The following is the second in a series of articles on democracy. The first article, on the Arab Spring, can be found here.
Those who believe that the European Union is bad for democracy are perhaps not taking into account all of its achievements. They need to take a closer look.
Let me start by declaring my hand and saying that I am a Eurosceptic. I am sceptical about the EU because I have always believed that any attempt to create a monetary union without a political union would be doomed to failure. The events of the past several years, and in particular the crisis in the Eurozone, have virtually condemned some of the bloc’s economies, such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, known in some circles as the PIGS, to long term economic stagnation.
There is also a democratic deficit in Europe brought about by the increasing centralisation of power in Brussels in an era when most people believe that better democracy requires greater devolution not more centralisation.
However, to focus on the above issues alone would do great disservice to the very amazing achievements of the EU in both maintaining the peace and extending the boundaries of democracy in Western, Central and Eastern Europe.
The European Coal and Steel Community
The forerunner of the EU was the European Coal and Steel Community or ECSC. It was formed in 1952 after Europeans had once again fought each other in another war, something which they had done with great propensity and great alacrity, throughout their recorded history. However, such was the ghastliness and horror of that war, the one we all know as World War II, that the nations of Europe decided that the best way to avoid future wars was to bind their economies together.
In the words of then French foreign minister Robert Schuman, this integration of the economies of Europe would “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”.
The rationale for forming this bloc was very simple. Most wars were fought over the control of and access to raw materials. In the industrialised world of the early to mid 20th century the measure of a country’s economic power, and thus by definition its capacity to make war, was determined by its output of coal and steel as these were the primary raw materials and thus the drivers of industrialisation. Once these assets were shared or made freely available under the terms of trade, then in theory at least this would obviate the need for war.
The EU And The Evolution Of Democracy in Europe
The ECSC was started by six nation—West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Since its early beginnings the EU has grown to 28 member states. Those critical of the EU say that it has become too large and unwieldy—and indeed there is some merit to that assertion. However, said assertion fails to give due recognition to the role the EU has played in evolving and moulding democracy and maintaining the peace in Europe.
The EU made the adoption of democratic principles and democratic government a prerequisite for membership, to what has been seen by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in particular as a wealthy members club. By combining access to the single market and the promise of development aid, the EU has seduced and in some ways bribed many countries into taking up their democratic offer. Moreover, the promise of an EU passport has provided the aspiring populations of Central and Eastern European nations with both the motivation and the leverage to force their governments into making the necessary changes.
The history and the circumstance of each individual EU membership tells its own st
Greece, Portugal and Spain were motivated to end their military dictatorships in favour of EU membership.
The former members of the, the military alliance with the Soviet Union which was known as the Warsaw Pact—Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary—have all thrown their communist past behind them and opted for democracy.
Similarly, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, collectively known as the Baltic States and which were annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, have also thrown away their communist past, largely ignored Russia and joined the EU.
How The EU Forces Even Non Members To Behave More Democratically
However, to really understand the impact of the EU on democracy throughout Europe one has to look at the behaviour of countries which are not yet members.
Despite NATO’s bombing of Serbia for its alleged atrocities in Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic remained in power and his country in diplomatic isolation because of its actions in the former Yugoslavia. However, in 2000 the movement for democracy achieved what all of NATO’s bombs could not—it overthrew Milosevic. Serbia is now a candidate member of the EU.
Turkey is an especially interesting case in that its attempts to join the EU has been frustrated for any number of reasons—some of which in the opinion of this blog are tantamount to racism and Islamophobia. Yet, there is no doubt that the quest for EU membership has had a significant impact on Turkey’s move towards democracy. The military no longer interferes as and when it feels, the judicial system has been substantially reformed and there is now a greater respect for minority rights.
The fact that there is now a genuine ceasefire between the Turkish army and Kurdish fighters is due in no small part to Turkey’s quest for EU membership. This is why, even with the economic debacle in the Eurozone, countries are still lining up to join the EU.
The EU as a force for peace and prosperity in Europe has not been properly recognised by its detractors. If it’s near abroad had been allowed to collapse into dictatorship and bad governance it would have had a very negative impact on the stability of Western Europe.
However, if you really want to know just how good the EU has been for democracy in Europe then one only has to look at the impact of Russia on its near abroad and America in its Latin American backyard.
Russia’s Near Abroad
By anyone’s standards, except perhaps those of Putin and the Kremlin, Russia’s democracy is in a parlous state. The state of democracy in Russia’s near abroad is even worse.
Kazakhstan has had the same leader; a holdover from the Soviet era, since 1990 and the country has a very low ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index or CPI.
Belarus, Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan are all either dictatorships or struggling to establish some semblance of genuinely representative government. The lack of proper democracy and accountability explains why these countries all rank very low in terms their CPI.
While the histories of the Russian Empire and Central Asia do have an impact on how democracy in these countries has evolved, there is no question that if Russia, the dominant power in the region, was more democratic, then the others would have followed its example.
Europeans tore themselves and their continent apart in the early part of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, the EU used their soft power in the form of free trade and developments grants to create and sustain democracies in first Western and then Central and Eastern Europe. Ironically, their task would have been much more difficult and indeed almost impossible without American intervention—both military and economic.
In contrast, American behaviour and more specifically its exercise of imperial power served to suppress and inhibit the growth of democracy in its Latin American backyard for a very long time.
For example, the duly elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, was overthrown, along with his government, by a CIA orchestrated coup in 1954. The given reason was that Guzman and his colleagues had turned to communism. The real reason was that Guzman had upset powerful American interests by nationalising the United Fruit Company.
The American fight against real or imagined communists was to result in decades of destabilisation in Guatemala. That destabilisation spread to countries such as Colombia, Honduras and El Salvador. The echoes of those Latin American conflicts remain with us today even as Latin America lumbers towards establishing democracy as the norm.
There is more.
In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the US supported Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista—the final moments of which were dramatically portrayed in the movie Godfather II. The repressive and murderous Batista regime had allowed the American mafia to control hotels, gambling, drugs and prostitution rackets in Cuba—this was also depicted in Godfather II. Many felt that if America had been less tolerant of Batista and more supportive of Castro when he came to power, then democracy might have prevailed in Havana.
In Nicaragua, the Somoza family ruled with an iron fist for decades. When someone suggested to President FD Roosevelt that Somoza was truly awful Roosevelt was said to have responded; “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. Somoza was overthrown in 1979 by the communist Sandinista movement.
I have some very interesting and personal memories of that event. I was visiting Cuba at the time as part of a Jamaican delegation participating in the Caribbean Festival of Arts or Carifesta, in 1979. I distinctly remember the crowds in Cuba going wild when they learned that their Nicaraguan comrades had overthrown the hated dictator.
Then of course there was the CIA supported coup in Chile which overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende because as you have rightly guessed, it was deemed to be communist. What followed was the fascist and murderous regime of General Pinochet which was in fact supported by the US.
Whatever we may think of people like Castro and Chavez the truth is they are products of America’s policies in the region—most notably the failure to support democracy.
When compared to Russia and the US, the EU has been exceptional at facilitating the growth and development of democracy in its near abroad and with it the peace and stability of both old and new Europe.
The failure of the America, the world’s leading exponent of democracy, to nurture democracy in its own backyard is of particular interest. We shall explore this and other aspects of American politics and its democracy in our next article.
Jonathan Ledwidge is the author of the books A Mannequin for President and Clearing The Bull, The Financial Crisis And Why Banks Need A Human Transformation.