The European Union Was Built on a Rejection of Democracy
The EU’s handling of recent crises has shown its lack of respect for democratic choice. This isn’t just a problem of having to take emergency measures: it’s the result of a decades-old project to remove economic decisions from popular control.
- Interview by
- George Souvlis
The European Union’s handling of the sovereign debt crises of the last decade brought its undemocratic aspects to the fore. Even where governments were elected promising to end the pain of austerity, as in Greece in 2015, leaders of European institutions lacking any popular mandate stuck to their own dogmas. The pandemic brought another wave of European interventions, not always with the same rhetoric, but again with little real democratic process. But there are also big questions, including on the Left, about what can be done about this situation. Are the EU’s undemocratic aspects a result of crises, with its response mechanisms becoming hard-coded in its institutions? Or have these elements always been there?
These are questions that Michael Wilkinson addresses in his major study Authoritarian Liberalism and the Transformation of Modern Europe. He argues that the ordoliberal dogma was the EU’s key ideological reference since its conception in the Golden Age. Deconstructing idealized neoliberal accounts that see the EU as the beacon of Western values, he shows its real, much less admirable political makeup. Jacobin’s George Souvlis spoke to Wilkinson about his study.
Why did you decide to write Authoritarian Liberalism and the Transformation of Modern Europe? To what extent is it a departure from your previous writings?
I decided to write the book over the course of several years, beginning from the height of the euro crisis in 2012, when the term “authoritarian liberalism” first sprang to mind. The term is meant to capture the combination of political authoritarianism and market liberalism that was pushed by the “Troika” — the European Central Bank (ECB), the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission — the Eurogroup of finance ministers, and powerful member states. Their actions became marked by a particularly authoritarian stamp after the election of Syriza in Greece in 2015, which had offered the first serious political opposition to austerity, before it was decisively crushed. I wrote several articles attempting to map these exceptional phenomena onto the history of European integration by reaching back to the interwar period, when “authoritarian liberalism” was first coined by German social democrat and constitutional theorist Hermann Heller to describe the presidential cabinets ruling late Weimar before the Nazi seizure of power.
But as I started to sketch these initial impressions onto a broader canvas, to tell the longer story, I began to realize that I needed to do more historical work into the background conditions of authoritarian liberalism, in order to make sense of how it was able to “succeed.” In other words, I needed to move away from a norm/exception framing and toward a fuller historical narrative. So the book was a departure from my previous writings in the sense that it was less speculative and more concrete. I looked into the material and ideological conditions for authoritarian liberalism and the apparent lack of alternatives and into how these conditions were generated across various periods, beginning with the interwar conjuncture, continuing in the postwar settlement and the post-Maastricht era, and finally maturing through the euro crisis itself. This then gave me the four-part chronological structure of the book but also made it into a much longer project.
Has the EU been undemocratic since its foundation?
The democratic deficit was a staple of political and legal scholarship on the European Union in the decade after [the EU’s foundational Maastricht Treaty of 1992]. Many scholars had laid out the structural aspects of the deficit, which related to the consensual and opaque process of lawmaking, the authority that EU law claimed over domestic law, and the constitutional imbalance in the treaty in favor of market freedoms and against social solidarity. Equally important, a number of scholars had shown how this deficit was best understood as a key feature of the domestic political scene. European integration was not something imposed “from above” but was a process of state transformation, one which contributed to the hollowing out of democracy by further disconnecting political elites from the people and entrenching forms of market liberalism.
Once again, as I did further research, it transpired that this democratic disconnect was a much deeper phenomenon. In the 1950s and ’60s, a number of commentators loosely associated with the Frankfurt School, such as Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, had diagnosed a profound political alienation in the peoples of Europe. This was captured by the eclipse of political freedom, the decline of parliamentary authority, and the weakening of traditional working-class representation. It was most evident in West Germany but had much wider ramifications and could be identified in other “core” founding member states such as France and Italy.
What I found particularly troubling about this disconnect was that it appeared to be legitimized by a myth, a perception that democracy needed to be constrained after its interwar excess, of being captured by the so-called “tyranny of the majority,” when in fact democracy had been profoundly curtailed. It was a “tyranny of the minority” that dominated, through forms of authoritarian liberalism as well as the violence of fascism and Nazism. This pointed to the fact that the “democratic deficit” was not only an institutional constraint or an accidental construct but an ideological phenomenon, grounded in the postwar constitutional imagination and consolidated over time.
Another argument that informs your study, following Chris Bickerton, is that the European Union played an active role in state building in the postwar period. Could you unpack this argument?
Maastricht was something of a watershed moment, in terms of the way it widened and deepened the structural democratic deficit of the European Union. But the pillars had already been put into place, beginning with the Treaty of Rome and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice in the early 1960s, which laid the groundwork for the “constitutionalization” of the treaty and the “integration by stealth” that followed. European integration was characterized in this era as proceeding with the backing of a “permissive consensus” — there was no active popular mobilization of citizens toward the project, but neither was there any notable opposition. It was a project pushed by domestic elites, particularly by networks of Christian democratic politicians and jurists. Lawyers played a key role, “tucked away in the fairyland Duchy of Luxembourg,” and this is a key part of the story I tell in the book, one fairly well-known to EU law scholars. But I wanted to offer a broader narrative, incorporating changes to state-society relations that facilitated this process or at least enabled it to unfold without significant opposition.
You start the narration of your book from the interwar period. What theoretical analysis was produced back then that could help us to understand what happened after 1945, in terms of building the EU’s political logic?
There is no single author but a variety of sources that helped me to piece together the complex picture of the interwar conjuncture and its meaning for postwar Europe. I mentioned Heller in response to the first question, and his work through the 1920s and into the early ’30s, alongside — and in opposition — to that of Carl Schmitt, was crucial in offering theoretical and political insights into the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Karl Polanyi’s work The Great Transformation showed that the combination of authoritarianism and liberalism that emerged on the eve of Weimar’s collapse was far from unique — in fact it was a global strategy by the bourgeoise in reaction to the threat of working-class movements and other socialist responses to economic crisis and harsh inequality.
These authors were useful in helping to debunk the liberal narrative, so dominant in mainstream US and European constitutional theory, that it was democratic excess that led to democratic collapse. As I noted above, it was, on the contrary, the suppression of democracy that was the proximate cause for its demise. Heller is a pivotal figure here, not least because it was his own belief in the progressive social state that led him to advocate a policy of “toleration” toward the authoritarian elites ruling late Weimar, a strategy based on their “lesser evil” in comparison to the Nazis. This strategy proved fatal in weakening the link between the political left and the working class, a weakness exacerbated by the KPD’s [German Communist Party] subservience to Moscow.
But perhaps, albeit in a more subtle way, it was Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (which figures symbolically in the book’s cover) that proved key, offering a missing angle: the sense that it was mistaken to believe in the inevitable progress of historical time, a feature of much — misguided — interwar as well as postwar social democratic thought. This enigmatic text offered a crucial corrective to the economism and mechanical determinism that sunk the interwar left; instead, it offers, in Michael Löwy’s powerful interpretation, a fusion of revolutionary romanticism and historical materialism.
You argue that one of the reasons for the emergence of the EU’s undemocratic political construction in the postwar period was the fear of democracy after the experiences of anti-fascism and the dreams and expectations for another, more democratic world it raised. But how did the European project limit democratic aspirations in the postwar moment?
This follows nicely from the previous question. An overpoliticized democracy was blamed, wrongly in my view, for the interwar collapse of society. In the postwar period, liberals, Christian democrats, and social democrats attained a political consensus around a tamed capitalism as well as a constrained democracy (as Jan-Werner Müller has recounted) and coalesced around a centrist compromise, which included a social bargain between labor and capital. European integration provided a framework for a “constrained democracy writ large”; it was not at the root of what I call a “passive authoritarian liberalism,” but it consolidated it, presenting various institutional veto points against the exercise of democratic power. It later made it almost impossible to deviate from, entrenching the institutional structures and constitutional culture of authoritarian liberalism in a hardened treaty framework as well as an ideology of European integration. This was largely passive, at least until the euro crisis, in that it depended more on a retreat from the political sphere and an abandonment of the working class than it did on diktats and decrees; it was built around a soft hegemony rather than coercion.
The position of the radical left in the postwar period is more complex. Toward the end of World War II, as those fighting against Nazism and Fascism attained positions of considerable prestige, particularly in the Resistance movements and Communist parties in France and Italy, and there was a brief moment of optimism for a more radical politics. But it was quickly dissolved. The deradicalization took specific forms across several decades and was the result of domestic as well as international developments, not least the growing hegemony of the United States. Here we would need to offer more granular, country-specific accounts, for which there is not the space to recount in any detail. Suffice it to say that attachment to the project of European integration became a fatal trap for the Left — the belief, exemplified perhaps above all in Italy, that socialism would be attained through Europe or not at all, rendered it quiescent when it came to the European Union. The Left was paralyzed between the apparent “lesser evilism” of the EU in relation to nationalistic sentiment and the luxury of intellectual optimism on the prospects for supranational progress.
Τo what extent is that the Maastricht Treaty a continuation of the European project’s passive authoritarianism in postwar years? What are the differences between the two moments?
The changes effected by Maastricht are significant and multifaceted. First, at the structural-constitutional level, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the single currency, which would put an additional straitjacket on the political economy of the member states, upscaling a macroeconomic constitution for the countries of the eurozone by depriving them of monetary autonomy. Second, it dramatically altered the geopolitical scope of the project, with enlargement of the EU in combination with German reunification shifting the Franco-German balance of power in favor of Germany and toward a more neoliberal political economy. This process was accelerated with the accession of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and their brisk and brutal transition to market economies without any robust democracy-building. These two phenomena — the deepening and widening of market liberalism — together created a structure that would be much more impervious to change but also highly fragile in terms of its weak democratic support.
So additionally, and tellingly, Maastricht also revealed the end of the “permissive consensus” on integration, with the stirring of popular resentment against increasingly disconnected elites, notable in the French reaction to Maastricht and the “Small Yes” in its referendum (when the French barely accepted it by 51 percent to 49 percent). Crucially, this disconnect would be exploited more by the political right than the Left, with the Left clinging to an ideological Europeanism in spite of the growing evidence of the EU’s neoliberal drift. In this era, academic movement (particularly under the influence of Jürgen Habermas) was toward concepts such as “postsovereignty,” “postnationalism,” and implicitly “postdemocracy,” with discourse theory and its horizon of future agreement replacing material analysis and class politics. The Right, on the other hand, would benefit rhetorically and electorally from scapegoating the EU but had no plan, nor need, to place exit on the table, since it was able to pursue its goals from within the EU and even to to remold Europe in its image, as for example in the recent adoption of populist discourse by European political elites such as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
You argue that the ordoliberal dogma was fused with the political constitution of European Union. How did this happen, and what were the implications?
The degree of influence of ordoliberalism on the European Union and the domestic political economies of the EU is hotly contested, not least because there are differences within the ordoliberal tradition. In my own reading, ordoliberalism is highly instructive in its privileging of economic stability over democratic politics, its advocacy of an economic constitution to prevent “irrational” interference in the economy, and its highly ideological and moralistic view of homo economicus. The link between the ordoliberals and Carl Schmitt is tenuous but real, as Werner Bonefeld has documented; there is a political theology and a decisionistic authoritarianism at play for both — in the case of the ordoliberals, a decision for the depoliticization of the economy and against socialist planning. Schmitt’s position is more complex, abstract, and shifting, but at the point of his 1932 address to the Langnam-Verein there are clear affinities with the ordoliberals and neoliberals in identifying democratic socialism as the key threat to the constitutional and economic order.
Ordoliberalism, as I say, is instructive as a form of authoritarian liberalism. But it would be a mistake to think that ordoliberalism was applied in any mechanical way, either domestically or in Europe. Right from its inception, ordoliberals gathered together with thinkers associated with classical liberalism and neoliberalism and other assorted centrists, as represented by the meeting of the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in 1938; these thinkers were united in their skepticism and fear of democracy and aimed at achieving hegemony for a restoration of the liberal order but were otherwise quite diverse in their specific programs.
In postwar Europe, ordoliberalism was received through various national traditions of political economy and material constitutional development. And, in fact, one of the lines of argument I developed in the later stages of the book was that it was a confluence of ordoliberalism with Germany’s export-led growth strategy that made it highly dysfunctional for the European Union as a whole, particularly when the euro crisis hit. At that stage, ordoliberalism became ideologically as well as practically influential, justifying policies associated with austerity, but in ways that also required dramatic interventions and discretionary actions. These were anathema to some ordoliberals because of the way they required ripping up the “rule book” of the macroeconomic constitution as well as the domestic agenda in order to keep the show on the road: central bank financing, bailouts, and so on. This led to a series of legal challenges taken in the German constitutional court against the interventions, particularly those of the ECB. However, at each stage, the point of these challenges was to try to support and sustain the telos of market liberalism: ensuring conditionality, proscribing debt write-offs, protecting against “moral hazard.” The implications for the EU’s political constitution were severe, as Wolfgang Streeck outlined: national conflicts substituted for class conflict, countries in the south were economically devastated with massive unemployment, particularly for the younger generation, and Europe was more disunited than it had been for half a century.
What historical processes led to the complete neoliberalization of the EU? And what was the specific role of Germany?
I’m not sure it’s helpful to think in terms of the complete neoliberalization of the EU, given the process of integration is always one that is conditioned by the member states and contingent on events. There is certainly a neoliberal logic of depoliticizing the economy built into the project. And the EMU was crucial in curtailing the political autonomy of the member states. But the relative weight of Germany’s political economy also changed the balance of power among European states in the 1990s, as already signaled by President François Mitterrand’s U-turn on a socialist program in France in the early 1980s. What was perhaps more significant was the turn of the center-left and social democratic parties toward neoliberalism in the late 1990s (notably the triumvirate of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and Lionel Jospin) so that even when there was a clear majority of center-left parties among European governments, there was little deviation from neoliberal dogma.
This neoliberalization of social democratic parties was a key aspect in the hollowing out of Western democracy, increasing the disconnect between the working class and their political representatives. European integration contributed to this narrowing of political horizons, and consolidated it, but was not the cause of it as such. This is crucial to keep in view because it also suggests that a departure from authoritarian liberalism has to be led from the bottom up, from the demos itself. To reverse the motto of much of the European left, socialism will be attained by the member states or not at all, in the process attaining a true democratic internationalism.
How did the neoliberal transformation from the 1980s onward affect the decisions the EU made about the handling of the euro crisis?
The neoliberal transformation of the EU from the 1980s onward created a set of constitutional structures and an ideological consensus that appeared to tightly constrain the possibilities for dealing with the euro crisis. But this appearance was highly misleading in an important respect. Where the political will existed, ways would be found to bypass constitutional constraints. What this meant was that the decisions would be elite-led and made in a way that was almost completely entirely democratically unaccountable, pushed by the Troika (especially the ECB), the Eurogroup, and powerful member states. It would result in what Mark Blyth called the greatest bait and switch in history, with a banking crisis turned into a sovereign debt crisis to justify class-based politics of austerity. This then led to a series of partial revolts and the growth of anti-systemic movements as the people awoke to the reality of the situation and generated some momentum toward political change and even open revolt against the system. Although this did not achieve its goals, it did reveal with some clarity the nature of the problem. What it also revealed was the lack of alternatives to European integration on the Left, captured, as it was, by a discourse of postsovereignty and globalization that had effectively abandoned the domain of political sovereignty and class politics.
What about the Greek experience? How would you connect the key arguments of your book with the way that the EU treated the rise of Syriza in the first half of 2015?
The most significant anti-systemic movement of the euro crisis emerged in Greece with the election of Syriza on an anti-austerity platform in January 2015, giving a brief flicker of hope to the whole European left. The reaction of EU elites was harsh but unsurprising. It must be understood that from the perspective of capital, particularly German capital, there was a certain rationality to austerity. And there was a political desire to punish anyone who dared to contest the status quo from the Left, as even Habermas noted with respect to Greece. However, in the final analysis I argue that to consider only how the EU treated Syriza is to miss the point: yes, political elites across the continent were willing to sacrifice Greece; but what the euro crisis revealed above all was that the Left must be willing and able to sanction a rupture from the European system, which means ultimately that it must be ready to pursue an exit from the EU.