I fretted in these pages last week about the state of democracy in Europe, given the very early reaction to the Greek announcement that the people would be consulted with regard to the “bailout” offered by the EU.
The reaction of the star players in Europe’s political firmament was swift and the head of George Papandreou has been duly delivered for his deigning to seek public approval for some of the most unpalatable proposals that any electorate would ever have to face. As the week has worn on however, I have begun to feel less and less like the endorsement of the plans by the Greek people at the ballot box would have been like turkeys voting for Christmas. The effect of proposing a vote has itself been more damaging in a way. If the punitive austerity measures and money to pay the bills offered by the union had just been accepted by the Greek government without any grandstanding, then maybe it might have happened with less needless sideshow.
The ugly truth that has been coming more and more to the fore in recent times is the absolute powerlessness of ordinary people in Europe and the separation of them and their vote from the decision-making process in the European project. The Irish public have left their government squirming on a number of occasions when it came to voting on treaties and the displeasure felt by the wider union was not carried coyly.
This is why I was surprised during the last week that I felt such a sense of exposure in the unveiling of European leaders’ feelings on the people’s democratic input on the issue of their future. For quite some time, it has been clear that the will of the people is more of a hindrance than a help in the context of the European project. The people of Ireland have had no choice in accepting the merciless cuts imposed on them by the last government and they will have no choice but to accept the cuts imposed on them by the current administration either and here I found a real issue.
The people of Ireland have, relatively recently, had access to the ballot box to choose their representatives in parliament. What this most recent crushing-under-heel-of-democracy-in-Europe has highlighted is the self-serving and deceitful campaign run by Fine Gael and Labour in the most recent general election in Ireland. The parties’ campaigns were based around standing up to Europe and not accepting what they would inherit from the previous government in terms of strapping the citizens of Ireland to a rack for years to come.
Fine Gael would use their contacts in Europe to soften up the Germans and Labour offered a bifurcated travel plan in the form of “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”. Granted the people’s loathing for the Fianna Fáil party who had brought the country to the cusp of collapse was a powerful stimulant in their voting pattern but the promises made by the current coalition partners did not fall entirely on deaf ears. Since their election, their promises have evaporated into history and their powerlessness in the face of Europe has been cruelly exposed.
They will, of course, argue that they are capitulating in the best, long-term interests of the population. While there is certainly a valid argument in this it makes their election promises all the more reprehensible. They offered hope where there was none. It is difficult to blame anyone for buying their guff given the state the country was in and there also remains the elephant in the room of the tiny choice available to people when they do vote in national elections.
The European project is starting to affect this narrow electoral choice in many countries. The think tank Demos has just published a report investigating the rise of the far-right in Europe as facilitated by social media. The issue is particularly of concern in Britain, Italy and Scandinavia but other nations are mentioned.
Thankfully, Ireland is not featured in the study. What seems to be an overarching theme among these extreme right-wing parties in Europe is an anti-emigration, anti-EU platform. The erosion of democracy that has characterised the expansion of the EU has proved manna from heaven for hatemonger’s who have used it to drum up support for their parties, secure their own political futures and in doing so, threaten not only the social cohesion within Europe, but within their own precious nations as well.
In a number of countries across Europe taxpayers and citizens are suffering dreadful day-to-day lives because of slashed public services and increased taxes. Ireland is facing more cuts and increased taxes in the forthcoming budget, which will once again heap the pain on those who cannot afford it while maintaining a quality of life not characterised by fear of the future and bill anxiety.
In the 1930s, when the world experienced its last depression, an ugly strain of anti-immigrant sentiment came to the fore. When a population becomes impoverished and begins to feel abused or persecuted it will seek a scapegoat. The easiest targets are mostly those who cannot speak up for themselves or can be easily identified by nefarious politicians or hate groups. This is happening again all over Europe.
The idealism of the European project has fallen out of sync with the wishes of the people because it has left the betterment of their lives out of the end result, or so it feels for them. This dedication to a theory, fuelled by an overarching capitalist ideology, has led to the alienation of the very people it was supposed to be uniting.
It is clear that the troubles of the EU are only just beginning and that the political leaders charged with guiding it through these stormy waters are thinking not about the future of citizens’ daily lives. They are thinking about their own legacy and the space they will occupy in the history books of tomorrow. They will not personally pay the price of course. This will be paid by the vulnerable and the identifiably different on the streets of the nations they have been elected to represent.
Genuine feelings of injustice can find expression in the most terrible of ways at times of great trouble. This is exacerbated when politicians keep saying whatever it takes to get elected and piggyback on disenfranchisement to further their own careers and feather their own nests.