Philosopher Slavoj Žižek and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange discuss Europe’s future. With the recent economic crisis in Greece, unprecedented challenges to centralised European policy, and the lack of consensus on the ongoing refugee crisis, many would agree that Europe faces its greatest ever predicament. Hear them discuss the urgent task of building a different and more democratic Europe.
For me, from the point of view of democracy, the most relevant five minutes of the debate were between 57:22 and 1:02:28:
Srecko Horvat: What would it concretely mean to democratize Europe?
Yanis Varoufakis (not word by word, but what he essentially answered):
Firstly, transparency: What I would like to do is live streaming all the meetings of the European Council and the Eurogroup. I have no doubt, having witnessed them, that the outcome of these meetings would be very different if the citizens of Europe could hear and watch their leaders in action. This measure could be introduced without changing the Treaties and let them explain why they would like to resist it. Transparency is such a crucial point. Lack of transparency is the best means of creating an autocracy by keeping the electors in the dark, and the powers that be know that, it’s time that the rest of us realize it too.
Secondly, alleviate poverty: We have terrible institutions (ECB, ESM, the banking union) but we can use them to do something to stabilize the situation when it comes to the crisis of public debt, of underinvestment, of the banking system and to do something to alleviate poverty. Imagine for one second if poor families throughout Europe, or the Eurozone at least, were to receive a check from the European Central Bank, signed by Mario Draghi, that would allow them not to cash it for money but to go to the supermarket and buy food so that they could put food on the table so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry in Greece, in Slovenia, in Eastern Germany for that matter. That would have an amazing unifying effect. I can tell you, even the whole debate about refugees would change, if these checks happen. Now you may say that is such a left-wing utopia, it’s not, it’s what happens in the US, they’re called food stamps. Without the food stamps poverty in the US would be 26 percent or double what it is now. You have no idea what a unifying effect those food stamps have throughout the USA. It is connected to the capacity of even poor Americans to be able to say “we the people” and actually mean it, which is something we in Europe cannot do.
Thirdly, a Constituent Assembly (Varoufakis uses the term “Constitutional Assembly”): To have a Constituent Assembly in say two years from now. We would start tabula rasa, forget the European Parliament, it’s not a real parliament, it’s a very interesting jobs creation scheme for people who don’t have the capacity to legislate. An assembly of citizens who get elected in order to discuss during six months, twelve months, one great question: How do we want Europe to become? And here I would invoke Tony Benn: The most important thing about democratizing any regime, whether it’s in Britain, in Europe, in Slovenia, wherever, is to ask those who make important decisions over you three or four important questions. What powers do you have? How did you get them? What use do you make of them? And how can we get rid of you? This is what a Constituent Assembly should be able to answer. And let’s also agree that whatever that Constituent Assembly decides should be implemented in Europe in the next ten years. And I would like the British people to be part of that attempt rather than to think that you can retreat, you can actually add propellers to your beautiful iland and sail away into a non-existent global economy that will replace the European Union for you.
The third point is no doubt the most important: there can be no European democracy without a European Constitution in which the democratic rights of the citizens are defined.
We have experience with a failed attempt to make a European Constitution (Convention on the Future of Europe 2002-2003), it failed because it was to be controlled from above and it was designed to serve the economic interests of big corporations and not the European citizens. Already the name indicated the problematic, not to say impossible, nature of this endeavor: Constitutional Treaty. A treaty is made top-down between governments (states) and a constitution, if it is democratic, is made and ratified by the people themselves.
The Constitution Making Process has to be designed very carefully. Europe must be built from below, by the citizens themselves, and such a process needs time, and depending on the degree to which citizens are mobilized and involved in the constituent process, this time may accelerate (or decelerate) accordingly. There will be no democratic Europe if the constitution is designed by the ruling elites, governments and so-called experts. To repeat it: a democratic constitution is made and re-made only by the people. The constitution and all future changes have to be ratified by referendum; the adequate instrument for this is the obligatory constitutional referendum.
In the 1990s the idea of a constituent process was advocated by eurotopia, a European network of active citizens. They published a book called “Transnationale Demokratie. Impulse für ein demokratisch verfasstes Europa”, which already contains concrete proposals for how to organise European Constitution Making and a Constituent Assembly in the form of a democratic process (click to read more about it). The book focuses on a crucial question, which Varoufakis did not mention explicitly. NOT: What powers do they (the representatives) have, BUT: What powers do we the people have. We know that elections alone are not sufficient for a real democracy; people need direct democratic rights which enable them to participate directly in the decision-making processes on concrete issues.
We can learn from the recent experience of Iceland: Five lessons from a failed experiment by Hélène Landemore.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, substantive changes to the EU Treaties must be made through a Convention process. The problem with this process is, I think, this: no really democratic constitution can come out of a process that is in the hands of the ruling elites; they are not willing to share power with the citizens, and they will do so only when forced by the people.
The Convention process
A Convention, being an assembly of representatives of the national Parliaments, of the Heads of State or Government of all EU Member States, of the European Parliament and of the European Commission, can be initiated after being proposed by the government of any Member State, the European Parliament or the Commission. Once a Convention is proposed, the European Council must decide by simple majority (15 votes among the 28 Member States) whether to initiate a Convention.