For now at least, the Greek referendum that could have been the beginning of the end for the euro has been shelved. The panic that it provoked, however, says something about the tension between democracy and effectiveness that has marked the European project from its outset. 

The 1992 Maastrich Treaty, which transformed the European Community into the European Union and kicked off an ambitious project of creating the new “Europe” out of what had been a mere free trade zone among sovereign states, was extremely controversial. It barely passed a referendum in France with 51.4 percent of the vote and narrowly lost a referendum in Denmark, getting only 47.9 percent approval.  It took a special set of opt-outs for Denmark for a second referendum there to pass in 1993 with 53.8 percent.

In 2005, a proposed Constitution for Europe was scrapped after French and Dutch voters defeated it in referenda in May and June, respectively. Rather than recraft the document to satisfy the concerns of voters in these countries — which would risk alienating voters in other European countries — European leaders instead passed a virtually identical reform of the EU political structures via the Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007 and ratified in 2009. Because this was framed as a mere amendment of Maastrich and the earlier Treaty of Rome rather than a new measure, no Dutch or French referenda were required. Rather than address the concerns of French and Dutch constituents, in other words, EU leaders found a way around them.

Governing is hard. Certain amounts of deal making, arm twisting, and legalistic workarounds are part of democratic governance even at the national level. Just look at Washington.

Still, Europe’s push from above to further consolidate governance has often conflicted with popular sentiment. British Conservative Member of European Parliament Daniel Hannan sneers that, “Brussels has a bizarre power to make politicians break their words, split their parties and betray their voters so as to keep the project going.”  George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell puts it more soberly: “European politicians have preferred to integrate by stealth rather than public debate.”  

Farrell argues that they have tried to “treat the rolling crisis as another, albeit much more complicated, technocratic problem, which can be solved through the usual kind of technocratic solution.”

Thus far, they have largely succeeded. Germany has demanded austerity measures as the price of continuing to prop up the euro, but this has been wildly unpopular across the Continent. Going along with the measures is likely to cost Spain’s Jose Zapatero and his Socialist party their jobs just as it already has the governments that passed austerity programs in Ireland and Portugal. A majority in Ireland continue to oppose austerity measures even though the economy is rebounding nicely and Sinn Fein, the only anti-austerity party, is surging in the polls. Eight of ten Greeks opposed Papandreou’s plans to address the crisis by going along with EU demands. Ditto 81 percent of Portuguese on their austerity measures.

As Heather Horn observed, the short-lived threat of a Greek referendum was a signal that  “national sovereignty is alive” despite the grand project for a single Europe. As much as the Germans and French resent having to bail out Greece, the Greeks may resent having their core political decisions dictated from Paris and Berlin even more.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently sniffed that, “No one in the EU can appoint themselves commissioner and speak on behalf of elected governments and peoples of Europe. Nobody is able to give lessons to their partners.” But the reality is that France and especially Germany wield an enormous amount of leverage over eurozone states in trouble and have not shied from using it.

Indeed, there is considerable worry in London right now over who will lead Europe. The UK, having chosen to retain the sovereign flexibility of retaining its own currency and thus remaining outside the Eurozone — a move that seems brilliant at the moment — risks being left outside the decision making circles in Brussels as more power shifts to the European Central Bank and the European Financial Stability Facility and away from the continent’s more democratic institutions.

There has been talk of a “United States of Europe” since the time of the last global depression. The post-WW2 coal and steel collective’s transformation into something just shy of a confederation has taken us a long way to achieving it. But, as in the long transformation of the United States from a collection of 13 former colonies united for trade and foreign relations into a true nation-state, there have been many road bumps in trying to create uniform policies for states with very different economies and political cultures. 

Even now, a century after U.S. citizens began to identify themselves mostly as Americans rather than as Georgians or Pennsylvanians or Mainers first, there are still resentments when the collective will produces laws and policies that are strongly opposed sectionally — or when the majority’s will is thwarted by a political process that intentionally over-represents small states. 

There are times when national leaders make unpopular choices because they fear dire consequences if they don’t. On both sides of the Atlantic, bailouts for the financial industry and austerity measures have been enacted despite howls of popular protest. Governments have fallen in Europe and several others teeter on the brink. President Obama’s party suffered heavy losses in the 2010 midterms and mired in the 40’s in the opinion polls for two years. 

Direct democratic participation in the form of referenda, popular in many EU countries and a handful of U.S. states, does not appear to have been working very well. The outcome is easily manipulated or distorted by question wording, election timing, and deceptive advertising. Representative democracy, where leaders make decisions and face electoral consequences, seems to be more effective, though at times elected leaders may feel compelled to do things that their constituents don’t want — such as bail-outs or austerity measures. 

The problem, as Farrell puts it, is “whether there is a European Union that could be affirmed (after long and painful debates) by both the Greek and German publics.” In other words, is there a version of the EU that is acceptable to its Greek as well as its German constituents, both of whom currently have to live under EU rule.  If there’s not — and this well might be the case — then it raises the question of whether the European Union, a collection of some of the world’s most democratic governments, is actually democratic itself.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay was originally published by The Atlantic.

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