Larry Siedentop: Bureaucratic despotism

“Democratic legitimacy in Europe is at risk.”


Larry Siedentop is a political scientist and historian. Born in Chicago in 1936, he studied at Harvard and Oxford, where he also spent most of his academic career as a lecturer and a fellow at Keble College. Siedentop is the author of Democracy in Europe, a book on the political problems of the EU, hailed by Denis MacShane as “at last, a proper book on Europe”. Having retired from academia, Siedentop occasionally writes for the Financial Times, The Independent and other papers.

“Democratic legitimacy in Europe is at risk,” reads the first sentence of Siedentop’s 2000 book, Democracy in Europe. Though it comes from one of the most ferocious critics of the EU’s democratic structures, the book does not reflect the current typical British approach to Europe.

Siedentop’s analysis is based on the (weakly argued) assumption that the EU is in the process of turning into a state. A biographer of Alexis de Tocqueville, Siedentop alludes to the French critic of the American political system both in the book’s title and in its construction. His work, however, unlike de Tocqueville’s, is slim on empirical evidence and observation. Siedentop sees European integration, through the single market and the euro, as having evolved too far too quickly and observes not only a “rapid accumulation of power in Brussels” but the emergence of “bureaucratic despotism”. The European project, he argues, is under threat.

“For European integration raises the question of whether it is possible to create a democratic political class or élite across Europe. If not, the future looks bleak. In the absence of such an élite or political class, democracy in Europe will become a mere façade for bureaucratic rule from the centre or, worse still, for a plebiscitary and potentially demagogic form of politics. For let us be honest with ourselves. European federalism could lead to ugly reactions within member states, perhaps even to new forms of Caesarism.”

What we have now is not a European democratic political class but an unaccountable bureaucratic elite, claims Siedentop. The “de facto accumulation of power in Brussels”, he says, is evidence that the “bureaucratic” French model of the state is winning against the federalist German and the precedent- and custom-based British models.

“The peril is real. If the idea of Europe becomes associated primarily with the arrogance of unaccountable élites, the prospects for Europe are bleaker than they have been since 1945. For then the idea of Europe will divide rather than unite. It will divide nations within themselves and may even set nations against each other.”

Siedentop’s solution is a US-type written constitution that clearly defines the rights and responsibilities of the EU and the member states. There is still a long way to go, Siedentop acknowledges. Functional federal institutions, as he sees it, require a common religion (Christianity), a common language (English) and a shared legal culture (which can take root when lawyers are afforded a greater role in the political system). The establishment of a Senate – composed of representatives elected by the national and regional parliaments of the member states – would also help. Representative democracy in Europe means “the dispersal of authority, checks and balances and significant local autonomy.” Without it,

“We then find ourselves back facing Montesquieu’s risk – the risk that a central agency can draw all power to itself by playing off one region against another, one group or culture against another. In the absence of a common language, a widely shared political culture and a coherent political class … the danger of European federalism subsiding into a bureaucratic form of the state should never be underestimated. Whether such a tyranny could long survive, or would itself break up in a contentious and perhaps even violent way, is another matter.”

Siedentop has drawn the scorn of fellow academics for allegedly misrepresenting the EU’s history and turning a deaf ear to the existing debate on the legitimacy of the EU’s constitutional structure. “Siedentop’s most fundamental error”, Andrew Moravcsik maintains, “is his assumption that the EU is a nation-state in the making and therefore ought to be held to the same democratic standards as its member states.”

One of Siedentop’s arguments, however, if one cuts the drama and the doomsday scenarios, finds more support. It is his observation of a European public feeling out of touch with the elites.

“[Throughout Europe] public opinion, dazed by the speed with which monetary union is being imposed, and uncertain about its implications, has a growing sense that the élites of Europe have left public opinion far behind in the pursuit of this new project – and that power in Europe will be centralized, whether the peoples of Europe want it or not. A new kind of historicism or doctrine of historical inevitability has thus been born.

That is why the idealism associated with European construction during much of the post-war period is now draining away.”

This issue is addressed in more detail by other authors, including most recently by Simon Hix. Others, however, including Moravcsik and Giandomenico Majone, take a diametrically opposed position on the subject.

11 March 2010