Slovakia and European Democracy

Prof. Peter Lindseth

The Slovak parliament has now voted to approve the upgrade of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), at the price of the collapse of the government as well as a promise of new elections in March.  But it was quite a spectacle in democratic self-government to say the least, even if under extraordinary political pressure, both internally and externally.  And it was a telling spectacle at that.

For some observers, the events of the last week suggest something pathological about some Slovak politicians.  In fact, the episode says a lot more about where democracy, for better or worse, is actually located in the process of European integration today.  In a word, European democracy, with all its warts, remains fundamentally national, dispersed among the several member states, including Slovakia.  The democratic (and indeed, constitutional) foundations of the integration process are to be found, most importantly, in the decisions of national parliaments in favor of integration.  Although the process of integration may have other kinds of legitimacy—as an instrument of peace, as a producer of regulatory norms for a market-polity transcending national borders, or as an expression of a denationalized ‘rule of law’ in defense of a new range of rights—what the process of integration lacks is democratic and constitutional legitimacy of its own.  For that, integration depends crucially on national institutions, and more particularly national parliaments, which are understood to embody or express, however imperfectly, the governing capacity of a ‘demos’—that is, a political community that understands itself as historically cohesive and entitled to self-government, through an elected assembly “constituted” for that purpose.  It is there that democratic and constitutionally legitimacy continues to reside in the European system, despite the ongoing shift in power to the supranational level.

But let’s not fool ourselves either.  Just because national parliaments remain the locus of democratic and constitutional legitimacy in the European system does not mean they must remain the locus of all effective normative power.  Such a view would render any kind of coordination or cooperation via supranational bodies in Europe an impossibility.  European integration, like the modern administrative state on which it is built, has depended on the separation of power and legitimacy; that is, on the extensive diffusion and fragmentation of regulatory power out of the realm of national parliaments, to executive and technocratic bodies operating both within and beyond the state, subject to a range of oversight mechanisms.  As with all kinds of essentially ‘administrative’ governance, the purpose of these mechanisms in European integration is to maintain the connection between the increasingly diffuse and fragmented exercise of regulatory power and what Tocqueville called the ‘centralization of government’, whose fundamental expression is the elected national assembly, with all its many flaws.

The delegation of power to European institutions (including now to the EFSF, albeit outside the confines of the treaties) no doubt has constitutional implications for national self-government.  But these supranational institutions, except perhaps insofar as they adjudicate human rights claims against the state, clearly lack democratic and constitutional legitimacy in their own right.  For that they still need the nation state, even tiny Slovakia, at least to the extent that they depend on ongoing Slovak (or indeed any other member state) support for the integration process.  European bodies certainly do not possess such legitimacy as an embodiment of some still elusive European demos; rather, their legitimacy is dependant upon, and derivative of, national democratic and constitutional processes.

Approving the upgraded EFSF may have been the only realistic policy choice open to the Slovak parliament, measured in terms of the functional or political demands of the current crisis.  But when viewed in terms of vindicating the democratic rights of the Slovak people, the intransigence of renegade party leaders within the governing coalition or the demands of opposition leaders for early elections should be regarded as healthy, despite the scare it put into other Europeans about the future of the Eurozone.  Those who objected this week that the Eurozone was wrongly ‘taken hostage by Slovak politics’ do not understand the sources of democratic and constitutional legitimacy in the European system.  As Ernest Renan famously said, ‘a Zollverein is not a patrie’.  Nor, alas, is a currency union.  Slovakia merely reminded us of this truth once again.

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