The awarding of the Nobel Prize should make EU elites not only take justifiable pride in past achievements but also to pause and reflect on their increasingly obvious failure to defend high standards when the greatest economic crisis in EU’s history exposed the fragility of its dossier. This is important because so far the EU has done a lot to weaken them in the name of defending the imperative of fiscal consolidation. For it is in on behalf of this economic agenda that the EU replaced prime ministers in Italy and Greece and made the popular vote largely irrelevant when it comes to how national governments will decide what to do with the taxpayers’ money. European citizens who see their employment and access to medical care dramatically reduced by EU-coordinated austerity cannot be blamed for feeling more skeptical than ever about powerful but unelected EU bodies such as the European Commission or the European Central Bank. In contrast, the democratically elected European Parliament has been bypassed in the major decisions taken during the crisis.
What is particularly worrying is that the ways in which the EU handled the economic crisis began to raise darker specters still. As massive popular protests bringing together all generations seemed to have been of no avail, the norm that citizens organized in protest on a large and encompassing scale can change state agendas has been defeated. Adding insult to injury, the extreme police violence against protesters from Bucharest to Madrid has been shocking. We always thought that the preventive arrest of protest organizers was the hallmark of authoritarian regimes, not of Spain, the hallmark of a successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy decades ago.
But perhaps what is most worrying is that the EU economic policies can trigger levels of domestic conflict that were unthinkable a few years ago. Consider the risk of secession, with all the attendant security risks. Catalan regionalism has always been an important feature of Spanish politics but we thought that it had been accommodated by this country’s democratic constitutionalism. Not any more. The austerity demanded by the EU has now made possible a referendum on independence in this region of Spain. Similarly, ethnic minority rights took a step back as austerity packages revived ethnic nationalism against the Russian minority in the Baltics. In Greece, the neo-Nazi stormtroopers, another political product of austerity, hunt down Asian immigrants while substituting themselves to the police on a wide array of issues.
These are hardly markers of a vibrant democracy and the EU has to contemplate its responsibility in this regard. The list of Nobel awards has many disappointments. Let’s hope that the EU will take this moment not as a consolation for its battered image, but as invitation to be the engine of more democracy and the guarantor of the peace not only between states, but within them as well.