Democratic legitimacy

Prime Minister José Sócrates resigned a few days ago right after the Portuguese Parliament rejected his austerity plans. As a result, new elections will be held in June. Sócrates’s resignation has provoked the last institutional turmoil in Europe: Portugal has finally given up. As the austerity plan did not go trough, the executive decided to announce that Portugal needs external assistance. It thereby became the third country to fall, after Greece and Ireland.

As in the previous two cases, the €80-100 billion worth bail-out is raising questions of political legitimacy. It really looks paradoxical that the international recovery plan will impose the very same measures the Parliament has already rejected, if not tougher ones. The European Commission, nonetheless, has clearly affirmed that there is no time to discuss the democratic legitimacy of the process. The current acting government, and the one that will emerge from the coming elections, will be bound by the austerity programme established by the EU and the international financial institutions. In this context, it seems very legitimate to wonder what’s the point in holding national elections in a couple of months. The EU-sponsored programme will prevent political parties from presenting diverging policies: from now on (for how long?), the Portuguese economic policy will be adopted in Brussels (and, for that matter, in Berlin, Paris, London…). The best case scenario consists in political elections that leave all economic (and, consequently, social) policies aside, something rather awkward for a country in huge economic trouble. The worst case scenario would be that political candidates feel tempted to resort to populism and confuse the electorate promising policies (a radical opposition to the EU-led programme, for instance) they couldn´t possibly deliver should they be trusted with power.

In the meantime, Iceland carries on with its own battle. In a referendum held last Saturday, Icelanders rejected for the second time the ‘Icesave deal’. Against the opinion defended by the Icelandic executive, the majority of the voters asserted one more time that they are not willing to pay the debt of the bankers. These sovereign statement has provoked the anger of the Governments of the UK and Netherlands, the creditors of the agreement. This attitude seriously hampers the accession of Iceland to the EU, something Icelanders don´t seem to be very worried about, particularly when they currently feel they are doing better than several EU States. Icelanders are committed to deal with this crisis in their own particular way, something Portuguese, Greeks and Irish are not allowed to do, precisely due to their condition of Member States of the EU.

Let’s move to another country: the United Kingdom. The UK government takes every opportunity to generate fears among the population pointing at Portugal as the scary future for Britain if the spending-cuts were not in place. Yet, the case of the UK brings about another interesting dimension of the attractiveness of the idea of ‘democratic legitimacy’. There is a debate going on in Britain about the acceptance of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. This issue is not at all new but it is particularly visible these days. The new episode began with the critique of the Strasbourg-based Court for the general ban on prisoners voting. (See further information and analysis in UK Human Rights Blog). Last February, in a non-biding vote at Westminster Parliament, a vast majority of MPs openly defied the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Some analysts even claim that the UK should repudiate the jurisdiction of the European Court and even quit the Council of Europe (and possibly the European Union as well).

The argument used by those who oppose the jurisdiction of the European Court is that nobody can question the supremacy of the Parliament. The same reference to democratic legitimacy Portugal cannot resort to. The Portuguese economy is now a matter of European interest; the situation of human rights in Britain, apparently not. It seems interesting to me that while the argument of democratic legitimacy is not deemed admissible if it challenges the rule of the market, it is perfectly valid regarding the protection of human rights.

Koldo Casla

(Photo: Acting Prime Minister Sócrates in Brussels last week; Source: Europa Press)


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