over Europe in the Spring and Summer of 1968. Students in France were rebelling against a crackdown on their fellow students’ activism; one of the victims of this crackdown was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Jew with a German background, who students defended by taking up the chant: “we are all German Jews,” one of the great moments in Franco-German solidarity. French and German students demanded the reform of universities and society in general, an end to the war in Vietnam, as well as a number of other things; they achieved a lot, even if some of their goals were a little farfetched. In the Eastern states the rebellions were a little different, they were principally rebellions against communism, and the crackdowns were more severe. After the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring the period known as normalisation began, the Soviets seeking to create the illusion of support by making pre-emptive threats against criticism. After that, a long period of heavy censorship set in.

Two of the students who had figured in the Polish and Czechoslovak rebellions, respectively, were Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel. Michnik went on to become the editor of Poland’s largest daily newspaper, while Havel would eventually become President of the Czech Republic. In 2008, three years before Havel’s death, Michnik interviewed him, and the two discussed those days and the state of post 1989 Europe.

That invasion in 1968, Havel said, very nearly never happened. After 1989 he used his contacts at the Russian Politburo to learn more about it. The information he received is that there had been a vote on the invasion, and the decision was taken with a majority of only one vote. Khrushchev himself, Havel had heard, thought that the invasion of Czechoslovakia would harm the global communist movement, and he turned out to be right. In Havel’s words: “If the intervention had any long term positive effect it was to open the eyes of the Western Left.” The students of France and Germany, with their multitudinous complaints against their own governments, peered over the Eastern horizon and came to realise that their friends in the other parts of Europe were the ones standing up to the communists. 1968 was a great year for Europe.

And yet, Havel had to come to terms with the fact that Prague hadn’t changed everything. Sympathetic hearts were beating for the oppressed Czechs all over Europe, but they never really believed in the Power of the Powerless. “Western journalists,” said Havel, “kept telling us: you are just a small group of intellectuals fighting with one another, the workers are not behind you, you are not supported by millions of people and are just banging your heads against a brick wall.”

Havel thought differently:

We didn’t have opinion polls or free media but we knew something was brewing in the social subconscious. I sensed with greater and greater intensity that sooner or later something would explode… I also used to say that under a totalitarian regime sometimes a single voice – such as Solzhenitsyn’s – can have greater weight than those of millions of voters.

Just as many of those privileged with democracy had doubted that it could extend its reach to the Catholic nations, or the southern nations, many doubted that it could prevail in Eastern Europe. But the clandestine groups in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, influenced as they were by lonely voices like Solzhenitsyn’s, came to share in an idea as old as Athens, which had had its modern start on the other side of the Atlantic. Not an idea exclusive to Europe, but one which has given the so many of the continent’s citizens the lives of dignity to which everyone has an inalienable right.

A new Union

The European Union has brought the disparate nations of Europe together and allowed them to cooperate with each other to the ends of improving the lives of their citizens. And it has helped to prove the point that Percy Shelley tried to make in the early 19th century, when he wrote Hellas, his tribute to the Greek rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, written in the optimistic belief that a new Hellenism, inspired by the example of the United States, would sweep across Europe. But the Union is in danger of becoming nothing more than a redundant symbol for European integration, lacking in democratic legitimacy and ultimately failing to create a sanctuary from the Old World – the world of nation states, with its rivalries and its conflicts.

If democracy is for everyone then a union should be the protectorate of that Right. But as Spanish, Portuguese and Italian populations fret over their economic futures, they will look at the precedent set by Greece with increasing concern. Austerity may well be necessary to long-term Greek recovery, but the fact it is being dictated to Greece by its economic partners is in unfortunate contradiction to the idea that European integration is a solvent against dictatorship. But for a European federal power, elected by European populations, the democratic promise of union cannot be maintained. Greeks have had to learn that their future is being determined by people in Berlin that they didn’t elect, and if the debt crisis gets worse elsewhere, other populations will learn the same lesson. This is a state of affairs which cannot be maintained indefinitely.

Another of the contradictions of the Union’s democratic assurances is that, whilst only democracies can join the EU, members can revert away from democracy and retain their membership. As Jan-Werner Mueller recently pointed out in the Guardian, the EU doesn’t have the measures in place to appropriately chastise its members if they fail to uphold democratic principles. As Victor Orban’s government in Hungary and Victor Ponta’s government in Romania have been doing, it is possible to pass constitutional amendments entrenching partisan preferences and shoring up executive power.

Mueller argued for a democracy watchdog which could apply appropriate sanctions against nations which traversed democratic principles. But the argument can be made that a union which is not itself a directly democratically elected body lacks the legitimacy interfere in this way. A political union, again, seems to be the answer.

The Union could stumble on in its present state, lacking democratic legitimacy and political power, and growing less popular as it does so, or the Union could emerge from the European crisis as something new: a democratic union for the democratic continent that it helped to build. From its germinal beginnings in the pacts and treaties of post-war France and Germany, to its influence in welcoming the populations of formerly totalitarian states into its family of democratic nations, the new Democratic Union can become the assurance that freedom will continue to survive in Europe. And like Joschka Fischer, Europeans can go on enjoying all the benefits – including the culinary – of a shared civilisation.  


Image “Sea of Flags” courtesy of Jess and Colin Liotta via Flickr, released under creative commons 2.0 attribution.

Print Friendly