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Europe's Catch-22
Dissent over the debt crisis in Greece proves that Western governments can rarely have both fiscal austerity and democratic accountability
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison
T

he ongoing eurozone crisis continues to spotlight the folly of a monetary union that lacks a unified fiscal policy. It has also betrayed how deeply committed leading European governments are to the project of deeper integration of the European Union in spite of its problems. Nothing could have better vindicated opponents of adopting the euro than the debt crisis that has gripped Europe for the last three years. And yet, the resolve of the major EU states to keep the euro and their larger political projects has never been stronger. Europe's debt crisis is reminding the world that Western democratic governments can have either fiscal austerity or democratic accountability, but they can rarely have both.         

Greece's ruling socialist government was nearing collapse after Prime Minister George Papandreou's referendum stunt last week. Failing to inform anyone ahead of time, including his own finance minister, Papandreou gambled with the fortunes of his government, his country, the eurozone, and financial markets worldwide with a referendum proposal that he immediately withdrew in the face of a political backlash from all sides. The referendum proposal drew attention to the EU's deficit in democratic legitimacy, but Papandreou likely had no real intention of holding a referendum because there was no chance that voters would endorse the terms of the bailout deal.  

Perversely, the Greek public wishes to remain in the straitjacket of the common currency that requires the spending cuts that they overwhelmingly reject.

Following weekend negotiations, Papandreou agreed to step aside to allow for the formation of a national unity government. This was the price the opposition leadership extracted in exchange for its support for the bailout deal, and Papandreou's resignation was also a condition that many of his own party members insisted on. Once Papandreou is gone, Greece will be governed by a coalition that will then force through the measures the Greek public hates.  

The conservative New Democracy opposition stands to gain the most at the next election, despite its new endorsement of bailouts that it had previously rejected. It's because of the austerity measures that Papandreou's party is so wildly unpopular, and it has been New Democracy's opposition to the same measures that has bolstered its support. But no matter which party heads the next government, Greece will be living under an austerity regime, and Greek citizens are going to have no real say in how their government sets fiscal policy.    

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains a spectator to the unfolding crisis that our decades-long support for European integration has helped create. U.S. and EU policy over the last 20 years that favored a Europe "united, whole, and free" is now running up against fiscal and political realities that are proving European unity in its current form to be unworkable. Rattled by the crisis in debt-burdened Greece, the members of the G-20 summit at Cannes offered no new help last week to the eurozone countries, and none will be forthcoming in the future.

Euroskeptics usually say that the European project is being carried out against the wishes of most Europeans, and that is often quite apt. But when it comes to the euro, this isn't always true. Even the Greek public, which has been denied its chance to vote on the austerity measures demanded by the EU, remains as supportive of the euro as they are alienated from Papandreou's government.  

Perversely, the Greek public wishes to remain in the straitjacket of the common currency that requires the spending cuts that they overwhelmingly reject. It would be better for Greece and Europe if they didn't, but on this question, the Greek public and the leaders of the EU are surprisingly on the same side. While they may not realize it, the Greek public is complicit in sabotaging its country's self-government. 

The French philosopher Pierre Manent reflected on the contemporary problem of self-government in Europe in a short treatise called La raison des nations, which was published in English under the title Democracy Without Nations? Manent described the European project as a sort of empire: "The European version of democratic empire distinguishes itself by the radicality with which it detaches democracy from every real people and constructs a kratos without a demos." The loss of national independence inherent in the European project is bound to entail a loss of self-government, and Europe will continue to be rocked by crises in the future until it finds some way to reconcile its drive for unity with meaningful democratic consent. 

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