Democrazia in bilico nell’Unione europea

Intervento di Barbara Spinelli alla tavola rotonda “Democracy in the EU: between Theory and Practice”, Istituto Universitario Europeo, Firenze 27 aprile 2018

Partecipanti alla tavola rotonda: Armin von Bogdandy, direttore dell’Istituto MaxPlanck di Diritto Pubblico Comparato e Diritto Internazionale, e Mercedes Bresso, deputata del Parlamento Europeo (S&D)

Some preliminary remarks are necessary.

When we speak about democracy and rule of law – i.e. constitutional democracy, a system which is much more than a simple reflection of the will of a majority, and which ensures the separation of powers and strong institutional guarantees for the minorities – we should distinguish between democracy within the Union and democracy of the Union: because we have two levels of decision making, two levels of parliamentary control and as a consequence two levels of sovereignties. Constitutional democracy is today threatened at both national and supranational level. Moreover, we should bear in mind that there are other sovereignties, which have a substantial weight but are not codified nor democratically controlled: I’m referring in a specific way to the market forces, and to the famous formula coined in 1998 by Hans Tietmeyer, at the time President of the Bundesbank, according to whom there is, in parallel to national elections, the “permanent plebiscite of the international markets”. Tietmeyer defended the legitimacy of such plebiscite, equating the latter to the legitimacy of democratic elections: a very questionable short circuit to say the least. Finally there are regional sovereignties, which are becoming more and more important and challenging from the point of view of democracy and rule of law – I’m referring to the Northern Irish or Scottish or Catalan cases – and which are the result of the progressive erosion of national sovereignties, combined with ill-defined democratic rules at supranational level. In the case of Northern Ireland, the citizens’ right to determine their future and their borders is codified in international treaties like the Good Friday Agreement. Future developments of a more decentralized, regional Union could learn much from this treaty.

Let’s begin with democracy in the Union, even if I’m perfectly aware of the intertwining of the different levels I mentioned:

What we are facing today is a double erosion: erosion of the constitutions in the Member States (strong tendency, except in Germany, to emulate the French model of centralisation and pre-eminence of the executives) and erosion of the popular sovereignties (increasingly calling into question of the universal suffrage, as expressed in national elections). This evolution is enhanced by the direct involvement of the EU Commission and of the ECB in electoral competitions, as we have seen in Greece, and by the aversion often demonstrated by these institutions to the constraints set by national elections or referenda. I remember what Mario Draghi said after a delicate Italian election, in 2013: elections come and go, since the EU is composed by democratic States, but one thing remains sure: “Structural budget reforms and fiscal adjustments will continue on automatic pilot“.

The EU Commission and the European Parliament are very active on democracy and rule of law: in relation to Poland, Hungary and other Countries of Eastern Europe like Slovakia. I’m very in favour of such EU struggles, but there is a danger that Eastern Europe, because of ill-defined enlargements in 2004, becomes a sort of convenient punching-bag for the EU, hiding the fact that there is a problem of democracy in the Union as a whole, not only in the East. The strict criteria established since 1993 for the accession countries – the so called Copenhagen criteria – cease to operate once a country has joined the Union as a full member. It’s called the Copenhagen dilemma and it’s still not solved.

And now democracy of the Union:

We are experiencing a progressive shirking of responsibilities towards citizens by EU institutions – Commission, Council, EU agencies – and the European Parliament is not always the exception as we shall see. The increasing power of such institutions goes hand in hand with a deliberate avoidance of responsibility towards citizens not only from a political point of view but also from a judicial one. Such power without responsibility is exerted in different ways, through semantic and political escamotages, and explains the growing disrespect – in EU policies – of the Charter of fundamental rights, the European Convention of human rights, the Court of justice, the European Court of human rights.

As regards the austerity memoranda, the democratic retrogression is evidenced by the way in which the Commission denies its involvement and accountability in policy decisions which are taken by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM, that is an intergovernmental organization), but are nevertheless negotiated, supported and implemented by the Commission and the ECB (the ex-troika). Some ideas are circulating about the reform of the Eurozone and its governance, proposing the transformation of the ESM in an EU Monetary Fund (EMF) with full veto power over Member States’ budget decisions: an even more disturbing evolution, if adopted.

As regards the EU-Turkey agreement on migration, the deal was negotiated by the States but implemented and financed by the Commission: it received a particular name (it was called statement), in order to avoid the control on international treaties normally exercised by the European Parliament.

As regards finally the trade negotiations, the Commission has an exclusive competence, hence an effective power (albeit limited on certain areas where the competence is shared) but the specific responsibility towards citizens is denied or avoided.

I would like to briefly dwell on the last point: the TTIP negotiations, and the discretionary, opaque power exerted by the Commission in this field. In this case the responsibility is not denied – it is on the contrary strongly defended against interferences by the Member States – but at the same time it is restricted and re-interpreted in its relations with the EU citizens. What I call into question, in this case, is not the communitarisation of national trade policies. The federal evolution of the EU is a good thing, but federalism is not an end in itself. It has been originally thought as an instrument intended to facilitate and consolidate policies aimed at enhancing democracy, rule of law, social cohesion and – last but not least – peaceful external policies, in the States belonging to the Union. The federal instrument makes sense if conceived as a bulwark against the return of aggressive nationalisms and centralistic dictatorships in Europe, as well as against social injustice, inequality and poverty. Too many elements of such project are missing in today’s Union. Re-nationalisation of EU policies won’t certainly do the trick, but “more of this Europe” – even if you call it federalist – won’t help.

A vivid example of the wrong use of federalisation and of the transfer of powers to the Commission in trade deals comes from an episode occurred during the TTIP negotiation. When John Hilary, executive Director at War on Want, asked the trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström how she could continue her persistent promotion of the deal – including the most controversial clauses concerning the Investor-state dispute settlement – in the face of massive public opposition, her response – I quote an article written by Hilary in The Independent, on 15 October 2015 – came back icy cold: “I do not take my mandate from the European people”.

So, from whom does Cecilia Malmström take her mandate? Officially, EU commissioners are supposed to take into account the popular will of the Member states, as well as their respective constitutional traditions, and make a synthesis of their diverging aims. Yet the European Commission has carried on the trade negotiations behind closed doors, ignoring the objections coming from the citizens – included a successful Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP – and denying any dependence on them. In reality, as a report from War on Want revealed in autumn 2015, the Commission has been deeply involved in negotiations with lobbies, being dependent (i.e. responsible) on them. Hence the conclusion of John Hilary: “The European Commission makes no secret of the fact that it takes its steer from industry lobbies such as BusinessEurope and the European Services Forum.  It’s no wonder that the TTIP negotiations are serving corporate interests rather than public needs”.

Lack of transparency is an essential ingredient of this misguided conception of the “mandate” granted to the supranational institutions: bodies like the Eurogroup, or the Council’s obscure behaviour in the “trilogues” (decisions negotiated between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament) generate opaque decision making and procedures, out of any democratic control. This is the opinion expressed by the EU Ombudsman, especially on the Council and on the relation between the Commission and the lobbies. I quote a passage of the Mrs O’Reilly’s recommendations of last February: “It is important to note that Member State representatives involved in legislative work are EU legislators and should be accountable as such. Democratic accountability demands that the public should know which national government took which position in the process of adopting EU legislation. Without this “minimum and essential item of evidence”, citizens will never be able to scrutinise how their national representatives have acted. It is also important for national parliaments, in their task of overseeing their own governments’ actions, to be able to know the positions taken by their own government”.

I mentioned the European Parliament, the only really elected body of the EU. On 22 March, the European Court of justice has annulled a decision by the Parliament on transparency of the “trilogues” with a sentence of utmost importance. The Parliament had decided that certain provisional compromises between the three institutions had to remain secret, in order not to hamper negotiations and avoid interferences by lobbies. The Court has denied such dangers, prioritising the citizens’ right to have full knowledge of the decision making in the trilogues.

But let’s be clear on this point: lack of transparency is a symptom, not the disease itself. It makes no sense to have full transparency – as it makes no sense to have a full European sovereignty – if EU policies erode democracies in Member States and are in contradiction with article 2 and 6 of the Treaty. If they are in conflict with the “general principles” of the EU, including the respect of the Charter of fundamental rights, of the European Convention on human rights and of the Constitutional norms of the Member States.

Poland, the rising of the far-right and the responsibilities of the Union

Speech of Barbara Spinelli, shadow rapporteur of GUE/NGL, during the group meeting
Strasbourg, 18 January 2016

Versione italiana

It is already a long time that we are discussing, in the European Parliament, on what the Union should do when facing with clear violations of fundamental rights in Member States. We already raised this issue with regard to Hungary, and we are now considering it again talking of the new Polish government. We ask ourselves if the Union will be able to deal with this situation, considering that it did not get much in the past; if the rule of law mechanism, triggered in these days by the Commission, will really work; if article 7 needs to be revised, since the procedures provided therein are complex and unlikely the Member States will unanimously apply it against one of them. New mechanisms for the protection of the rule of law are currently under discussion.

This analysis is undoubtedly appropriate and necessary but, in this context, I would like now to focus on something different that goes beyond the procedures and their content i.e. the roots of those phenomena and the rising of far-rights movements. The absence of a strong left-wing representation is equally a matter to understand. Having often frequented eastern European countries during the communist period and the transition, I will try to expose some ideas on this issue.

First of all, what is happening in Poland is neither an isolated incident nor an unwelcome surprise falling from heaven. The economic crisis, together with the refugees’ crisis, has uncovered a reality which the European élite wanted to hide for long time. The entire eastern European area seems on the verge of collapsing from the point of view of the principle of democracy founded on human rights and separation of powers (including the fourth power i.e. the independence of the media): I am thinking of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the ethnic and russophobic closures in the Baltic countries, and of Poland, where the xenophobic and nationalist right-wing won for two times in 2005 and today with Jarosław Kaczyński – the brother of Lech, who was President and died in the plane crash in 2010.

Why the system is collapsing in this way? In my view it is happening because the transition from communism to constitutional democracy did not work, the enlargement was misconceived and the Polish liberal élites ruled the country without considering what their society demanded or suffered. Some speak of misunderstanding: the old Member States and the European Institutions did not clarify, during the accession negotiations, that the European project is not a merely neoliberal economic project based on an unbridled market. In reality, rather than misunderstanding we should speak about a deliberate strategy, carried out on the basis of a conscience which believes to be correct but, on the contrary, does not perceive its own limitations and deficiencies: a false consciousness, quoting Karl Marx. Europe, in the last thirty years and more, has intentionally reshaped the idea of Union as a neoliberal single market, with the result that the transition moved from the communism to the market democracy – as Clinton named it in 1992-93 – rather than from communism to the rule of law and a constitutional and inclusive democracy. Some argued that a victory against communism had produced an End of History, which means: the social issue belonged already to the past two centuries, the class struggle too; the rage of those left apart could be ignored.

The reality was and is completely different. The economic policies adopted by the Polish liberal élites, abiding by the Union’s central doctrine, still produce social anger. The class struggle is far from being dead – after all it is intrinsic to capitalism and not to communism. If denied – and especially deprived of its social-economic nature – the class struggle tends to appear in any case, following however spoiled and destructive dividing lines. It will express itself along nationalistic or religious or even moralistic dividing lines, as well described by the sociologist David Ost.[1] As long as social inequalities produced by neoliberalism increase, the anger falls in the arms of the far-right, which converts it into hatred towards the different, into research of a scapegoat: hatred for the ethnic, racial, religious, moral “Other” (for instance, think about the unemployed described as “morally lazy”). This is what happened in the “Eastern front”. But it is also what is happening for decades in the Western part of the Union. We cannot hide this.

How to explain the absence of a strong left-wing, capable of representing the interests of workers and of those who have paid a high price as a result of the choc therapy (the so-called Balcerowicz Plan) adopted in Warsaw after the ’89? The answer is that there was a basic agreement between the leadership of Solidarnosc and the Communist Party to move towards a “market democracy”. Additionally, the heirs of the Communist Party were occupying entirely the left area of the Parliament and were completely in favour of the “choc therapy”. There was no place for another left wing.

Long before 1989, the leadership of Solidarnosc – I refer particularly to Adam Michnik and Lech Walesa – was convinced that the country needed ultra-liberal economic reforms. For them, the greatest danger was represented by the class struggle and an independent and demanding trade union. I would like to quote what Walesa said in ’89: “We will not catch up to Europe if we build a strong trade union (…) We cannot have a strong trade union until we have a strong economy”. [2]

According to some analysts, including David Ost, the “round table” negotiations with the Communist Party in ’88-’89 was possible precisely for these reasons: Solidarnosc had preliminarily decided to commit suicide, abandoning its nature of trade union. I remember some conversation I had with representatives of Solidarnosc just before the ’89: many of them did not hesitate to sing the praises of the economic policy of Pinochet. That seemed to be the model. During the same period, I heard similar arguments concerning the “Chilean transition” in Hungary and in the Baltic countries. The Polish liberal élite is a child of Solidarnosc, albeit one thing must be said: Solidarnosc has many children, including the Kaczyński brothers.

I would like now to provide you with some data regarding the socio-economic situation in Poland.

Today, Poland is characterised – even in a period of economic growth – by a very high rate of inequality, widespread poverty and a serious lack of social protection. Less than a half of the working population has a stable employment, 27 per cent of the workforce is temporary (ten years ago the percentage was 15). 9 per cent of the young population under 18 lives in absolute poverty. 19 per cent of the active population works for paying, through its own income, social insurances, and only 16 per cent of them receive unemployment benefits. In the private sector, only 2 per cent of the working population is member of a trade union. The State has abandoned and practically liquidated key sectors (welfare, rail system, health care, postal services). What strikes me with regard to some Eastern European countries is the opinion that liberal élites have about trade union’s actions. These actions are from their point of view something to fear and hide, and never essential ingredients of an inclusive social system that need to be listened and integrated.

In this case too, the Union does not give any support: the welfare state is experiencing, even in the rest of Europe, the same process of dismantlement, and trade-union representatives are equally perceived as a hindrance. With regard to those States which joined Europe after the transition, the truth is that they acceded almost without any welfare system. In this context, far-right movements have been able to catalyse the anger caused by the austerity policies promoted from the beginning of the ’90, and to present themselves as the spokespersons of the most oppressed citizens.

The European Union appears to be concerned by this involution but – in my view – has actively contributed to the demolition and distortion of the social conflict, even favouring such distortion. The Union was itself the primary promoter of an idea of democracy bent exclusively to the free market, and the main conditions that the Union has created for the accession of new States were based, substantially, on neoliberal features. On one side it is true that Europe has demanded the respect of some rule of law’s criteria – the so-called Copenhagen criteria – in the process of accession but, on the other side, its concept of democracy was minimalistic, i.e. merely procedural.

All of this applies to some Eastern European countries which have been considered excellent pupils for implementing austerity policies.

Now, both the Commission and the President of the European Parliaments seem outraged by these developments, but they have done little to safeguard a European project including the social question and even the social conflict ad an essential ingredient of the project. Nor did they make the effort to abandon the false consciousness of an “ended history”. In other words, the victory of the far right in Poland and Hungary should not be considered an anomaly: “it is rather rooted in the practice and ideology that have dominated over the past quarter of a century”.[3]

The Union made also another mistake i.e. leaving the issue of peace and war in the hands – both from a conceptual perspective and partially in its management – of its front-line States, namely the Eastern and Baltic countries (the same happened during the Cold War with regard to the Federal Republic of Germany: it represented the bulwark of the West). Consequently, Hungary has chosen to strengthen the partnership with Russia while all other States have decided to place their trust more on the United States and NATO than on the European Union.

The above fragmentation originated from the continuous unwillingness of the Union to develop a real and coherent policy with regard to Russia; a policy aiming to become independent from the strategies adopted by the United Stated and NATO. This failure led to the revival, in the Eastern part of the new enlarged Union, of the “bulwark mentality” – in an anti-Russian perspective – which characterised the borderlands of the ancient Community during the Cold War period.

The recent request of the Polish government of establishing a permanent NATO and US troops’ presence in it’s own territory, to ward off security threats coming from Moscow, represents just the latest example in that sense.

I would like to conclude by recalling that in Poland there are left-wing forces which strongly oppose the policies adopted so far and criticise the far-right as well as the liberal élites who ruled the country in the last years. I am referring particularly to the Razem (“Together”) movement, which is inspired by Podemos. It is a small force, not even represented in the Parliament. It could be suitable to invite its representatives to a Group meeting, in order to give them the possibility to explain their positions and the situation in the country, and to support them if we consider this appropriate.

[1]. David Ost, Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe, Cornell University Press, 2006.

[2] Ibid. pp. 37, 53.

[3]  Cfr. Gavin Rae,

Viaggio nella giungla di Calais




Brussels 03/12/2015

GUE/NGL MEPs shocked at undignified conditions of refugees in Calais call on French government to provide adequate reception conditions urgently

GUE/NGL MEPs went to Calais on Tuesday 1st December to assess the situation in ‘the jungle’ refugee camp where around 4,500 refugees are currently living.  The delegation aimed to evaluate the situation on the ground in the camp in light of reports of appalling living conditions, rape, police violence and attacks from far-right extremists. The delegation met with NGOs and refugees on site. The visit was organised with the support of the local section of the French Communist Party (PCF).

The French state has been condemned for serious breaches of migrants’ rights not to be exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment by the Administrative Tribunal of Lille on 2nd November 2015, and reconfirmed by the State Council (conseil d’Etat) after an appeal by the Home Affairs Ministry which was denying French state responsibility. As a result, the court ordered the French state to carry out a census of all unaccompanied minors on the site within 48 hours and to provide within 8 days adequate sanitary conditions. Instead of improving the conditions, the French government has been putting its efforts into evacuating part of the jungle, notably by putting some refugees in detention centres. This practice has just been condemned on 2nd December by Adeline Hazan, head of the independent authority in France responsible for monitoring places of deprivation of liberties (contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté – CGLPL) who, in an 8-page document, calls on the government to end this practice that is a serious breach of the fundamental rights of the people in question (see: ).

French MEP, Marie-Christine Vergiat, said: “It was important for the GUE/NGL that a delegation came to Calais at a time when the number and situation of migrants is worsening. We have noted situations that are unworthy of a country like France: increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors and women, including young people with no protection. Hundreds of people who cannot apply for family reunification because Great Britain demanded an opt-out of the directive on this issue. We all noted that the situation in Calais is often worse than in most refugee camps outside the EU and subsequently we are not surprised that tensions arise when the response by the government authorities is limited to controls, arrests and even raids.”

Barbara Spinelli added: “France’s Council of State recently declared that the conditions in the Calais camp expose the migrants to inhuman or degrading treatment. We stand with the Court and NGOs’ pleas for adequate reception conditions right now, together with the facilitation of access to family reunification for the many refugees with family and friends in the UK. Seeing the inhuman conditions in the jungle in Calais, I felt shame and anger because this is not happening in an underdeveloped country, but in our comparatively affluent societies. We, as Europeans, are guilty of two crimes, at least: the failure in our duty of care, and the crime of indifference.”

“The worst part of this intolerable and unacceptable situation is the tremendous vulnerability of women and children in a place where more than 90% of the population are men. This means there is a huge risk of abuse and harassment against women and children, especially considering that all of them have been deprived previously of human justice and therefore anything can be expected; this is even worse in view of the fact that mafias operate and control the camp. I urge the French State and the European Union to follow the requirements of International Humanitarian Law to guarantee minimum living conditions for the refugees,” commented Angela Vallina.

Miguel Viegas continued: “This visit confirms the lack of political will to address this problem seriously. It also contradicts all the speeches and all the promises made in the framework of the European Commission’s action plan. The relocation plans are not advancing and aid for humanitarian work is not reaching places where thousands of people still live in dreadful conditions like here in Calais. We must demand a new approach to refugee policies taking into account the EU’s responsibilities in the existing chaos in countries such as Libya, Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. In contradiction to EU action based on repression and action to discourage the arrival of refugees escaping the war, we must demand policies based on two axes: the first to promote peace and development in conflict zones and the second based on effective support for refugees so that they find the peace and security that they do not find in their countries.”

For Miguel Urban, Podemos, who previously had the opportunity to witness the situation of people under forced mobility in Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia and Spain (Melilla), said: “The humanitarian situation of more than 4,000 people crammed into deplorable conditions in the Calais camp (dubbed the Jungle) shows how much the European Union and its member states have failed to implement effective solutions to the structural causes of the mass exodus of people from their places of origin, and in which Europe has a fundamental responsibility; on the contrary, by worsening the security approach and the repressive siege of these people rather than anticipating dignified reception conditions and integration, member states are aggravating the humanitarian catastrophe.”

“It is essential to denounce what is happening in the refugee camp in Calais. It is essential that European public opinion knows that at the heart of Europe, the human rights of thousands of people are being systematically violated. Society has to know that the French government and the European Union also are allowing this infamy. All rights for all people!” said Josu Juaristi.

Marisa Matias added: “What we have seen in Calais is not the Europe that we want. The European Union should assume its responsibilities for the consequences related to conflicts. It is not possible to live in these kinds of life conditions which are devoid of any European values. It’s important to come to these places and see how these people are living and not only speak about them, but especially speak with them. I urgently demand that we put a stop to this security-based logic and the criminalization of people who are fighting for a better life. European countries have the obligation to put the human life first and foremost and not the business of weapons and oil.”

Pictures of the delegations are available here:

Si veda anche:

La dignité, malgré tout, Liberté-Hebdo [ 1196 ] du 4 au 10 décembre 2015 (file .pdf)