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Gary Younge
Compared to Europe, the US can at least make a pretence of democracy

For a candidate who ­campaigned on the ­slogan of change, Barack Obama's devotion to continuity has been little short of remarkable. The two principal issues that underpinned his election victory in 2008 were the economy and the war in Iraq. In both instances, he kept the people George Bush had selected to execute failing policies and instructed them to create success. The electoral map and America's image in the world were indeed changed by Obama's victory. But the key personnel – US defence secretary Robert Gates and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke – remained exactly the same.

Shortly before Christmas this strategy seemed on the verge of coming unstuck when Democrats and Republicans threatened to derail the nomination of Bernanke to his second term. Democratic senator Jeff Merkley argued that while the Fed chairman had "shown himself to be quite adroit with the fire hose", he was also among those responsible for the fire. "For many years I held the Federal Reserve in very high regard," said Republican senator Richard Shelby. "I fear now, however, that our trust and confidence were misplaced." It took Obama's intervention to rescue the nomination and secure a comfortable victory for Bernanke on the Senate floor.

The fact that there was much populist grandstanding in all of this should go without saying. Nor is that necessarily a bad thing. This is politics in a democracy. Elected officials have to explain themselves to the voters. This was their chance to make a man who gave billions of public money to bankers, and makes decisions that directly affect their constituents' livelihoods, accountable for his actions. At the very least, he should have been fighting for his job. In a more just world, he would have been fired.

In this most crucial of ways, America's old and at times creaky system of governance is far superior to the European Union's newer one. For in the US there is at least the pretension to democratic control over the economy. One would not want to overexaggerate the case. At the end of the day, the bankers and speculators are in charge on both sides of the Atlantic. When it comes to making enemies, Obama clearly feels he has more to fear from the markets than he does from the electorate.

But even in its limited scope the case is worth making. For the issue here is not the outcome but the process. In the US the public has the power to hold officials who set economic policy accountable. This is an important principle. The levers of democratic control may be rusty and well hidden. But they do at least exist. A system set up more than two centuries ago made sure of that. Meanwhile, the system set up in Europe less than 20 years ago expressly denies it. The president of the European Central Bank is appointed by democratically elected governments but is accountable to none of them. The ECB publishes neither the minutes of its meetings nor its voting record, and sets its inflation targets and interest rates without any democratic consultation.

These are not the primary reasons for the current crisis that has befallen the eurozone. But they do explain why the current Europe-wide response to the crisis is so problematic and risks sparking widespread social unrest.

The problem is at its most acute and most obvious in Greece, which has suffered a market assault by speculators who fear its huge public debt might cause it to default. These concerns are not unreasonable. One in four Greek workers is employed by the state, and it is estimated that public debt is well over 100% of the nation's GDP.

But the Greeks, who live in the second poorest nation in the eurozone, do not seem to be overly upset by this. In October the Socialists won elections with a clear majority, promising to make the rich pay more tax, award above inflation pay rises for government workers and provide more support for the ­low-paid and pensioners. Whether this was a wise choice or a sustainable set of policies is not the issue. Democracy is not predicated on the idea that ­voters will make good decisions but that the people have the right to make their own decisions and live with the ­consequences. The trouble is that in the eurozone the Greek electorate doesn't matter that much.

The prospect of Greece going broke poses a threat to the credibility of the entire eurozone. So in a bid to defend the currency – not the people – ­Germany and France, the eurozone's two ­biggest economies, have rather reluctantly made it clear that they would be ­prepared to bail Greece out. But their help comes at a price. They are ­demanding massive government sector lay-offs, and cuts in state pay, pensions and other benefits. In other words, the very things that the Greeks have just voted for are about to be systematically dismantled.

In the runup to the elections the eventual winner, George Papandreou, said: "People are feeling more and more powerless, so we as Socialists, I think, need to say democracy is again at the centre of our policies, giving the citizen a voice." As far as the ECB is concerned, those voices might as well be howling at the moon.

The Greeks can take to the streets – and in all likelihood they will. But the question then arises as to whom shall they make demands and how would they ensure that they were enforced if they were met.

It is no small irony that the three countries (Portugal, Spain and Greece) that saw EU membership as a means of cementing democracy after rightwing dictatorship should have their leaders dictated to on economic policy by ­unelected officials and foreign leaders.

This is no local matter. It is an explicit manifestation of the problem of neo-liberal globalisation: the fundamental dislocation between politics and power. Nations hold elections, people vote, representatives are sworn in. All the trappings of democracy remain. Yet the primary unit of democratic engagement – the nation state – has been superseded by bigger, more powerful forces.

What makes the EU and the ECB so remarkable is that these democratic deficits have been such an explicit part of the project. The issue is not the failure to match economic and monetary ­union with political union. It is the naked disregard for democratic engagement in the entire system that in no small part ­explains why voter turnout in EU elections has plummeted by more than 30% in the last 30 years. Whenever people vote no to a phase of integration – as they did in Ireland two years ago – the EU simply orders them to vote again until they produce the right result. Once they vote yes there is no turning back.

"What democratic control do European citizens possess?" asks Sue Wright in her 2000 book, Community and Communications. "Voting out the European parliament changes nothing because it has little power. Voting out national parliaments would have a secondary effect on the EU, but the European ­voters could not co-ordinate their action on this, and at the present time, are unlikely to censure national ­governments for such a purpose. For populations able to remove their own governments when they are dissatisfied with them, this lack of control is ­experienced as undemocratic."

So there will be no hearings on Greece in Brussels. Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the ECB, will face no cross-examination by elected representatives. Nor need he fear for his job. There will be no populism because the population does not count.

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