One of the books I am most looking forward to reading at the moment is Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, which is now sitting rather reproachfully on my bookshelf. Reading this interview in the Toronto Star makes me only keener to get started (despite the interviewer’s curious and rather sweeping generalization about “ the vicious and chaotic capitalism that had beset pre-war Europe”) but this part of the exchange caught my attention:
Q: What were the lingering effects of those decades of repression?
A: There’s a paranoid strain in politics that does come from the memory of somebody following you. In particular, there’s a memory of a secret cabal of people who control you on behalf of a foreign country. That means there is a strain of xenophobia that comes in different forms — anti-European, anti-foreigner. It isn’t dominant, but it’s there. There is also a feeling that in some ways, the state isn’t “ours.” There are people up there doing something we can’t influence, making decisions that harm or manipulate us.
I have no doubt that the memory of those terrible years of Soviet occupation is one of the reasons that the nations of Eastern Europe were (understandably, and quite reasonably) so keen to join the EU.
But the EU has continued to evolve, and, as things stand now, I can think of no better institution to stimulate feelings of alienation such as these:
“A feeling that the state isn’t “ours”.
“There are people up there doing something we can’t influence…”
And which prominent East-Central European said this a few years back?
The present decision making system of the European Union is different from a classic parliamentary democracy, tested and proven by history. In a normal parliamentary system, part of the MPs support the government and part support the opposition. In the European parliament, this arrangement has been missing. Here, only one single alternative is being promoted and those who dare thinking about a different option are labelled as enemies of the European integration. Not so long ago, in our part of Europe we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition. It was through this experience that we learned the bitter lesson that with no opposition, there is no freedom. That is why political alternatives must exist.
And not only that. The relationship between a citizen of one or another member state and a representative of the Union is not a standard relationship between a voter and a politician, representing him or her. There is also a great distance (not only in a geographical sense) between citizens and Union representatives, which is much greater than it is the case inside the member countries. This distance is often described as the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision making of the unelected – but selected – ones, as bureaucratisation of decision making etc. The proposals to change the current state of affairs – included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not much different Lisbon Treaty – would make this defect even worse.
Since there is no European demos – and no European nation – this defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European parliament either.
Václav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, that’s who.
It was true then, and it’s true now.