The dilemma of Europe

An attempt to speak about freedom and its relationship to legitimacy

The question of the legitimacy of the European institutions remains an unanswered problem. Frantisek Sebej argues from the viewpoint of the Slovak Republic that the EU – for its own good – should not gain in political strength before questions of devolvement of power between nation states and EU institutions have been adequately addressed.

The National Council of the Slovak Republic allowed itself, entirely against its customs, a discussion of questions which really are important and reach beyond the frontiers of Slovakia. Let heaven bear witness that it does not happen often. The National Council of the Slovak Republic approved and proposed “The declaration on the sovereignty of the member states of the EU and the candidates for membership in cultural and ethical questions” submitted by the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Thinking more about the European Union than about Slovakia, I supported it, in spite of the irregular title. During the following days, public debate about the declaration strayed into rather adventurous areas, especially on the pages of the daily press. Accusations more like a diagnosis than an analysis and argument appeared which convincingly refuted and nullified nonexistent ideas and claims nobody had expressed in the first place. Therefore, I will try to write again, perhaps somewhat calmer and more systematically, what I said on this matter to the ladies and gentlemen – the Slovak legislators – during the debates in parliament. Perhaps I can remove some unwanted misunderstandings and excessive fears.

In particular, I did not want to talk about Slovakia. I wanted to speak about Europe and about its most important dilemma today. Europe must find answers to questions concerning the future form and legal powers of its ever more powerful supra-national institutions – so far called the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council. It must name the final form of its home and the place of the nation states in it. Above all, it must solve the question of legitimacy of the above-mentioned supra-national institutions and the legitimacy of the power demanded by these institutions, which already live their own life, at the expense of the nation states. (Perhaps it is necessary to explain that I do not want to speak about nations as ethnic or “blood communities”, but as political communities, that is, I use the work “national” in the English sense – meaning a state and not an ethnic community. In this sense, the British are all citizens of the United Kingdom without regard for skin colour and ethnic origin, and the United Kingdom is a nation state, although people of the most varied ethnic origin live in it.)

The above mentioned declaration approved by the National Council of the Slovak Republic is an expression of a view on the future (!) division of decision making powers in a certain area between the supra-national European institutions and the parliaments and governments of the member states. Specifically, it concerns what its authors call cultural and ethical questions. It does not want to change anything, it only declares support for the present division of legal powers in the European Union. It demands the preservation of the present state, with decisions about these questions left in the hands of national parliaments and governments. My list of what should remain in the future European Union, for the Union’s own good, in the hands of national governments and parliaments, is much longer. For example, it should include taxation, social policy and obviously also foreign, security and defence policy, and I am not alone in holding this view in the debate on the future of Europe. Obviously, I spoke about the European Union of which I hope Slovakia will become a member in the near future. This was the main reason why I supported the declaration. It must be clear to anybody who has read the text that, in spite of everything possible stated in the parliamentary debate or written in the press and in spite of the clear position of KDH itself on these questions, the proposal did not have the ambition to ban abortion in Slovakia from tomorrow, or registered partnership of persons of the same sex. It certainly did not aim to make Slovakia a theocratic state – as one otherwise very intelligent publicist cried in panic. It was only about who should decide about these things in future – in Slovakia and in the whole of Europe. By the way, I will add that, for those who do not want to join the European Union, the whole declaration is complete nonsense, just as all considerations of the division of decision making powers between national and supra-national institutions are nonsense for them. It makes no sense to debate the organization of something which is not wanted at all.

Those who look to the European Union with uncritical hope, especially in the post-communist candidate countries, expect something like a miracle from it – the end of all domestic uncertainties caused by domestic, or if you like national, ambitious autocrats, populist psychopaths, criminals and supporters of old orders. They expect the end of debates on the obvious topics of democracy, with definitive and permanent solutions guaranteeing freedom and obviously also prosperity dictated from Brussels. We have lived for too long in the post-communist “valley of air heads”, we have learnt to scorn the frustrating domestic political environment, and we perceive any expressed doubt about the noble intentions of the European political elites and officials either as sacrilege and a threat to the future or as an expression of isolationist and xenophobic stubbornness. It is true that there are some cracks in this rock solid conviction of the infinite moral and intellectual superiority of the European political and official elites over our domestic elites, for example, the selfish and discriminatory decisions of the EU about the unequal position of the new members in the areas of direct payments to farmers and free movement of people, but it is still very strong. Therefore, it is difficult to even begin to talk about the basic problem of the legitimacy of supra-national institutions.

I will start with the concept of legitimacy itself. It is of key importance for the whole discourse about the future of Europe, and certain circles in Europe (you will certainly guess they are leftist) are trying to avoid it with all their strength. But it is impossible to avoid it. The political scientist William Connolly states that every complex form of human society is confronted in some way with the question of legitimacy – that is the question of whether and why its system deserves the loyalty of the members of society. I add that in the case of institutions, the loyalty of members means recognition of the institutions’ right to decide in the members’ name. Legitimacy is a modern problem, which did not exist as long as the world was organized according to an undiscussed “cosmic or divine order”, which also established political authority. The concept of legitimacy connected with the closely associated concepts of freedom, legitimacy itself, will, consent, force and convention only dates from Jean Jacques Rousseau. Theories of legitimacy, that is, entitlement to decide in the name of others and claim the loyalty of the ruled, are numerous. In the democratic world of the West, we are used to defining legitimacy as a question of the conventions determining the relationship of the citizens to the state and we confirm this legitimacy by means of the rational consent of the citizens. The general and voluntary acceptance of the constitutional system and the act of elections, which decide on the placing of power in the hands of specific people, assembled in an institution such as a parliament, at a precisely defined time is such an example. This addressed consent is of key importance.

So what is the situation with the European institutions? A debate about the legitimacy of the limited or unlimited power of the European supra-national institutions cannot avoid disputes derived from the ideological convictions of specific participants in the debate. Connolly describes the present dispute about the crisis of legitimacy as follows: conservatives and neo-conservatives are attempting to find ways to deconventionalize areas of life with a renewal of the sense for the naturalness and inevitability in relation to necessary limitation of capitalist and constitutional democracy, liberals attempt to limit the question of political legitimacy to the constitutional principles directing the state with the help of preservation of the dividing line between the state and the economy, and radicals attempt to make more conspicuous the widening of the set of conventions, which deserve and gain the support and loyalty of the whole population.
Connolly adds that all these solutions to legitimacy strike against serious difficulties:

Conservative reconstruction must be perceived as an effort to mystify, the liberal distinction between the economy and politics is gradually shown to be artificial, when politics and power penetrate deeply into economic life (among us!) and vice versa, and the radical or leftist vision of a complete order of conventions, which would gain general loyalty, is necessarily an utopian dream.

Modern Europe is debating all this, although in a less academic and learned way, when it attempts to solve its future and the legitimacy of its institutions. In Slovakia, we only have only clumsily attempted this, and already the roof is on fire – for Heaven’s sake, are they angry with us?

Even the strongest supporters of European integration say that the institutions and decision-making mechanisms of the European Union have a certain degree of democratic deficit. They lack transparence and accountability or the possibility to hold them responsible. They do not have the kind of legitimacy, which national parliaments and governments have. In reaction to a polemic with certain views of Václav Klaus, I wrote that the legitimacy of national parliaments and governments, even if they are imperfect or bad, originates in free countries from elections and direct interaction of the whole of society with the entirety of its political representation. Supra-national institutions cannot have even a fragment of this. Over years, over whole electoral periods and in old democracies already over whole generations, the voters are in constant direct contact with the actions of their political representatives – even those they did not vote for. The legitimacy I have spoken of arises in this intimate everyday context. The European parliament is also elected, but the method of its election secures a direct relationship of the voters to only a minority of its members – those elected in their own state. The European voter still knows nothing about the absolute majority of members of the European parliament. The greater legitimacy of the national institutions also lies in the fact that the national parliaments and governments can be dismissed by the will of free individuals on the first occurrence of arbitrary or dictatorial behaviour. In the case of supra-national institutions, this is difficult or impossible.
Therefore, the desire to escape from the incompetence and corruption of national political representatives by coming under the wing of the mistakenly idealized Brussels institutions is understandable, but erroneous.

European legislation also does not arise, as is usual in parliamentary democracies, in the elected authority. The European parliament, which is elected, has no significant legislative powers. Legislation is prepared by the Commission, which is not elected, and accepted by the European Council of ministers of the member states, that is the executive power. This is also the above mentioned democratic deficit. These acts, and some also show it, are office dictats from bureaucrats, who have an irresistible desire and mania to regulate, unify and control everything. The legitimacy of national governments and parliaments, created and dismissable by elections, is also the basic guarantee defending the greatest treasure – freedom. Non-transparent, undismissable and barely legitimate authorities usually have a tendency to limit freedom. Therefore and especially therefore, I held and still hold the view that decision making about many important matters in the future European Union, and not only cultural and ethical matters, should remain in the hands of the national parliaments and governments.

However, there is a further reason for my conviction. If anything can threaten the future solidarity or even the very existence of the European Union, it is the centrifugal tendencies or awakened desires for separation nourished by awakened nationalisms and xenophobias. These will arise wherever feelings of powerlessness arise in the area of some specific national interest, against the all-powerful steam-roller of the central institutions. Therefore, it will be wise to give them only the decision-making powers they inevitably need, and which carry the smallest risk of conflict with national cultures or interests. Otherwise, we will be placing mines in them, which could entirely tear the European Union apart – perhaps before it is even fully constituted.

I am convinced that all the most important aims of the European Union – those which are important for the life of its inhabitants (officials have other ideas about importance) can be fulfilled by means of the four basic freedoms, which form the basis of European integration – freedom of movement of persons, freedom of movement of capital, freedom of movement of services and freedom of movement of goods. Europe will gradually integrate, but its wealth and strength do not lie in forcible unification, but in its incredibly stimulating and creative variety. There is nothing easier than to stifle it in a further attempt by the unyielding left to create a more planned, united and obedient world.

Europe must integrate naturally and gradually, from below, without social engineering, as people gradually get used to living in the European space without frontiers. I am also convinced that legitimate national parliaments and governments are the best guards of the freedom of the people, although in our case, this may sound desperate. I speak with full knowledge of this and in spite of the fact that our next elections may bring political representatives who will again reach for the freedom and property of people in Slovakia, and that the whole of Europe will again turn its back on us as a result. Where some see the promise of liberalism without frontiers, I suspect deeply illiberal and statist tendencies.

Forced debates about how many representatives each state will have in the European Commission and what voting mechanism will be applied are debates about details, at least as long as it is not clear whether the Union wants to exist from the will of its citizens. I know that we are a little distant from the debates about the Declaration accepted by the National Council of the Slovak Republic. I also distanced myself a little from what was heard in parliament, but some things need to be said when people are listening. Obviously with the risk that they will not agree.

Published 8 January 2003
Original in Slovak
Translated by Martin Styan
First published by Kritika & Kontext

Contributed by Kritika & Kontext © Fero Sebej / Kritika & Kontext / Eurozine


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