Sometimes faces become symbols of the anonymous forces behind them. Was not the stupidly smiling face of Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem the symbol of the European Union’s brutal pressure on Greece? Recently, the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP)—the European cousin of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—acquired a new symbol: the cold face of E.U. trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who responded to massive public opposition to TTIP this way: “I do not take my mandate from the European people.”
Now a third such symbol has emerged: Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, who, on Dec. 23, 2015, scolded the Polish government for adopting a new law that subordinates Poland’s constitutional court to the authority of government. Timmermans also condemned the law that allows the Polish parliament to replace all executives at the country’s public television and radio companies. In an immediate rebuke, Polish nationalists warned Brussels “to exercise more restraint in instructing and cautioning the parliament and the government of a sovereign and democratic state.”
From the standard left-liberal view, it is inappropriate to put these three names into the same series: Dijsselbloem and Malmström personify the pressure of the Brussels bureaucrats (without democratic legitimization) on democratically elected governments, while Timmermans intervened to protect basic democratic institutions (judicial independence and a free press). It may appear obscene to compare the brutal neoliberal pressure on Greece with the justified criticism of Poland, but did the Polish government’s reaction not hit the mark? Timmermans did indeed pressure a democratically elected government of a sovereign state.
Recently, when I was answering questions from the readers of Süddeutsche Zeitung about the refugee crisis, the question that attracted the most attention concerned democracy—but with a right-wing populist twist. When Angela Merkel famously invited hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, what gave her the right? My point here is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to point out the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate the radical opening of the borders: Are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals a suspension of democracy—in other words, that a gigantic change should be allowed without democratic consultation?
We encounter here the old dilemma: What happens to democracy if the majority is inclined to vote for racist and sexist laws?
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on April 29th, 2016. (full text).]