Saturday 7 February 2009

Democratic Republicanism... and the EU

It seems politics is back with a capital 'P' in Britain.

All this talk of democratic republicanism almost makes me want to dig out and dust off my undergraduate notes on Political Theory (Susan Hurley, RIP).

And what is particularly striking for me is that this new progressive political terrain is being mapped-out and contested not only by fellow Fabians, in all our pluralist pomp, but by the new folks to have moved into my thinktank alma mater, Demos. (Can't imagine many more will make that particular wonky transition in the post-'poison well' era.)

Clearly Stuart has done fantastic work in sign-posting the virtues of a democratic republican future for the British Left, and Sunder in reminding us not to lose the egalitarian mission of the State in all the excitement. But in thinking through Britian's 'Next Left', we must be careful not to forget Europe.

The great intersecting and overlapping traditions of philosophical thought to which Stuart White, and Philip Blond, reach (including the likes of Rousseau, Harrington, Paine and Burke) can all tell us something about the future of progressive politics in the UK. But, I would argue, only up to a point.

Most of these figures, and many of those later following in Rawlsian footsteps, are concerned with normative political philosophy in the context of a form of the (nation-, or city-) state. In the context, in any case, of a largely territorially-defined and delimited, single and coherent political community. Is it fair to say that the task of such thinkers has been to define the nature of 'the good State'?

But our social and political reality in the UK today, and across the EU, is rather different, and messier. We must problematise our conception of the State (I can almost hear Sunder wince at the post-modernist inference), and think instead in the context of the multilevel political system of the EU. This is the context today within which our politics takes place. It needs to become the context for our Politics too.

Now, this is no easy task. It is something I called for (to who? you might justifiably ask) in a paper I wrote at the end of my Masters course in European politics, in which I made a rough first stab, and found it pretty tough going (though Loukas Tsoukalis liked it). I think in this context a starting point might be to think through how the principles of democratic republicanism Stuart set out recently might apply to the multiple layers of European governance.

And one thing that will soon become clear, is that not all of them do apply. But first, some that might.

I reckon the EU already has a pretty good claim to number 6 in Stuart's list - 'liberty and non-domination'. The EU as source of anti-discrimination legislation has effectively removed barriers to citizens, for example, to people with disabilities across the EU. Not all of them, surely, but it saw the end to the inaccessible Routemaster bus, placed a duty on all public buildings to think about how people use them, and so on.

I argued in that paper that we could apply Elizabeth Anderson's conception of 'democratic egalitarianism' to the EU in this context - an equality defined as one in which people have an equal opportunity to participate in a democratic society, rather than one in which groups are compensated for the effects of bad brute luck - as a first step in bringing some normative political thought to the EU's politics.

(And although it didn't make Stuart's main list, there's no hereditary EU monarch, either.)

So what about the areas where the principles don't seem to apply. I think these can serve as a powerful challenge to how we think and talk about the EU.

Number 2 in the list, 'democracy's moral ends', could serve to underpin calls for a revived social Europe, as the best way to pursue the collective good in today's Europe.

Numbers 1 and 6 are tough ones for the EU today - 'popular sovereignty' and 'participatory democracy'. But the message that the EU must find ways to engage its citizens in its processes that have such fundamental impacts on their lives is hardly new. The difference is that it is usually dressed up in some limp talk about a 'democratic deficit', or else as the only way to keep the whole European single market project going. Nothing I have read on the subject embeds such calls in a comprehensive Political Theory of the EU.

We might accept that some of the principles can't or shouldn't be realised through EU systems of governance. 'Economic egalitarianism', as I argued in that same paper, is probably best left to member states to take care of. It would take a brave political philosopher to argue for fiscal redistributive transfers at an EU level on the scale we currently see in member states.

But that should be the essence of democratic republican multilevel governance. (We might need to call it something else, I agree.)

If we could develop a version of the democratic republican argument that included an account of the relationship we wanted as citizens and member states with the EU, we'd lay another challenge at the door of the Red Tories. I think we can and should show that the realisation of democratic republican principles, that they may claim to support, can only be achieved not just by rethinking the nature of the modern state, but by thinking outside and beyond it. I'd like to hear Dave Cameron speak at an event on that.

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