Europe’s other legitimacy crisis

Published on openDemocracy, by Ivan Krastev, July 23, 2008.

Bulgaria is the newest, poorest and probably the worst governed member of the European Union. Its economy is growing, its politics is collapsing and its public is totally frustrated. Bulgaria is also the EU member-state where the public is the most sceptical that democracy is the best form of government, one where only 21% agree that the country is governed according to the will of the people …

… In general, what the commission is doing is an attempt to replace the politics of conditionality (the famous “Brussels carrot”) with the politics of pressure (a “Brussels sandwich”) – where corrupt governments find themselves pressed between angry publics and an uncompromising commission. Anti-corruption, in this perspective, turns out to be the common language and concern shared by the public and the commission.

This is a promising change in the commission’s new strategy, but there are three major risks on the road. The first and most obvious one is that finding itself in the corner, the Bulgarian government will use all its resources not to fight corruption but to fight the commission, by mobilising nationalist sentiments among the public. This strategy does not work for the moment, but the situation can change. Today only 16% of the Bulgaria public claims that how government governs is not Brussels’s business. But who to blame for the lost money from the EU funds will be one of the key questions in Bulgarian politics in the coming years.

The second and more profound risk is to underestimate the fact that the Brussels sandwich assumes the coexistence of a sick government and a healthy society – while what is in crisis in Bulgaria is not simply post-communist regimes but post-communist societies. Bulgaria suffers not just from an incompetent and corrupt government but also from lack of administrative capacity and civic energy. The opposition, while active in exposing government’s corruption, is weak in suggesting clear alternatives. Bulgarian society displays symptoms of what the political anthropologist Edward Banfield has defined as “amoral familism” – the behaviour that maximises the material, short-term advantage of the nuclear family, assuming that all others will do likewise. It has repeatedly failed in its efforts to pursue public interest and self-organisation.

The third and most surprising risk is that making corruption the central issue in Brussels’s strategy can also backfire. In my book Shifting Obsessions Three essays in the Politics of Anti-Corruption (Central European University Press, 2004) I tried to demonstrate that anti-corruption campaigns in east-central Europe are doomed to fail. They contribute to the delegitimation of political elites and public institutions. Even non-corrupt governments do not have incentives to start anti-corruption campaigns because they do not have opportunities to convince publics that they are successful in curbing graft and corruption. Moreover, at the sharp end of the boomerang is the fact that anti-corruption accusations can be a deadly weapon in dirty political wars. It is sad but true that for many in Bulgaria the best definition of corruption is “other people’s networks”.

The catalyst of change:

Bulgaria and Ireland illustrate the twin challenge that the European Union faces today. They demonstrate the twin nature of the EU’s legitimacy crisis. In the western part of the continent, national publics are questioning the legitimacy of EU institutions and protesting against the democratic deficit in the union. In the eastern part of the continent, national publics tend to trust EU institutions more than their own institutions and to demand a more interventionist commission. What bothers Bulgarians is not the democratic deficit of the commission but the rule-binding deficit in Bulgarian government. It is not easy to address these two different concerns at the same time. Donald Rumsfeld can turn out to be right in the end: there are two Europes – “the old Europe” that is mistrustful of the commission’s interventionism in national politics and the “new Europe” that is demanding such an interventionism.

For the moment the European debate is preoccupied with the democratic deficit of European Union interventionism – the Irish challenge. But the Bulgarian challenge – the other legitimacy crisis – can turn to be a tougher one. The European commission can be the catalyst for change but it cannot bring the change on its own. The Bulgarian challenge should not be neglected. (full text).

Comments are closed.