Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A fun-free farce?

As European citizens demonstrate their addiction to television song contests, their apathy in elections can be explained by the democratic deficit of EU institutions, writes Chronis Polychroniou*

The Eurovision Song Contest, pop's music biggest extravaganza and a kind of cultural Chernobyl, is a wildly popular event and testimony of the dominance of mass culture in the age of globalisation.

With its overriding emphasis on effect and standardisation, the Eurovision contest reflects the thoughtlessness, or perhaps the contents of the thoughts, of a consumer society whose members take pleasure in meaningless diversion and seek, consciously or unconsciously, to escape from the burden of individual freedom and social praxis by choosing docility and contentment.

As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno brilliantly argued more than half a century ago, the true power of the culture industry is to eliminate critical potential and to convert citizens into members of a complacent and passive public. However, even he underestimated the extent to which a good portion of the public now accepts and eagerly identifies with the banality of mass culture.

The elections to the European Parliament, which this year took place between 4 and 7 June, are held every five years and represent the largest transnational direct elections ever held. They are the opposite of the Eurovision contest: colourless and dull, they are characterised by low turnouts, and voters use them either to punish or to protest against the policies of their national governments. Indicative of the way voters use the elections to the European Parliament is the fact that marginal political parties, including anti-European Union parties, usually fare better in European elections than they do in national elections.

This is all pretty natural. European Union institutions in Brussels are highly bureaucratic, EU representatives are far removed from people's needs, and the European decision-making process lacks democratic legitimacy. Agreements reached at the EU level, which EU member states are then required to adopt, become laws without the approval of nationally elected institutions. Further testimony of the undemocratic nature of the EU is the fact that "no" votes in referendums are treated as aberrations, and only "yes" votes are regarded as binding.

The European Union is a treaty-based organisation that was set up after World War II as a means of putting an end to the favourite practice of Europeans: sorting out their national differences by engaging in bloody warfare. Securing peace through the formation of a Common Market (which led eventually to economic union) has been an experiment that has produced remarkable results: Europe has experienced its longest period of peace since the end of World War II, and war among European member states now seems highly unlikely.

Of course, the absence of war among European nations in the post- war era and the historic developments towards European integration that have led to the formation of today's European Union point in the direction of a correlation rather than a causal relation between the two variables. The nature and structure of the world system that emerged in the post-war era, with the US taking the reins of global power, NATO coming into existence, and the presence of nuclear weapons, have all substantially reduced prospects of renewed warfare among Europe's traditional foes. Perhaps there is even something to be said about the deep and profound impact that World War II must have had on the consciousness of European leaders and public alike.

The European experiment in integration -- from the European Economic Community to today's EU -- has also made a difference to the economic and social development of European member states, including those at the periphery of the European economy.

However, the type of Europeanisation that has been designed and implemented since the signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty -- in other words, the process of creating European rules that are then imposed on national politics and policy-making -- has operated on the basis of a highly centralised and largely unaccountable power structure alien to the vision of a democratic Europe. This has had, and is having, detrimental effects upon the ability of national governments to address the specific needs of their own economies and societies effectively, as the current global economic crisis so bluntly attests.

Furthermore, given the vast socio-economic and cultural differences that exist within the EU, Europeanisation also exerts different pressures on EU member states, and its impact varies considerably. Advanced economies are not only able to make an easier adjustment to the pressures of Europeanisation than are peripheral economies, but they can also offer political and institutional responses that can shift policy in an advantageous direction relative to their own interests.

As things stand, the EU today faces a serious democratic deficit and one that is widely accepted as such by a majority of European citizens. In the light of this, it is little wonder that the elections to the European Parliament have been met by such apathy. Europe's citizens seem to be aware that the European elections are largely a farce. But they are a farce that, unlike the Eurovision contest, have no fun associated with them.

* The writer holds a PhD in political science and has taught in universities in the United States and Greece.

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