Greek ‘Sovereignty’ and European ‘Democracy’

Prof. Peter Lindseth

Why the apparent scare-quotes around ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’ in the title to this post?  Not for the reasons you might think.  The explanation ultimately depends on the answer to another question:  Is paying the price of prior legal commitments, albeit under serious functional and political pressure, a negation of Greek ‘sovereignty’ or ‘democracy’?  On balance, Professor Lindseth thinks not, and his answer has important implications for the likely forms of European ‘economic government’ that may come out of the Eurozone crisis.

Usually scare-quotes of the type we see in the title to this post are a way of signaling an ironic scepticism about the meaning or validity of the terms used.  Some readers might assume that my use of them here is meant to suggest that the events of the last week have meant that Greek ‘sovereignty’ is now illusory and that ‘democracy’ in the Eurozone has become something of a sham under the pressures of the financial crisis.  This is the implication of a recent post on the American law blog Balkinization, entitled ‘The Death of Democracy in Greece’, by Professor Sanford Levinson.  After the scuttling of George Papandreou’s ill-fated call for a popular referendum last week (but before Papandreou’s own political demise over the weekend), Professor Levinson wrote:

“It is a rich irony, of course, that the country that initially gave us the idea of democracy . . . is now the poster child for the necessity to accept the fact that the very possibility of “popular sovereignty” is unacceptable. All hail the new order!”

The point is clear:  the Greek people are no longer ‘sovereign’, and their ‘democracy’ is indeed dead.  They are now ruled ‘by the rest of Europe’, as Professor Levinson puts it.

The scare-quotes in my title, however, are meant to suggest something different.  They are intended to point to the fact that the meaning of concepts like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’ are moving targets and are thus a bit more complex than Professor Levinson’s post suggests.  Let me explain.

Concepts like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’ are in fact fundamentally normative—they express evolving understandings of what self-government ought to be, both in relation to internal elites (democracy) and to external powers (sovereignty).  But they are not fixed ‘things’—standard ironic/sceptical scare-quotes here—with immutable content, which either exist or do not.  They are really best understood as adjectives, even if we often use them as nouns, to describe a package of evolving normative aspirations as to the rights of the national polity vis-à-vis external communities (as in ‘sovereign rights’) or the capacity of the national citizens to self-government (as in ‘democratic institutions’).  These claims change over time, in the face of functional and political pressures, not least flowing from past choices (‘path dependence’ in the social-science jargon).

In a more dynamic, historical perspective, can we say that, in view of the events of the last week or months, the Greek people are no longer ‘sovereign’, or that their ‘democracy’ is now dead?

Certainly the Greeks are paying a severe price for their past profligacy, as well as for their failure to live up to legal commitments as members of the Eurozone.  And perhaps the Greeks did not fully understand, or did not want to understand (out of a prestige imperative), what these commitments entailed when they first undertook them nearly a decade ago.  Whatever the case, the Greeks are now confronting severe functional pressures as a consequence of that choice, due to the collapse of market access to credit.  They are also confronting severe political pressures from their fellow Eurozone members, indeed from the world community, to fall into line behind the delicately negotiated bailout deal to resolve the crisis.

Both the functional and political pressures, as well as the constraints flowing from prior legal commitments, are combining to force the Greek people to accept the new deal, albeit under a new government.  This acceptance will entail ever more serious austerity for the Greek economy, but in exchange Greece will receive a substantial debt haircut that may, over time, return it—barely—to market access for credit.  And the hoped-for additional benefit will be that the deal may perhaps stave off a more serious European banking crisis, for which Greece’s partners, and again indeed the broader world, will be deeply grateful.

Whether this strategy is successful remains to be seen—there is plenty of reason to be sceptical.  But that is not my purpose here, which instead focuses on the evolving nature of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’ in European integration.  This brings me back to the question I posed at the outset: Is paying the price of such prior legal commitments, even under serious functional and political pressure, a negation of Greek ‘sovereignty’ or ‘democracy’?  I think not, all things considered, and here’s why:

We can begin with this almost banal truism: No polity has ever been fully self-governing in an absolute sense, free from functional constraints, outside political pressures, or the limitation of future choices flowing from choices made in the past.  No state, in other words, has been as ‘Westphalian’ as in the crude sense we sometimes see this term used in the academic literature, to refer to some golden age of unfettered sovereignty. Just because Greece finds itself subject to severe functional and political constraints does not mean that it is no longer a sovereign democracy in a historically evolving (as opposed to idealized) sense.

But beyond this basic insight, there is a deeper historical point to be made.  It relates to the nature of modern governance and thus to the evolving meaning of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’.  Modern governance is built on a set of policy or institutional ‘pre-commitments’, through delegation of authority to institutions like constitutional courts, central banks, or administrative agencies.  The very purpose of these bodies is, in some sense, to constrain the sovereign rights of democratic institutions in service of broader policy goals.  European integration generally, and the Eurozone specifically, builds on this foundation of modern governance, but with the twist that the delegations now occur to institutions operating beyond the nation-state.  And while many would see this as a major difference, I would insist that it is one of degree, and not of character, from the forms of modern delegated governance operating within states.

Whether the delegation of power is to an institution operating inside or outside the nation-state, the key moment of democratic and sovereign decision necessarily comes at the moment of delegation itself, subject to forms of ongoing national participation in subsequent decision making pursuant to that delegation.

It is in this sense that the situation of Greece today is better understood, not as the negation of its sovereignty or democracy, but rather as the (very) painful realization of these concepts in their modern guise.  Greece is now paying the price for its prior commitments.  And if the Greek people did not understand that price initially, they certainly understand it now.  The Greeks do not like the imposed austerity but also don’t want to see the country excluded from the Eurozone either.  That is the trade off facing Greece today, as it struggles to form a new government committed to taking the painful steps needed to ensure, at least for the moment, that Greece stays in and does not devolve into bankruptcy.  It remains to be seen whether these new Greek leaders, or those of the broader Eurozone, can bring this off.

But this entire episode suggests something once again about the locus of democratic legitimacy in European integration, a topic about which I’ve blogged in the past.  When push comes to shove, European integration still needs democratic legitimation coming from the national level, both in a formal and substantive sense.  The delicately negotiated deal on Greek austerity in exchange for continued bailouts and a debt haircut require Greek buy-in, both formally and substantively.  It could not go forward on the basis of an imposition by a supranational ‘federal union’ legitimating itself democratically on some denationalized, European scale.  The process of European integration is simply not there yet.

This reality has a strong bearing on competing proposals for a future European ‘economic government’.  ‘[W]hat Germany means by EU economic government’, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard insightfully noted recently, ‘is better policing of Club Med budgets, not debt-pooling or eurobonds’.  Under the dominant German conception, European economic government would build on the delegated character of modern governance.  Member states would empower supranational institutions to act as ‘commitment mechanisms’ to supervise their compliance with coordination and cooperation agreements in the fiscal domain and take enforcement action against them as necessary.  The democratic legitimacy of this new set-up would still depend, crucially, on the choices made by the member states nationally, at the moment of delegation, as well as in subsequent participation in the decision making process.  Democratic legitimacy, if not actual regulatory power, would remain national.

This is a quite different conception from ‘economic government’ suggested by other, more federalist advocates.  In these latter conceptions, the supranational level would genuinely displace the member states as the locus of fiscal decision making on a Europe-wide scale, perhaps including autonomous taxing power or the capacity to issue Eurobonds.  At some point such an ‘economic government’ would require a shift in genuine democratic legitimation to the European level as well.  For this reason it still seems a distant dream, not least because certain national high courts—notably the German Federal Constitutional Court—would not permit it, at least not without a constitutional referendum asking the German people to give up their cherished Basic Law, and therefore their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’ in a historically recognizable sense.

One thought on “Greek ‘Sovereignty’ and European ‘Democracy’

  1. The baton of sovereignty has passed from national leaders meeting in national capitals to leaders meeting in summits.

    Leaders now announce regional framework agreements, which waive national sovereignty, and establish working groups and edicts. These establishes regional economic government. Freedom and choice are mirages on the Neoauthoritarian desert of the real. Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, also known as People of Freedom party, is an anachronism in the age of diktat. A totalitarian collective is forming in the Euro zone: totalitarian collectivism is the EU’s future. Ron Paul’s agenda for freedom and the Austrian economic philosophy of free enterprise, are dead on arrival in the age of diktat.

    The citizens of Greece were not given an opportunity to vote and the citizens of German will not be given a choice to leave the EU and print a new New Deutsche Mark. Greeks are not Germans, yet under all may very well be one living in a Federal Union and Fiscal Union. EurActiv in article Eurozone Breakup No Longer Taboo, relates that Angela Merkel, speaking at the “Falling Walls” argued that it was time for “a breakthrough to a New Europe”, in which member states would integrate further.

    The largess of the PIGS will no longer be tolerated. Rachel Donadio of the NYT writes “It’s a historic moment,” said Roberto Napoletano, the editor in chief of the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, which has been running campaigns to alert Italians that their savings and businesses are at risk without credible leadership. “Italy has to act, but it can do it.” “We have lost a capital of confidence,” Mr. Napoletano said, adding that it was time for the country to “invest politically in a government of people who have the capacity to do what for 20 years no one has done in Italy.”By that, he said, he meant making the structural changes that economists say Italy needs to quicken growth and stay competitive, including making its labor market more flexible, creating a more efficient tax code and tax collection system, and cutting red tape. Since it was re-elected in 2008, the Berlusconi government has done virtually none of those things.

    The accumulated debt of the Eurozone will be will be applied to every man woman and child therein: austerity measures, structural reforms, pension overhauls, and debt servitude will be de rigueur. Greeks cannot be Germans, the former are of the olive state, and the latter are of the industrious state. One is club med, and the other industrious; yet both will be one, living in a New Europe, featuring a Federal Government, a Fiscal Union, a Common Treasury, the nationalization of banks, and the ECB empowered as a bank, with the aim of enforcing austerity measures, structural reforms, pension overhauls, and debt servitude, as de rigueur.

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