The European Union Was Designed to Stifle Democracy

Perry Anderson’s critical analysis of the European Union is a devastating indictment of liberal complacency. The EU is undemocratic by design, and we will have to confront it in order to transform a Europe riddled with inequality and exploitation.

In his latest book, Perry Anderson argues that the European Union is antidemocratic by design. (Getty Images)

Today, the structures of European capitalism and the transatlantic alliance should be under scrutiny like never before. After more than a decade of intense economic and political crisis, Western European powers and their US sponsor are now facing off against Russia in a brutal proxy war in Ukraine.

Amid the maelstrom, European powers are rearming at an incredible rate. Germany, so long reticent to commit to its full military potential, has broken its long postwar militarist taboo and tripled its defense budget. At the Conference on the Future of Europe in April, leading politicians voted to deepen integration and launch a joint European armed force, indicating the trend toward even less democracy and even more militarism.

Developments are now underway that will shape the future of European and, indeed, world civilization. However, the appreciation of the European Union from much of the Left has been ambivalent, confused, and ultimately self-destructive.

This failure of reckoning has consequences. Many of those who advanced the most overwrought fantasies about the possibility of EU reform have expressed similar confusions (or rather allegiances) in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though now concerning another pillar of the Western order — NATO.

Today’s Legitimism

What are the intellectual roots of this stupefaction? Ever Closer Union? Europe in the West is the latest book of essays by Perry Anderson about Britain, Europe, and the United States. It seeks to examine the intellectual world of those sympathetic to the prevailing order. Although he completed the book before the February 2022 Russian invasion, the dangers of Euro-American overextension in Eastern Europe were already apparent to Anderson (giving the lie to the idea that the gruesome assault on Ukraine came from nowhere but Vladimir Putin’s black heart).

What emerges from Ever Closer Union? is a devastating criticism of the ruling liberal hegemony in European society: a chauvinistic worldview with an almost cultic belief in the rights of the powerful and a disdain for democracy. Socialists who want to understand the EU would do well to know the backdrop to this rapidly mutating behemoth.

In a Europe traumatized and exhausted by World War II and then divided by Cold War contestation, capitalism sought a new order. Anderson traces the rise of this order by scrutinizing The Passage to Europe (2009), a celebratory survey of the European Union’s development composed by Dutch historian, sometime EU political operative, and “liberal of the right” Luuk Van Middelaar.

Passage describes the project’s morphology from the six original founding states which drew together in the 1950s to the succession of treaties which created today’s EU in a way that reveals two characteristic phenomena. The first is the essentially closed and undemocratic nature of the union. Decisions in European institutions, as Anderson writes, are made “behind closed doors, in deliberations of which no minutes are kept, that issue in announcements to the world under the seal of consensus.”

This consensus, which governs institutions like the European Council, implies equality and prudence. In reality, it constitutes a united front of Europe’s rulers. Outside the closed loop of decision-making, the public is mere spectator. According to Anderson, “the quiet settling of affairs between elites in camera, above the heads of an inert populace below” troubles Van Middelaar not one bit.

In the tradition of European political thought, Anderson compares Van Middelaar not to Niccolò Machiavelli — who valued the republican ethos of citizenship — but rather to Friedrich Gentz, intellectual of European counterrevolution in the 1800s. Anderson considers the divergences and parallels between today’s EU and the Europe of the post-Napoleonic Restoration:

Composed not of aristocratic monarchies but of electoral democracies, it is in no danger of internecine fighting or revolution. Front lines in the war on terror are on other continents. The commonest arena for nationalism is the football field. Nevertheless, it is equally clear that tension, mostly submerged but sporadically visible, is widespread between the elites and the peoples of Europe, as it was in the days of the Restoration, requiring extra-territorial interventions to keep public order once again. No longer military expeditions of the kind sent to crush Spanish or Italian liberals, these now take economic form: dictates of Berlin, Paris or Frankfurt evicting unsuitable governments in Rome and Athens; commissaries of Brussels invigilating taxes, labour laws, pension systems of other lands for their conformity to neo-liberal principles, today’s legitimism.

Thunderbolts of Integration

The second and related characteristic that emerges from Van Middelaar’s work is what he calls the “coup.” At every great turn in its development, actions that had no license in European treaties and rules promoted the advance of European integration. This began with judicial rulings by the European Court of Justice in 1963 and 1964 that established the primacy of European over national law — “without any warrant in the Treaty of Rome,” as Anderson observes.

Van Middelaar takes special relish in describing a 1985 meeting in Milan of the European Council — which itself became the dominant body of the EU without sanction. Under the guidance of Italian premier Bettino Craxi, the union began to emerge from the European Economic Community through what he cheerfully brands “a coup disguised as a procedural decision.” This sleight of hand opened the way to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

For Van Middelaar, the term “coup” does not refer merely to a military seizure of power. It is, as Anderson writes, “an action taken suddenly, by stealth, catching its victims unawares, and confronting them with a fait accompli that cannot be reversed.” As such, it is “not a term associated with any form of democratic politics — just the opposite.” Yet Ever Closer Union? deftly traces an almost occult fascination with the coup in this sense that runs through modern European liberalism.

The Dutch philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit was Van Middelaar’s academic mentor; like Van Middelaar, he aligned himself with the Dutch liberal party, the VVD, whose leader, Mark Rutte, has been the country’s prime minister since 2010. Ankersmit cited approvingly the words of a seventeenth-century French political theorist, Gabriel Naudé, who pioneered the concept:

In coup d’états one sees the thunderbolt before one hears it growling in the clouds, it strikes before it flames forth, . . . he receives the stroke who thought to give it, dies who thought himself quite safe, suffers who never dreamt of pain; all is done at night, in obscurity, in fog and darkness.

For Ankersmit, the elite prerogative for action without popular legitimacy “anticipate[s] in the domain of history and politics the speculation of eighteenth-century philosophers on the sublime . . . in a similar manner the coup d’état transgresses all our moral expectations: the moral world we are living in is shattered to dust.” This prospect does not trouble Ankersmit, since “the well-being of society can sometimes only be achieved by crime.” This perspective supplies the philosophical underpinning for Van Middelaar’s celebration of the coups that have driven European integration forward.

The passivity of the European public encouraged by the very structures of the EU, the mode of consensus decision-making between elites, and the brutality with which those elites put down popular opposition all create the basis for rule by fait accompli. The signs of decay are clear, Anderson observes, in the widespread financial corruption among the EU’s political elites. Bizarrely reimagined by pro-Remain scribes in 2016 as the acme of liberal-democratic good order, the EU is in fact an exemplar of post-political rule — a triumph over the democratic gains of the working class in the twentieth century.

As Europe plunges deeper into war, and state budgets for war, sanctions, espionage, and subterfuge multiply, rule by means of the coup is obviously our future. Our rulers can tolerate little democracy when there is a struggle for the salvation of liberalism in progress.

Member Statehood

The EU is antidemocratic in structure and culture by design. Caricatures of the union as a vast, grey, unyielding bureaucracy do not capture its true character: it is more like a playground for elites who make up the rules as they go along.

What is the relationship between the EU’s bureaucracy and its member states? During and after the 2016 Brexit referendum there was a general consensus on all sides of the debate in Britain. According to this view, the EU represents an attempt at pooling and coordinating European nation-states, with a necessary derogation of nation-state sovereignty as a result. Leading Remainers argued that this situation was progressive, Leavers that it was unacceptable, but they all agreed on the essential nature of the arrangement.

Anderson briefly summarizes the work of scholars who have blown this frame of reference to pieces, the most important of whom is surely Christopher Bickerton, a Cambridge-based political scientist who one feels deserved longer treatment in these pages. Bickerton’s analysis starts by asking the most important question in politics: Who rules?

First of all, the so-called Eurocrats don’t. Apart from anything else, they are too few in number. The EU employs around 33,000 unelected officials for a population of 447 million citizens, compared to over 400,000 employed by the British state for a population of 67 million. So who is doing all of the EU’s (frequently dirty) work? The national elites of its member states.

Bickerton has described the EU as resembling a desert mirage:

In the distance it seems very clear, very tangible, you almost feel as if you can touch it. Then you get a bit closer, it starts to tremble, starts to shimmer. When you finally get there, it’s gone.

When one arrives at the European Quarter in Brussels, the mirage of the EU disappears to reveal our own states, governments, politicians, and officials. The EU is composed of the elites of its member states, who have slipped loose from the democratic trappings of their respective national polities.

This is a penetrating insight. It helps to explain an apparent contradiction in the process of what we call “globalization” — one that has tripped up the Left time and again in its attempts to understand global capitalism. It was nation-state power that drove and consolidated the process of globalization. That process was not, as too many have imagined, the triumph of a supranational world market over the fetters of the nation-state.

This illusory understanding has carried much of the Left through a series of disastrous turns. Far from representing a form of resistance to atavistic nationalism, the rejection of the 2016 Brexit vote was precisely a defense of British state power. A belief in the role of NATO as a “defensive” and voluntary (for whom?) alliance is, likewise, simply the traditional liberal defense of the imperialism of Western states in a new form. As Leandros Fischer has argued, turn-of-the-century delusions of the anti-globalization left, convinced that we were seeing the rise of a post-national world order in which classical imperialism was redundant, have resulted for many in a collapse into that imperialism.

The American Connection

Behind both the EU and NATO we can find the project of the world’s most powerful nation. It was US empire that made the relative unity of the ruling elites of Western Europe a historical possibility.

Ever Closer Union? contains another lengthy essay on the economic historian Adam Tooze, for whom American power in the world system has been a guiding theme across a succession of highly influential works. As Tooze put it in a lecture published by the London Review of Books:

For somebody of my disposition, America isn’t subject to gravity; America is gravity: America is the gravitational force that organizes global power in the twentieth century.

Tooze’s avowed left liberalism makes him a doubly interesting subject for Anderson, since its deficiencies help to explain the present derangements of the Left on the question of transnational institutions. During a silent spring in the 1980s and ’90s, left liberalism usurped social democracy as the prevailing ideology on the political left. Today, it is so dominant that few feel the need even to declare this disposition: Tooze is a refreshing exception.

He is a little unusual, however, in holding to one of the more outmoded fascinations of his creed: pathological admiration for the United States. Ever Closer Union? detects one running theme through a trilogy of historical works by Tooze, The Wages of Destruction, The Deluge, and Crashed: their author is “star-struck by America. Not uncritical of it; but as it were, mesmerized.”

Anderson remarks that “the politics of left-liberalism require no special reference to America.” While it may be true that American political developments in recent decades — particularly the rise of Donald Trump — have repulsed European liberal opinion, it is worth remembering that many liberal and social democratic politicians did once see the United States as an enlightened alternative to the despots and colonialists of the old continent.

There were brave attempts to displace this state worship to a new utopia in the form of the EU. Many intellectuals marched with their heads down through the torrid decade of European austerity as we saw a vicious ongoing assault on democracy and working-class rights. Watching a new fetish for NATO develop today, with a comparably determined ignorance of the brutal wars carried out by that alliance, we can discern a return to fashion for the New World — especially with Trump ejected from the White House (for now).

Tooze’s work Crashed was a study of transatlantic finance and its collapse in the 2008 crisis. Anderson finds it to be hobbled by a limitation of the historian’s politics — the bifurcation of economic and political structures. He describes left liberalism as an unstable compound derived from the contradictions of ruling ideology. Contemporary liberalism, according to Anderson, “comes in two interrelated packages,” the liberal international order underpinned by US power, and neoliberalism, an economic program for weakening the working class at the expense of capital:

The first has reigned far more unchallenged than the second. Very few liberals have seriously contested the principles of free trade, the primacy of the United States, or the rule of international law as enshrined in a United Nations whose decisions the US has for the most part been able to determine at will. The liberal international order remains a precious icon. Many, on the other hand, have questioned or resisted the full application of neo-liberal measures within their own societies, nowhere implemented in their entirety.

For Anderson, Tooze largely conforms to this pattern. Although he has been an opponent of recent wars waged in the name of liberal internationalism, by using “the language of ‘global economic governance,’ cleansed of any reference to its most prominent innovation, the proliferation of sanctions to strangle or bludgeon recalcitrant countries into line,” Tooze “offers a route to much the same.”

Geopolitical Emancipation?

In his critique of Luuk Van Middelaar, Anderson also considers his later work Alarums and Excursions, based on his experience working for the Belgian politician Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council from 2009 until the end of 2014. Van Middelaar’s account of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis should make the leaders of the European liberal right blush.

Writing from the safe vantage point of 2019, and now enshrined as the EU’s court historian, Van Middelaar accepted that the EU had overplayed its hand in Eastern Europe and misjudged the importance of Ukraine in Russian strategic thought. However, he congratulated European leaders for having secured peace and “geo-political emancipation from America” through their diplomatic initiatives, backed up by a regime of sanctions that would, he insisted, see off Russian territorial ambitions.

Anderson rightly mocks this complacent summary and indicts the union’s leadership for its “stupidity and hypocrisy.” The EU tails the US in its massive global sanctions machine, which naturally means that sanctions are only applied to perceived enemies rather than to the West’s brutal allies, from Israel to Saudi Arabia and beyond:

Europe has never lifted a finger over the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights by Israel; South Sahara by Morocco; or the occupation of half of Cyprus by Turkey — though in all these cases seizure was against the will of all or most of the population, enforced by violent repression and ethnic cleansing.

Sanctions have also become an important form of internal rule for the EU. The deluge of sanctions currently being poured over the heads of the Russian people — and, by extension, workers in Europe and the US already struggling with the cost of living — sets a further dangerous precedent after the economic punishment beating that the Troika doled out to the Greek people. From arms proliferation to surveillance, censorship, and sanctions, Western powers are building up a formidable arsenal that they can deploy at home and abroad.

The EU and NATO are not meaningfully separable entities, as some on the European left who embraced the first but not the second once liked to claim (a dwindling number now in any case, as many Europhiles are predictably turning NATO-phile). The EU, NATO, the United States, and other parts of the empire’s transnational infrastructure, such as the International Monetary Fund, have moved in tandem across the continent.

All of these institutions invested themselves in Ukrainian society over the course of many years, with increasing intensity after 2014. US loans came with NATO training exercises on Ukrainian soil and the neoliberal restructuring of the Ukrainian economy. The origins of the present conflict lie in the tug-of-war between history’s most powerful empire and a regional power exerting influence on its “near abroad.”

This geostrategic competition will drive more wars, and not only in Europe. The glut of new weapons paid for by increased military budgets will be heading into Africa and Asia, where NATO has fought wars far from the borders of many of its member states. They will also be heading into Latin America through the channels of US power, and who knows where else.

Who Rules?

The Left’s failure to understand the European question cost it the opportunity to shape the constitutional and political conflicts that gripped the British state during the second half of the 2010s. There has rightly been much criticism of the People’s Vote campaign to overturn the 2016 Leave vote. Its elitist character and contempt for millions of working-class voters, many of whom decamped from Labour in the 2019 election, is hardly in dispute today.

But this critical consensus could obscure more serious failings in the approach of the British and European left to transnational institutions. By 2016, it was already apparent that existential questions about the class nature of the EU, its relationship to the British state, and the place of those structures in the world order were of little interest to many activists and left-wing thinkers.

After the referendum, a stress on electoral calculations for a left-led Labour Party — which turned out to be badly misjudged — and dark warnings about the danger of economic collapse and reactionary violence in the event of Britain’s departure from the EU quickly supplanted reasoned debate. What remains is the strange feeling that, for all the years of rancor, we never really got around to talking about the EU.

Any future mass movement or democratic upsurge of any kind will have to confront the EU, NATO, and US power. This power complex will be an implacable and dangerous enemy. After so many years of repression, chaotic misrule, and now war, there can be no more room for innocence and fantasies.

Perhaps some on the radical left imagine we can have a social transformation devoid of politics, with workplaces and communities as the site of struggle rather than obscure international treaties that few people spend much time thinking about. However, there is no dividing wall between sanctions and the cost of living, arms spending and welfare spending, war propaganda and the rights of speech and assembly.

Most importantly, there can never be any justification for a failure to address that question: Who rules? The answer should never be remote elites who make up rules on the hoof, generals and diplomats operating behind closed doors, and the empire across the Atlantic Ocean.