Death By A Thousand Cuts: The Silent Assassination Of European Democracy

By Don Quijones, a freelance writer and translator based in Barcelona, Spain who also publishes the blog Raging Bull-Shit. Originally posted at Testosterone Pit

As is gradually dawning on more and more people across the old continent, the European Union is riddled with fatal flaws and defects. Chief among them is the single currency which, rather than serving as the Union’s springboard to global dominance, could well be its ultimate undoing.

Another huge problem with the EU is its acute lack of transparency. Staggering as it may seem, in the last 20 years the Union has not passed a single audit. Indeed, so opaque is the state of its finances that in 2002 Marta Andreasen, the first ever professional accountant to serve as the Commission’s Chief Accountant, refused to sign off the organization’s 2001 accounts, citing concerns that the EU’s accounting system was “open to fraud.” After taking her concerns public, Andreasen was suspended and then later sacked by the Commission.

However, by far the EU’s greatest — and certainly most dangerous — structural flaw is its gaping democratic deficit. To paraphrase Nigel Farage, the stridently anti-EU British MEP, not only is the EU undemocratic, it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

While Farage may be treated as little more than an eccentric court jester by the vast bulk of the mainstream media — both in the UK and on the continent — his ideas are fast gaining ground among voters. As the Daily Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne noted in a fascinating review of the late Peter Mair’s book Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, anti-European parties are on the rise throughout Europe:

In France, polls suggest that the anti-Semitic Front National, which equates illegal immigrants with ‘organised gangs of criminals’, will gain more votes than the mainstream parties. The Front National has joined forces with the virulently anti-Islamic Geert Wilders in Holland, who promises to claim back ‘how we control our borders, our money, our economy, our currency’. In Britain it is likely that Ukip will win in May.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

This rise in anti-EU sentiment should hardly come as a surprise given the impunity with which European institutions have ridden roughshod over the lives and liberties of European citizens. Since taking off its mask of benignity in the wake of the financial crisis, the EU has pulled off one of the most audacious and ruthless power grabs of modern history — and without firing a single shot!

Instead of using traditional means of warfare, it has employed much subtler — but in many ways no less brutal — forms of economic warfare to achieve its aims. And those aims are by now crystal clear: to slowly, almost imperceptibly, weaken nation-state institutions to the point of total dependence on Brussels; and then have them supplanted with EU institutions. It is the financial equivalent of death by a thousand cuts.

As the Transnational Institute notes in its working paper “Privatising Europe: Using the Crisis to Entrench Neoliberalism“, the dark irony is that “an economic crisis that many proclaimed as the ‘death of neoliberalism’ has instead been used to entrench neoliberalism.”

Predictably, privatisation has played a central role in this process, despite the fact that the funds thus far raised from state auctions represent a meager fraction of each nation’s total outstanding public debt. That niggling little detail, however, has not deterred the Troika from demanding fire sales of virtually all publicly owned assets and companies in Greece, as well as many in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy.

Under the hammer in Greece are public gas utilities, transport and postal services, motorways, airports, large regional ports and even the country’s water supply — all to be sold off to multinationals for cents on the dollar. Islands and public buildings have also been put up for sale.

This is in spite of EU treaties that state that the Commission is “neutral” on the issue of public or private ownership of companies; and despite the fact that the money raised will barely put a dint in Greece’s now-unpayable public debt. What it will do, however, is further the EU’s goal of hollowing out the Greek state.

And it’s not just in Greece where the basic functioning of national democracy is under threat. Since the EU bailout frenzy began the prime ministers of Ireland, Portugal and Spain are now little more than branch managers for the European Central Bank and Goldman Sachs.

Meanwhile, as the Transnational Institute warns, the European Semester ensures that all member state draft budgets are scrutinised by the Commission and the Council before being reviewed by national parliaments. Recommendations have included pension reforms that reduce early retirements and cut related social security budgets.

The Fiscal Compact, which entered into force on January 1 2013, grants even greater decision-making power to the European Commission and Council over member state deficits. The strict deficit requirements force members states to implement austerity during crises and over the longer term. These binding budget rules will be implemented in national laws, and failure to do so may result in financial sanctions.

The inevitable result is that decisions that viscerally affect the lives of 500 million voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters. As Obourne points out, “by a hideous paradox the European Union, set up as a way of avoiding a return to fascism in the post-war epoch, has since mutated into a way of avoiding democracy itself.”

The Non-Imperial Empire

None of this has happened by accident. Even before the crisis began, the imperial ambitions of the eurocratic elite were plain to see — at least for those who dared to look. In a 2007 press conference Manuel Barroso proudly, indeed smugly, proclaimed the establishment of the first ever “non-imperial empire” (see video here):

The empires were usually made through force, with a center that was imposing (sic) a diktat, [that is], their will on others. But now we have what some authors have called a ‘non-imperial empire.’ We have by dimension 27 countries that fully decided to work together, to pool their sovereignty.

What Borroso neglected to mention was that the people of France and Holland had already soundly rejected the notion of “pooling their sovereignty” in their respective referendums on the EU constitution. The response of the Commission was a portent of things to come: a commission of unelected representatives redrafted the constitution into a new treaty, sneakily slipping in the most controversial points as amendments. No repeat referendums were held in either France or Holland and when the one country that offered a referendum on the new treaty, Ireland, rejected it by an overwhelming majority, it was told in no uncertain terms to get back to the ballots until it got the right answer.

By far the EU’s most audacious attack against nation-state democracy took place in 2011, when it decided in the space of just a few weeks to replace the elected governments of both Greece and Italy with technocratic regimes headed by highly connected, former European commissioners and, to boot, one-time international advisors to Goldman Sachs — Mario Monti in the case of Italy, and Lucas Papademos in the case of Greece. As the British Conservative MEP noted at the time, the true face of the European project was suddenly there for all to see:

Apparatchiks in Brussels deal directly with apparatchiks in Athens and Rome. The people are cut out altogether, their elected representatives sidelined. The lamps are going out all over Europe.

Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe. As Mair wrote in the first paragraph of his book, although the political parties themselves remain, “they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.” 

The European elites have masterfully exploited this crisis of representative democracy and the resultant voter disaffection and apathy to enshrine a new system of rule by bureaucrats, bankers, technocrats and lobbyists (as I reported in Full Steam Ahead For the EU Gravy Train, Brussels is home to the second biggest lobby industry in the world, just behind Washington). If anything, we can expect this trend to accelerate in 2014 as the Eurocrats seek to consolidate their power grab through the imposition of EU-wide banking and fiscal union. Once that’s done, the quest for the holy grail of full-blown political union will begin in earnest. 

Whether the EU is able to pull of this ultimate coup de grace in its decades-long coup d’état will depend on two vital factors: its ability to continue preventing economic reality from impacting the financial markets; and the willingness of hundreds of millions of European people to be herded and corralled into a new age of technocracy.

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  1. paul

    One of the ‘concerns’ expressed by the anti independendence parties in Scotland is that we will no longer be part of the gran projet.
    As good a reason as any to vote yes.

    1. Ignacio

      Claims for Independence in historic regions like Scotland or Catalonia is one of the consequences of the nationalistic turn. The same warning is heard in both regions: if you want to become independent be prepared to get out of the “Grand Project”. This threat looks absurd except if you start thinking on the difficulties that could surge to eurocrats when managing an increasing number of puppet states.

  2. The Dork of Cork

    Yes -almost to a man the Irish parliament was for Europe and indeed remains (despite everything) for Europe.
    It is no doubt a curious reaction to events if you somehow believed in the fiction of democracy in the first place.
    But events have proven Bellocs theory correct over time.
    Parliament is a oligarchy – perhaps a minor little gang in Ireland (unlike the UK) but a gang who are happy to be replaced so long as they can get hard Euros which allows them to burn masses of kerosene in pursuit of their dreams.

    For better or worse once the 40 something generation begins to die off in Ireland it will no longer be Irish in any real meaning of the term.
    Perhaps we will become another Corsica , with Italians circling the coast and a few Neolithic foxy haired madmen in the mountain fastness screaming into the night.

    The Euro plan has worked already – it is no doubt a fantastic success for the successors of the Bank of St George.
    I hope it works out for them.

    1. okie farmer

      Yes, Dork, the Euro plan has worked already. Neoliberalism picked up where fascism failed. I’m reminded of a quote of Ryoichi Sasakawa, Japanese businessman, politician and fascist, when he got of prison for Class A War Crimes after WWII, “…yes our fascist project failed, we thought we could usher in fascism by military might, now we know that was the wrong approach. But we have not given up. This next time we will convert the world to fascism by financial and economic means, and we will not fail.” (Frontline interview, 1987)

  3. DakotabornKansan

    “Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannize but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

    “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.” – Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy

    Ours is a throwaway society. In today’s disposable culture, people are tossed away like cheap, useless stuff, while turning a blind eye; without a sense of responsibility; without guilt or shame.

    “Austerity means squeezing the life and profit out of many millions in the middle and lower income classes in the USA and EU…There is no longer Economic Security; in fact, there is no security at all…

    “Cutting benefits, or, rather, throwing people away, will reduce the unemployment rate and that’s good for the economy. Such is the mindset of the financier class as reflected in the comments of Joe LaVorgna, chief economist at Deutsch Bank. He noted that in the USA, 23 percent of the 1.5 million who are losing their unemployment benefits will simply exit the work force, and another 850,000, at the state level, would give up on trying to find employment. LaVorgna stated that the unemployment will drop to 6.7 percent. Yippie!

    “So the middle and lower classes are being wiped out by politicians and finance/business interests that, in the main, control what remains of representative democracy in the USA and the EU. Those powerful interests want nothing less than the purchase of the nation state and all the souls within it.”

    – John Stanton, “When the Pope Channels Malcolm X – A Soulless, Digitally Concussed Western World,”

    “Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of money and consumption. That some homeless people freeze to death on the street, that is not news. On the other hand, a drop of 10 points in the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. That is how people are thrown away. We, people, are thrown away, as if we were trash.” – Pope Francis

    Peter Oborne writes:

    “By a hideous paradox the European Union, set up as a way of avoiding a return to fascism in the post-war epoch, has since mutated into a way of avoiding democracy itself.

    In a devastating analogy, Mair conjures up Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French thinker who is often regarded as the greatest modern theorist about democracy. Tocqueville noted that the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy fell into contempt because they claimed privileges on the basis of functions that they could no longer fulfil. The 21st-century European political class, says Mair, is in the identical position.”

    “The Democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” – John Adams

    “And I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.” – Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

    1. sleepy

      “Cutting benefits, or, rather, throwing people away, will reduce the unemployment rate and that’s good for the economy. Such is the mindset of the financier class as reflected in the comments of Joe LaVorgna, chief economist at Deutsch Bank. He noted that in the USA, 23 percent of the 1.5 million who are losing their unemployment benefits will simply exit the work force, and another 850,000, at the state level, would give up on trying to find employment. LaVorgna stated that the unemployment will drop to 6.7 percent. Yippie!”

      Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve long heard that Stalin did a similar thing in the Soviet Union: effectively eliminating unempoyment benefits, then claiming that he had eradicated unemployment because no one was claiming unemployment benefits.

      1. Ed

        I always understood that Stalin’s solution to the unemployment problem was to purge (and execute or imprison) anyone who lost their job, whether through cause, office politics, or even through “normal” lay-offs!

    2. Binky Bear

      Fake Thomas Jefferson quote favored by Tea Party “morans” using dog whistles to communicate their discomfort with the fact that dark complected people have some minimum of pretense to rights in America noted.

  4. Ignacio

    Another example of how democracy is being damaged in the EU is the inclusion of Latvia in the eurozone despite a majority of Latvians fear the Euro.

  5. Fair Economist

    The really slick part of taking power from the voters was that it was done purportedly in the name of protecting national sovereignty. Making the EU parliament have real power was painted as too threatening so most of the EU’s powers were established by treaty and not controllable by voters. The lynchpin of the whole system, of course, is the Euro itself, which placed control of the money supply in the hands of the bankers. Now that depression has made money operations essential to economic and state function, the bankers have a stranglehold on most European Countries and they’re using it ruthlessly.

  6. bob goodwin

    Two audacious comments.

    1. This is why liberals, libertarians and Christian’s will ultimately align, having ended the culture wars, and sensing how easy it was to capture governments.
    2. Two NC posts in two days making opposite statements inadvertently. The first said governments are keeping secrets. The other said we should do a better job keeping our secrets from the government. I think privacy is a myth of materialism, like property. I don’t think younger Americans think privacy is as important. Diversity and compassion go a long way towards reducing the need for privacy. Privacy is a word used most by people in power who cannot afford transparency. We cannot simultaneously expect power to be transparent, while demanding privacy we never had.

    1. JEHR

      “Privacy is a word used most by people in power who cannot afford transparency. We cannot simultaneously expect power to be transparent, while demanding privacy we never had.”
      ….that is our unsolvable conundrum.

    2. hyperpolarizer

      Unfortunately unlikely. The Christianist/Libertarian strain in American politics is strongly allied with, indeed, characterologically cemented to, the neo-fascist project.

      I too, for a brief moment, harbored fondly the dream of an alliance between Occupy and the Tea Party; but this was only a dream.

      1. bob goodwin

        I hear comments like that a lot, and they really aren’t worth debating because definitions can be made to fit any statement. I agree that any coalition has problems, and the biggest problem with the coalition I was predicting is that it is too far from precedence. I think the far right is suspicious of the far left practices, and the far left is suspicious of the far rights motives. And the culture war keeps those flames alive. But culture wars are very quickly forgotten in crisis.

        If you are talking about corporatism (laws and regulations primarily in the support of special interests and oligopolies), which is what we have, then I would say that both parties have their fingers in the pie, and the republican ‘right’ is far more anti-corporatist than the democratic ‘left’. We just all need to decide whether we want to laugh at duck Robertson or shoot each other. The culture wars are largely won by the left, and the environmental wars are fading to stalemate. Neither party is helping the working class because of corporatism. What does the far left and right have to fight about anymore besides historical grudges and political tactics?

        The Health care law and the bank bailouts destroyed any evidence that either group matters. That’s how coalitions shift. If the corporatists get forced into one party today it looks like it will be the democratic party, but so far they are doing just fine with capturing both.

    3. Shutter

      ” I don’t think younger Americans think privacy is as important. ”

      Wait until they have something to lose before you ask ’em whether privacy is important or not.

      1. James Levy

        Without the concept of privacy the idea of the right to conscience goes out the window. Ask Sir Thomas More about a society where your private thoughts are no longer your own, where simply conforming is not enough. Privacy is the place which nobody owns and no one can transgress unless invited. It is the space where free thought takes place. It is unregulated and unrestrained. Strip us of privacy and you degrade us and force us to lie to ourselves and to others, to be forever afraid of what the State and the Corporations can do to us if we are discovered to have “wrong” thoughts or opinions. It is a space worth fighting for.

        1. bob goodwin

          So privacy is like a door. It keeps stuff in. It keeps stuff out. Maybe it is necessary, that does not make it universally good.

          1. H. Alexander Ivey

            Your analogy is incorrect. Privacy is like a room (with a door). In that room a person can discover their inner person and create their social personae.

            No private room, no person – just a labour producing machine.

  7. sleepy

    “The inevitable result is that decisions that viscerally affect the lives of 500 million voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters.”

    If the politicians had ever been truly “responsible to their voters” this would not have happened. Sounds much like the US for that matter where the lack of some supra-national political structure hasn’t prevented similar outcomes to those of the EU.

    1. Ed

      There is an argument that the US *is* a “supra-national political structure”. The US between 1774 (two years before independence, but the structures were in place) and 1788 functioned remarkably similar to the pre-Maastricht European quasi-federation. The debates over adopting the constitution also had some similarities to the interminable debates about sovereignty in Europe whenever a new treaty is drawn up.

      Its been so long since state sovereignty was a meaningful concept in the US (and unlike other cranks I don’t think its practical to revive it) that we tend to forget this.

      1. emptyfull

        But by the time of the Constitutional Convention, the states were united by a common language and a shared revolutionary war with truly national heroes admired by large numbers. Europe doesn’t have this. What would the European national anthem be? Ode to Technocrats?

  8. middle seaman

    Another awful sign of the European deterioration is the substantial rise of antisemitism. In countries such as France, the Jewish community is about to evacuate the country. My guess is that other ethnic minorities aren’t faring any better.

    Europe is in the 1930s again, which doesn’t stop the EU from spreading their elitist morality all over the world colonial style. Just go away!

    1. William C

      Having dealt with European Institutions for many years, I think this puts too much stress on the role of bureaucrats and too little on that of politicians from creditor countries (yes, Germany, I am looking at you). Creditors have been dictating terms to debtors, as so often in the past.

  9. Ishmael

    It is 2014 and we have deja vu! The Austrian Hungarian Empire has basically been rebuilt and expanded. Yes, I know the borders are different but that is what it looks like to me. Also, the European Govt’s like to look like they have a softer edge than the US but get in their way and you will feel their boot heel coming down on your neck.

    I interface with quite a few Europeans. Generally they hate the current situation but you talk to them about abandoning the Euro and it is “Oh no we can’t do that.” As Charles Smith said today, and I am paraphrasing, you can not have big government without having authoritarianism.

    Like all empires this one will also end. Will it last as long as the Austro-Hungarian empire I do not know but some where in some little outskirts of empire people are already chaffing at the yolk put on their shoulders. All empires fall. The Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, the Russian, the German and the British. This will happen!

    Basically the second rule of thermodynamics kicks in and it takes more energy to keep the empire intact than it saves (basically we saw that in 2008 when the facade fell away briefly) and only more lies kept it together.

    1. Ed

      I don’t think the Austro-Hungarian empires or the other various Hapsburg conglomerations are a good historical parellel, in good part because they were actually considerably more decentralized than the EU. They were more of a throwback to the medieval concept (still applicable in some Commonwealth countries) of separte realms happening to have the same monarch. There were periodic efforts to centralize them, that always collapsed after a few decades.

      1. Ishmael

        Humm, I am a little confused by your comment. Basically Austrian-Hungarian empire had two capitals. Seems to me your argument is kind of self defeating since the EU has 23 countries all with their own parliaments and prime minister or what ever the top official is called and their own court system. Austrian-Hungarian empire was an attempt to put together under one umbrella a large variety of different people with different cultures. Is that not the EU? But nothing you said invalidated the real heart of the comment. Come what may all empires fail.

        Here is what Wikipedia says about the Austrian Hungarian empire:

        Austria-Hungary (also known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy or k.u.k. Monarchy, Dual Monarchy, Danube Monarchy), was a constitutional monarchic union more formally known as the Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of Saint Stephen, between the crowns of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary in Central Europe, which operated from 1867 to October 1918, following the end of World War I. The union was a result of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, under which the House of Habsburg agreed to share power with the separate Hungarian government, dividing the territory of the former Austrian Empire between them. The Austrian and the Hungarian lands became independent entities enjoying equal status.[7]

        Austria-Hungary was a multinational realm and one of the world’s great powers at the time. Austria-Hungary was geographically the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire (621,538 square kilometres (239,977 sq mi)[8]), and the third most populous (after Russia and the German Empire). The Empire built up the fourth largest machine building industry of the world (after the United States, the German Empire and the United Kingdom).[9]

        The Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted of two monarchies (Austria and Hungary), and two autonomous countries: Polish Galicia within the Austrian Empire (from 1867) and Croatia within the Kingdom of Hungary (from 1868). Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sandžak-Raška were under Austro-Hungarian military occupation between 1878 and 1908,[10] when the former was fully annexed[11] and the latter was ceded to the Ottoman Empire.[12]

        1. Ed

          The post 1867 Austro-Hungarian Empire wasn’t an “attempt” to do anything other than to keep the Hapsburgs on top in central Europe a few decades longer, after losing their influence in Germany and Italy after being defeated in ttwo wars, by cutting the Hungarian gentry in on the action.

          It basically was a collection of separate territories the Hapsburgs wound up with and managed to keep over the centuries. The 1867 settlement meant abandoning one of the periodic failed attempts to centralized the whole thing and the revival of the Kingdom of Hungary. It was a decentralization and a recognition of differences in local political cultures, very different from the European federal movement.

  10. Synopticist

    True, and very depressing. For the life of me, I didn’t expect it to turn out like that. It was suppposed to be the people’s Europe, not the banker’s.

  11. Praedor

    Take heart. Recent analysis of global warming indicates that by 2100 global temperature averages will rise a “catastrophic” 4+ degrees. This will render large swathes of earth uninhabitable by humans and devestate food production worldwide. Well before this time such stupidities as the EU and the corrupted USA will cease to be viable entities. This trial has a short shelflife on it and there’s nothing the Goldman-Sachs zombie technocrays can do about it. It will ALL come to a fairly miserable end within many of our lifetimes.

  12. GRP

    The EU and its bureaucracy were created as convenient scapegoats to blame when governments answerable to people had to take unpopular decisions. There are no pleasant options available when the available resources are dwindling and the population is still fixated on ever-increasing consumption.

    Any EU nation that thinks it is better served by quitting the euro and EU, can do so. But they won’t because they know it is the reality and not euro or EU they are unhappy about. Reality doesn’t change simply because someone is unhappy about it.

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