“Rulers who destroy men's freedom commonly begin by trying to retain its forms. ... They cherish the illusion that they can combine the prerogatives of absolute power with the moral authority that comes from popular assent.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘L’ancien regime et la revolution française’
Alphen, Netherlands. 9 February. In 1964 Juan Linz identified four strands of authoritarianism – limited political plurality, elite political establishments who see their own entrenched power as a necessary evil, the equally ‘necessary’ suppression of political opponents, and informally defined executive power. Let me re-define Linz to explain the steady emergence of what I call soft authoritarianism and the slow death of democracy in Europe: the emergence of an ancien regime elite European political Caste; the ignoring of the people; and the erosion by the EU of sovereign democracy as power is concentrated ever more in the hands of a distant, unelected elite Establishment in the name of ‘ordnung’.
In Europe today people get to vote a lot, but they always end up with the same elites pretty much making the same decisions for the same reasons. The reason is well-established; entrenched political elites cite Europe’s violent history as legitimisation of themselves as a necessary evil against so-called ‘populist’ revolts. Political opposition to such elitism is not so much suppressed, but ignored. As the gap between leaders and led emerges a Europe-wide political and bureaucratic elite cast is forming that ascribes to itself informal and yet ill-defined powers to ‘do what is best for the people’.
The Caste talks the language of democracy even as it suborns it. It even has its own ‘enforcement agency’ in the form of the European Commission, complete with a rubber-stamping European Parliament that ‘legitimise’ the transfer of power from the people to a distant elite. The caste talks to itself rather than to the people who legitimise it. They cite the will of the people when the ‘people’ seem to agree with them, and yet justify any unwillingness to listen to the self-same ‘people’ when they do not act as an inability to act, having passed much of the people’s sovereignty to unelected Brussels.
The news this week that yet another ‘GroKo’, or Grosse Koalition has been agreed in Germany may be the sign of European ‘democracy’ to come; whomsoever the German people vote for they end up with the same government. It would be easy to argue, as Chancellor Merkel and Martin Schulz no doubt will, that they are acting in the national interest and that Groko enjoys Tocqueville’s “popular assent”. They will also no doubt argue and that the combined vote for the CDU and SPD represents an absolute majority. This is, of course, nonsense because most of their respective voters voted to keep one or the other out of government. Political pluralism is clearly in retreat in Germany.
Defenders of GroKo will again suggest that the circumstances are unique, those seeking to justify power always do, and that whilst now a long-term political phenomenon (since 2005 there has only been four years without a Merkel-led GroKo) it is a temporary political fix. However, that begs the question, temporary fix for what? Liberal democracy cannot function if the elite political Establishment effectively kills opposition, which is clearly what is happening in Germany. Rather, the elite political Establishment in Berlin, uncomfortable with critical opposition, is entrenching its power. Merkel is justifying such soft authoritarianism by claiming the liberal state is under attack from ‘populists’ in the form of the Alternative fȕr Deutschland. Tocqueville’s warning personified.
The response to ‘populism’ is fast becoming the leitmotif for soft authoritarianism. In Europe, the term ‘populist’ is bandied around by leaders to imply a link to Fascism and/or Nazism. There can be no doubt that within the ranks of so-called ‘populists’ there are, indeed, some very nasty individuals. However, the elite political Establishment definition of ‘populism’ seems now to be morphing to encompass anyone who criticises the Europe-wide elite failure to deal with a range of big issues which affect the daily lives of millions of citizens, decent citizens at that. This is dangerous political turf.
Nor is soft authoritarianism confined to Germany. Here in the Netherlands, the Dutch Government is proposing an end to the right to hold referenda on specific issues if a sufficient number of citizens call for one. This move from The Hague has all the hallmarks of a being a ‘directive’ from the very unelected and very counter-democratic Caste that is the European Commission. In April 2014 the Dutch people voted in a referendum to reject the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement by 61% to 39%, albeit on a turnout of 32%. This ‘decision’ deeply embarrassed the Dutch Government in its dealings with Brussels. As ever with such votes the Dutch Government ‘worked with’ Brussels to find some meaningless language to justify ignoring the popular vote and thus to over-turn its consequences.
The same soft authoritarian method is now being applied to Britain with much of the elite political Establishment (within Britain and without) now leading a full-on assault on the June 2016 popular decision to quit the EU. What was offered to the British people as a one-off, binding, ‘in-out’ vote by then Prime Minister David Cameron is mysteriously morphing by the day into a mere ‘advisory’ vote. In an act of blatant, full-on authoritarianism this week the European Commission leaked a paper in which it set out a series of punishments it wishes to impose on Britain during a planned ‘transition’, including the possible grounding of flights between Britain and the EU. Having read the paper I am very close to switching my allegiance from Remain to Leave. No-one who attacks my country in this dictatorial and arrogant manner has the right to my support, however meaningless my support is becoming.
The paradox of soft authoritarianism is that its bias is decidedly liberal. Its defining impulse is to preserve vulnerable ‘liberal’ gains at the heart of the European idea from nationalists and worse. However, by adopting such an illiberal method to defend liberalism the very idea of a liberal Europe is being torn apart. Consequently, elite political and bureaucratic Establishments in Europe are fast turning into a self-serving, self-justifying political caste, the very thing that Tocqueville wrote about and the fall of which precipitated the French Revolution.
However well-intentioned Europe’s elite political Establishment might be, and I will grant that most of them (not all) are indeed well-intentioned, sacrificing democracy in the name of elite-imposed ‘ordnung’ is not the way forward for ‘Europe’ or its states. Rather, popular sovereignty has to be re-embraced. Such elites must learn again to speak to the people to make their case. There may well be places and times when the people revolt, such as Brexit. At such times the sovereign will of the people must be respected. Why? First, because in a sovereign democracy the people cannot be wrong. Second, because contrary to the growing belief of much of Europe’s elite political Caste the people are not so stupid that they need protecting from themselves. Most European citizens can be trusted with power if they see they are being well-led.
The issue of good leadership goes to the heart of soft authoritarianism in Europe. Europeans have not been well-led over the past twenty years and soft authoritarianism has become the preserve of failed leaders who want to protect themselves from the legitimate anger of the peoples they have failed.
If the elite political Caste in Europe do not up their game and soon it is they who will kill democracy in Europe, not the populists who rarely represent more than a fraction of the population. And, they will be damned for it.