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The European Union, The Economic Crisis And Democracy


By E. Fuat Keyman

A deep economic crisis is testing European integration. The measures taken against the crisis are causing the concept of democracy to be eclipsed. In the coming period this problem is going to take up more of our time.

After Greece and Italy, now may be Spain. Elected heads of government have been resigning. In their place came the ‘technocratic prime ministers’ which we earlier witnessed in Turkey and Latin America. The elected government of Greece had declared that it would hold a referendum on whether or not the people would like to accept a necessary economic package of measures. The following day the Greek prime minister was warned at the G20 meeting to withdraw his referendum decision. The prime minister then had to withdraw the decision, giving up his seat to a government of technocrats and a technocratic prime minister. Perhaps the referendum decision was a political initiative taken by the Greek prime minister—a decision to obtain the consent of the people for economic measures that would impoverish them before it was put into effect. Or perhaps Greece cannot be governed any more or cope with the crisis now by the methods used by the existing clientalist governance structure. The Greek prime minister understood that and he cannot govern and wanted a chance to hand over the job to someone else.


We do not know the reason for the referendum decision. But we know that the decision was taken that a government of technocrats would have a better chance of applying the economic measures successfully than an elected government. What has happened in Greece shows us that the economic crisis is one and the same as the crisis of democracy. The question could not be put to the Greek people about whether they did or did not want a package of economic measures to be applied in their country which would have an extremely serious impact on them. The referendum which would have disclosed the wish of the Greek people was blocked. To me, this demonstrates that in addition to the deep economic crisis which the EU is experiencing, it is also facing a serious crisis of democracy. There is a debate going on about the economic crisis but also there is now a debate also occurring in Europe about democracy. The European sovereign debt crisis is going hand in hand with the crisis of democracy.

Europe is living through its biggest crisis since 1929. In the years since World War II the European Union has managed to bring into being the most comprehensive and the deepest experiment in regional integration ever, but it is now beset by a great crisis caused by its debts and economic stagnation and the Union thus finds itself at a turning point where it must make critically important decisions about its future. The examples of Greece and Italy show that those decisions are not just economic, they also affect the political sphere. Will Europe deepen or will it widen? Which EU countries will stay in the euro zone? How will the EU’s decision-making processes be restructured in future? What will the meaning of EU membership be? Will there be different forms of full membership? Will the EU still be able to generate economic prosperity? Will it still have a social model? The answers to all these questions are unfortunately unknown today. It appears that EU integration is going through great uncertainty regarding its future.

Structural Problems of the EU Architecture

The European Union process is one of regional integration. The example of Greece shows us how very difficult and problematic it is to integrate economies with different economic structures, differing levels of productivity and competitiveness, economies with different cultural characteristics, into a singe monetary unit. The economic crisis now afflicting the EU appears to be a consequence of the process of trying to integrate these differences. Integration can lead to a crisis. This verdict is correct but it could also be said that the present crisis has happened because the process of integration was insufficiently strong. We do not know exactly whether the crisis is happening because the integration process was carried out too fast and without the necessary safeguards and criteria and so was an integration process which was essentially carried out by political decisions or whether, entirely to the contrary, it was preceded by too little institutional, intellectual, and political integration and so there was a problem of inadequate coordination and rapid decision-taking. But we do know that the EU must now make a choice between these two alternatives, between deepening itself and expanding.

Along with this, the crisis in Greece shows this point: policymaking at both the inter-state relations within the EU and between parties within countries are far from being democratic, indeed they empty democracy of it content. Countries and political parties are not bodies which are addressed to the general good either of the EU or its member-countries or to society being better and more justly administered. On the contrary they come into existence solely to maximize their own interests and strength and in doing so, they activate a political process which aims at weakening other countries or political parties. Politics is conducted on the basis of greed and selfishness in order to gain power and self-interest.

Politics reduces everything to the maximisation of interests and power instead of helping coordinated and rapid decisions to be made on how to find a solution for the crisis. The recent experiences of the European Union and the United States have caused a very dangerous new form of political activity to emerge, as a parallel to the crisis, for example the Tea Party in the USA. The way in which politics is conducted during the economic crisis in terms of interests and strength is of a kind to corrode democracy from the inside and deepen the crisis of democracy that we are also experiencing. Will the future be one of economics and strong democratic values or one of economics together with an authoritarian or defective form of democracy? I believe that this is the basic question we should be discussing, both within Europe and also inside Turkey.

Global Crisis

The historical context of the present crisis is global, the great surge of globalisation. The financial crisis and the global economic crisis with the mass unemployment we are living through create large scale uncertainties and an risky milieu. Handling these three crises together is very difficult. Moreover, in addition to these crises, if we also throw into the equation the multi-dimensional crises we are having in globalisation in security and social justice (problems of poverty, hunger, and deprivation) , and energy, climate change, and food resources, then then it becomes more impossible to find solutions that are also democratic. The global crisis, multidimension and with all its uncertainties, is more likely to trigger the rise not of democratic structures but of more powerful and authoritarian ones. It is highly possible to obtain economic stability, democracy will be postponed and that there will be popular support for doing so. Furthermore there is a serious crisis of leadership and hegemony within the global system. So the global upsurge and challenges make every country somewhat fragile. These are the circumstances in which Europe and the EU crisis are being lived out. We must draw a line under it. We in Turkey must follow the process very closely, discuss it, and recognize the value of democracy.

Turkish version of this article was previously published in ANALIST Journal.

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JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

One thought on “The European Union, The Economic Crisis And Democracy

  • January 2, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    To fix the EU:

    1) be rid of any country that is not ready to hand over some (not all) of sovereignty to a central confederation.

    2) Assemble a Constitutional Convention (a treaty is not sufficient) to outline which powers are cebtral and which remain local/national.

    3) Include voting and amendment procedures in the constitution. Except in the case of admitting new members, the present idea of unanimous consent for anything/everything is absurd. Perhps a majority of states with a majority of population would be sufficent for laws while constitutional matters would warrant 3/4 s of these.

    4) The central authority must be able to tax and/or borrow for its constitutional functions independently of any vetos by members and enforce its own juristiction.

    5) ALL states must be prohibited from force against each other and must have the approval of the CENTRE for actions outside its borders; these would be a matter for the 3/4 requirements.

    6) the “Euro” must either be made (In say 10years time) universal (prefered) or eliminated. The Central Bank must be a master bank or disbanded depending on the fate of the Euro.

    7) The Euro “State” of the future neds to serve the 99% as well as the 1% who currebtly enjoy dis proportionate priviledge.


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