Unity vs. Democracy in Europe

by Max Watkins:

Last week, we saw the Euro crisis claim its latest victims: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. In both countries, the economies were struggling and debt issues seemed intractable; interest rates for borrowing reached record levels. It looks quite understandable that these two leaders resigned due to financial frustrations. However, Berlusconi and Papandreou were actually the latest victims in a different battle: the emerging conflict between unity and democracy in the European Union.

There exists a deep fear that the events of the first half of the 20th century could repeat themselves if Europe is not economically and politically interconnected. In addition, the economic ramifications of a breakup of the European Union, or even the fragmentation of one country leaving the Euro Zone, are generally thought to be disastrous: heavily indebted countries would default and banks and lenders file for bankruptcy. The economic shockwaves would travel throughout the world. Clearly, the demand for unity is not irrational. With this in mind, the proponents of unity hold up the idea that the EU and Euro must be preserved, no matter the cost.

In September, an IMF forum convened to chart the future of the Euro Zone. That future looks more imperiled now than ever before. (Michael Spilotro/International Monetary Fund)

However, the cost of this fervent demand for unity is serious: the systematic erosion of democracy and freedom. Berlusconi and Papandreou were all but forcibly removed because of extreme pressure placed on them by the wealthier and less-indebted countries of the EU, along with financial pressure from major international banks. The main proponent of unity is Germany (whose banks lent heavily to Greece and now face the prospect of bankruptcy if Greece defaults on its debt). In order for Germany to agree to bail out countries like Greece, it demanded the institution of strict austerity measures and changes to the government and its budgetary procedures. Italy knows that it has to walk a careful line; the new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti stated, “If we don’t carry out the necessary reforms, we will also be subjected to much harsher conditions.”

In both Greece and Italy, it appears at first glance that the Greek and Italian governments are the ones imposing the austerity measures and restructuring. But it’s really Germany who is demanding these changes — and, because of its position in the EU, ensuring that they happen. The Greek and Italian people and their governments have virtually no say in any of these developments, which explains in large part the many months of protests and strikes in Greece and Italy. In Italy, one protester stated, “This new government will not do anything to improve our social situation…every day the students and workers are suffering.” It’s hard to argue that the common peoples’ interests are being taken into account or represented in their democracy.

Overall, most Europeans do not want to give up the Euro, which is the hallmark of the EU and took decades to build and spread. But if holding onto the Euro means that Europe must trade democracy and freedom for unity, then we are observing an unnerving development. It is deeply unsettling for any citizen of a democratic nation to see its fairly elected officials removed by external powers. And the trend towards sacrificing democracy for efficiency is all the more ironic considering that Greece is, after all, the birthplace of democracy.

Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, writing about conflict in all its forms. Contact him at maxwell.watkins@yale.edu.