Rethinking Democracy in Europe

A generation of East-Central Europeans has grown up without any first-hand experience of Communism. They have been educated in schools that are connected Europe-wide through the Bologna process. They can get good jobs outside their countries. They increasingly think of themselves as European citizens (the younger they are, the more Euro-friendly they are, according to a 2012 Eurobarometer poll).

Not surprisingly, this generation looks at their world differently from their parents. Take the example of the Simeckas of Slovakia. Milan Simecka was a prominent dissident during the Communist period, someone who initially was connected to the “socialism with a human face” politics of 1968 and who ended up in prison like many of his compatriots. His son Martin Simecka grew up in dissidence. Together with his wife Marta, he was part of the pivotal generation that helped guide Slovakia into the era of democracy. And now Michal Simecka, the third generation, is working in Brussels after studying political science at Oxford.

The family thus represents in microcosm the evolution of politics in East-Central Europe: from reform Communism to the cusp of democracy and then into the European Union. In the same way that Istvan Szabo in the film Sunshine used the Sonnenschein family in Hungary to represent the country’s path from the 19th century through World War II into the Communist era, an enterprising filmmaker could sit down with the Simeckas to describe the path of not only Slovakia but all of East-Central Europe into the 21st century.

Michal Simecka has thought a great deal about the meaning of democracy in Slovakia as well as Europe as a whole. “The main defining political struggle of my parents’ generation was around values such as democracy and freedom against autocracy, against the state, but also against nationalism and other poisonous forces in politics,” he told me in an interview in Bratislava in February when he was home from Brussels on a break. “Politics was defined by the struggle between these two very broad camps or set of ideas. I think this is an outdated paradigm. At some point we have to stop fighting for democracy and start looking at other aspects.”

In other words, the current generation is in some sense still fighting yesterday’s battles and employing yesterday’s concepts. But the political conversation has moved on. “Lots of people in Slovakia still continue to perceive every political action, every political move, every election result through this prism: Will it enhance or will it weaken democracy?” Simecka pointed out. “Instead of asking, for example: Will our country’s wealth be more equitably distributed as a result of the elections, or not?”

Since he’s based these days in Brussels, he spends a lot of time thinking about how the EU could be more democratic – not by cutting back on the EU system but by enhancing it. “We need a more substantive and more multidimensional way of thinking about democracy, specifically one aspect of democracy completely absent from the paradigm in the 1990s and that’s civic participation,” he argues. “Here people think about democracy or the lack thereof mostly in terms of liberal values or the infringement of those values by the state. They don’t think in terms of civic participation. To what extent can people take part in decisions? Or to what extent is there policy accountability? This requires a new mindset or a new conceptual framework for democracy.”

We talked about what it was like to grow up in a family of dissidents, his research into civil society in the former Soviet Union, and why Slovak NGOs might be overhyping the efficacy of their opposition activities in the 1990s.

 

The Interview

 

Usually I ask people as the first question whether they remember where they were when they heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. But you were probably about 5 years old?

 

Yes, I was born in 1984, so the first time I heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall as an event was probably in high school in a history class. I remember our revolution but only vaguely. In the downtown where there’s now the big Tesco store, that’s where the demonstrations took place, and I remember when my mom took me with her to the demonstrations because my dad was probably speaking—although I don’t remember him speaking on the podium. But I do remember that we went to a cab that was standing there nearby, and I pressed on the horn. As a little kid, that was the fun part, that I got to press the horn. I’m not entirely sure whether I have a direct recollection, or whether it’s more from what I’ve been told by my parents.

Then I remember, after the November events, when my dad was part of this inner group, the coordination forum of the Public Against Violence movement, and they had their meetings just down the street in one of the buildings here. I remember the meetings because I was there just playing with toys in this smoke-filled room where all these guys were deciding on matters of state and building democracy. That was in first weeks probably, until there was a proper government. Then, as you know, the coordination forum was the decision-making body in the transitional period. It would have been amazing if I could remember what the discussions were about, but I was 5 years old.

 

You mentioned you were working on a paper about public perceptions here in Slovakia of the break-up in 1993. What are the main conclusions of your research in the paper?

 

The paper isn’t about the break-up as such. It’s more about where these two countries stand today, particularly Slovakia. The perception at least of people that I’m in touch with, my circle of friends and family, has changed quite dramatically. At first it seemed like a disaster. For some people, the disaster was the destruction of the Czech-Slovak state itself and this was the problem. But for most people the problem was not the disappearance of the country as such, but rather that Slovakia was now left with Vladimir Meciar, who could do whatever he pleased without Prague. So it was more a concern about what would happen to the country. That was back in the mid-1990s.

Now I think almost everybody agrees that it was, in retrospect, if not a good choice then at least not as bad as people thought at the time. But that was partly because Meciar was defeated in the 1998 elections. So today, the entire break-up is not seen as such a tragedy. Everybody emphasizes that the relations between Czechs and Slovaks are better than they ever were, and probably better than they would have been had the federation continued, because there would have been all these fights over prerogatives and the make-up of the institutions and all that. Obviously there are no wars anymore because we’re in the Schengen, we’re in the EU, so this is the narrative today, that all is good and well. Nobody is advocating a return to the federation. But at the time, it was pretty dramatic. I’m sure lots of people, my dad included, told you that it was pretty dramatic.

 

By the time the movement against Meciar started to come together, you were almost a teenager.

 

That was the problem, I was almost a teenager. I was not politically conscious at that moment. Had it been three or four years later, I would have probably been part of it or at least aware of it. But at the time, I was just consumed by football. I do remember the 1994 elections, which went so badly. When Meciar won, the mood was sour and everybody was apocalyptic. I don’t really remember the mobilization campaign. Had it happened two or three years earlier, I probably would be much more active in it. I do recall the 1998 elections and the hype around it. I remember the tension, because we didn’t know what Meciar would do, if he would send tanks into the city if he lost. We always had parties in the garden of our house after these elections where lots of people gathered and watched the elections.

But this mobilization campaign of the NGOs was actually part of my Master’s thesis at Oxford. It was not about Slovakia per se, but about the idea of these civic movements and how the ideas spread to other countries, like Ukraine in the Orange Revolution. So I got to know quite a lot about that, though from research not participation. This was a unique moment in the modern history of our country when dozens of different NGOs and groups came together to make this campaign. On the other hand, and this was part of my conclusion after I did this research, there’s been a lot of ex-post PR by the people who were part of the mobilization effort, and not all of it entirely accurate. The NGOs certainly helped, especially to drive up voter turnout, because the logic was that a higher turnout would contribute to Meciar losing since his voting base was more disciplined. But if the political parties had not been able to unite, the entire mobilization campaign would have been pointless. The NGOs don’t give enough credit to the opposition politicians. Also, there’s a self-interest in promoting the story of how civil-society mobilization defeated Mečiar, because then they got money from donors to share their experience and do the same thing in Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

 

Didn’t the opposition politicians do the same in order to get money from, for instance, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute?

 

I’m not sure the political parties got money. They had other channels of getting funding from privatization deals and so on. I know about the civil-society segment of the opposition, because I did research on them and interviews with them, including with U.S. people. I don’t deny that it was a historic moment and that the NGOs played a major part in it. It’s just that it’s being a bit hyped.

Also, when you look at the various factors that contributed to Mečiar’s defeat, one of the reasons why I would argue that the NGO effect was over-interpreted is that Slovakia’s potential exclusion from the EU enlargement process was the biggest driver of change. This is sometimes forgotten, that all of this opposition mobilization was influenced by the conditionality from Brussels. And NATO as well.

 

Do you think that this has had any negative consequences? It’s one thing to oversell a role that the NGOs play in terms of distorting what happened. But do you think it had negative impact beyond simply a distorted narrative?

 

After the 1998 elections, I think the same NGOs became a bit too close to the government. Sometimes people in the NGO sector went to work for the Dzurinda government. There was not enough distance from Dzurinda, so they weren’t perhaps fulfilling their role of a watchdog as forcefully. But then it corrected itself later on, and they became critical of the government.

I can’t think of any real negative consequences. The overselling of that interpretation came when it was exported to other countries. But most of this experience-sharing was very good and beneficial to the recipient countries, and contributed to positive change in Ukraine or in Serbia in 2000. But sometimes the weight assigned to NGO campaigns in the revolutions that took place in Ukraine, Serbia, or Georgia was similarly over-interpreted, just as it was in Slovakia. So then you got a narrative of NGO revolutions in these post-Soviet countries that were partly inspired by the Slovak example. That definitely led to geopolitical problems. The interpretation that these revolutions were somehow manufactured by NGOs, with Western donors, fed into the Russian perspective that this was all somehow orchestrated by Washington. Which wasn’t necessarily the case.

 

It contributed to Russia’s own fear of NGOs within.

 

Yes, you can definitely argue that. But that’s a very indirect causal chain.

 

When would you say was the first moment that you became interested in what was going on in this country beyond football?

 

It was by default almost, because both of my parents are very politically engaged and astute, although neither of them took part in politics as such. They both loved to talk about politics at home, obviously. And then my dad became the editor of the main newspaper, the Daily Sme, which was a political role. I can’t remember a precise moment when my interest in politics was sparked. But then I actually began to work in the newspaper as well. I can’t remember if it was before my father joined the paper or after, but obviously due to my interest at the time, I started in the sports section. I was 15 at the time, and I wanted to write about football, which I did for a while, as an unpaid trainee.

I was there for a couple of months, and then I moved to the foreign desk. I was still only 16. The guy who was then the head of the foreign desk, and assumed the role of my mentor to me, is now the editor, Matus Kostolny. But he was also only 25 at the time. I wasn’t traveling anywhere, but since I had pretty a good English — my high school was bilingual — I helped with translations of wire reports and even wrote articles compiled from sources in English about world events: for instance, on 9/11 the 2000 U.S. elections. I didn’t travel to these places, but it was really fun. Then I moved to the news desk, the Slovak politics section. I covered the 2002 elections, and by then it was a proper full-time job. I even took a year out of high school – it was an individual study plan during the final year of my high school — to work at the paper as a normal journalist.

Then, I applied to university for political science, which in retrospect I should have never done.

 

What should you have done instead?

 

I should have applied for philosophy or law or economics, definitely not political science. But then I was stuck with it. I was in Prague, at Charles University, for my BA. I do like political science, but I often veered off into other disciplines, especially philosophy and economics, but just as an amateur. I would have liked one of those much better.

Political science is not really a rigorous science, and political scientists have a kind of inferiority complex vis-a-vis economists – the same that economists have vis-a-vis physicists.

The other problem with the department in Prague was that while it was good on the qualitative parts like political philosophy, it provided little training in quantitative methodology, in statistics, and all that. I discovered only later when I went to Oxford that basically I can’t publish in a prominent journal, not knowing any of the fancy statistics. Most of my classmates who were in Nuffield College and did their Ph.Ds in political science had training in econometrics and even mathematics.

 

How would distinguish between your generation’s perspective on the situation here in Slovakia, from your parents’ generation? And you can use your own example if you’d like.

 

I would have to use my own example, because I can’t recall any survey results about political attitudes of people in my generation. I’m sure there are differences. We are the first generation who didn’t grow up under Communism, who didn’t go to school under communism, so I’m absolutely certain there must be a profound difference in the way we look at politics. I can perhaps speculate on what these differences are, but since I don’t have any data, I will focus on my own view—which is obviously far from representative.

The main defining political struggle of my parents’ generation was around values such as democracy and freedom against autocracy, against the state, but also against nationalism and other poisonous forces in politics. Politics was defined by the struggle between these two very broad camps or set of ideas. I think this is an outdated paradigm. At some point we have to stop fighting for democracy and start looking at other aspects.

 

You would argue that the context has changed enough in Slovakia that that essentially is an outdated framework, and that if you continue to hold to that framework, you’re not reflecting the profound changes that have taken place in society.

 

That framework was absolutely valid and useful — intellectually as well emotionally and in terms of civic participation — in 1998 or 1989, whether during the Velvet Revolution or against Meciar. But today, there are new challenges and new problems that can’t be conceptualized along this dimension of good democrats versus bad autocrats. Obviously the European crisis is such a problem. The entire concept of democracy requires some rethinking at the European level. The biggest challenge, institutionally, is to fashion a democracy at the EU level.

 

The democratic deficit in the EU was a big topic back in the early 1990s.

 

Well, all I’m saying is only that, if you are working with a paradigm of fighting democracy versus corrupt autocracy, you will never be able to take part in this broader European debate, because this paradigm is about democracy in a nation-state. It always was. It was a fight for freedom from the state. All these values are obviously worthwhile and we should cherish them, such as individual freedom, but they have little relevance to the debate on how to solve the institutional and democratic dilemmas of the future at the federal level or whatever the EU will be. Democracy in Europe is not at risk from corrupt or autocratic elites in Brussels in Brussels. It’s more of a legitimacy and accountability problem.

When you hear politicians, for instance, from the Slovak Liberal Party or the Czech Euroskeptics, they often say that they’re against European integration because it endangers democracy, because it’s undemocratic. It is, but not in the sense they present it. It’s not just the negative conception, as freedom from the state and oppression and all that, but more how to construct democracy that transcends this paradigm of the nation-state and all those struggles from the 1990s.

 

Because they’re operating according to this framework, where they identify the state in some sense as being antithetical to democracy, they equate Brussels, for instance, with their negative conception of the state. And therefore Brussels will always be their enemy if they hold to this framework.

 

That’s a very extreme version of that argument, which some people make. But even those who are more pro-European in their usage and understanding of the word “democracy” are still sort of rooted in the struggles of the 1990s and therefore unsuited to a rethinking of democracy at a supranational level. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon this ideological framework that was so important in our country’s history. It’s just that we also should move beyond it. The example is clear from how intellectuals and analysts and journalists, lots of whom are my friends and my parents’ friends, perceive the current government. They would write about how this government is a threat to democracy and undermines institutions. But again this is no longer relevant. They rightly emphasize that the judiciary is corrupt. They rightly point to the rent-seeking behavior of the various business interests behind the government, and their links to the judiciary and all that. But you can’t really say it undermines Slovak democracy. It’s not an existential threat in that sense any more.

 

You’re saying that it’s not binary in the sense of democracy or not-democracy. Rather, it’s a different way of understanding democracy that doesn’t simply go between two modes.

 

Yes, lots of people in Slovakia still continue to perceive every political action, every political move, every election result through this prism: Will it enhance or will it weaken democracy? Instead of asking, for example: Will our country’s wealth be more equitably distributed as a result of the elections, or not?

 

Do you see any politicians or movements or just average people who are formulating it the way you do here in Slovakia? Or do you feel like that you have a distinct perspective?

 

I don’t have many friends here in Slovakia, because I left so early, and those friends that I have don’t really discuss politics. We discuss other stuff. But there definitely is a potential constituency of people who would have a similar take on what’s happening. They’re mainly activists: environmental activists in Bratislava, or people who supported the campaign for Bratislava mayor Milan Ftachnik. He’s not a very charismatic person. But it’s interesting because he presented himself as Social Democratic candidate and he is now part of Fico’s party. He was very much running on this platform of civic participation in policymaking, in environmental planning, transport infrastructure. Partly because he was running on a subnational level, the entire campaign was not about the sort of black-and-white dichotomy that we often see in national elections.

 

How would you compare the current paradigm shift you are calling for with the earlier political paradigm shifts: for instance, the collapse of Cold War understandings of Left and Right after 1989?

 

To some extent it would be analogous. Both of these instances belong to the broader category of paradigm shifts as described in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revoltuions. But the one that I’m speaking of is not so visible. It’s more gradual. Obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War was the moment when the paradigm broke (although that’s not very accurate because, in the Kuhnian version, the paradigm breaks because of mounting evidence of inconsistencies). But let’s say that that was a moment where people suddenly realized that the categories and political realities within which they were used to operate their entire lives suddenly shifted. Here it’s different. Here it’s not that radical and much more gradual. And I’m not even sure that it’s actually taking place, I’m just thinking that it should take place.

 

Have you seen this kind of paradigm shift elsewhere, further to the west or further to the east?

 

I haven’t really been thinking about it in such a structured way that I would be actively gathering data points to prove or refute my hypothesis. But it’s definitely not taking place in countries further east. In Ukraine, for instance, there’s the black-and-white view of politics among many people of my generation, more urban and educated, in which Yanukovych is bad, pro-Russian, autocratic and so on, whereas the opposition Tymoshenko Bloc was democratic, pro-European, pro-Western. This is still a black-and-white view of what is a much more multidimensional process of politics. It’s the same thing to some extent in Georgia. So, if there is indeed some paradigm shift in process, they are not even beginning it.

 

A lot of people in this region have devoted enormous amount of time and effort to get their countries into the European Union, and in the case of Serbia they’re working on that. But there’s also a sense that they got in just in time for Europe to fall apart. There’s a very great prospect financially that the European Union will not be able to hold together, and that some significant cleavages that have been out-of-sight or submerged during earlier times of economic prosperity have become more salient and threaten to pull the European Union apart: French-German tensions, tensions within countries, within Spain in different regions. So I’m curious what you think is the prospect for Europe given these economic problems and these re-emerging cleavages within and between countries.

 

This is the million-dollar question. Europe is facing various problems, not just one big problem, and these distinct issues, problems, cleavages, are definitely rooted in separate causes. They might be all somehow connected to the economic crisis. The Catalan problem wouldn’t have been as salient had it not been for the social misery of the Spanish economy. On other hand, analytically, it’s better to disaggregate these things into problems that are only solvable in the long term and those that can be handled with short-term fixes. Take the European debt crisis. Some of these issues are solvable, like the immediate solvency problem, which is solved to a greater or lesser extent by the Central Bank. And then there are the bigger problems, such as the long-term structural problems of the European economy, the imbalances between the north and south, and so on. Then there’s the political question. All of which is to say that I don’t think there’s one single big solution to the European Union that would involve the political elements, the institutional elements, the monetary and fiscal elements. There’s no silver bullet.

The EU has never been good at finding big, groundbreaking solutions to problems of state. They’ve always been, and always will be, piecemeal, patchy, a bit here and there: something on the banking union, something on the political union, perhaps some more legitimacy for the European Parliament. That’s not a bad road, because it minimizes the risk of stupid or suboptimal decisions. That is to say, if you make one big thing and put it all together in some new treaty and it turns out to be a bad choice, as it was with the original construction of the Euro, it’s much more difficult to undo.

As for the prospect of the EU falling apart, that threat has definitely receded in the past year, especially in the last couple months. So that’s good. There was a very good commentary in the Financial Times journalist, which I agree with. Everybody assumed that the EU would lead either to a proper federation or disintegrate completely. There was no middle ground of having a common currency, for instance, but not a common ministry of finance, of having an economic union but not a political union. But that’s exactly where where we are now. I don’t think it’s necessarily an either-or choice.

 

When you talk about the need to have this larger discussion of democracy, now that the threat has receded and there’s a little bit more space for that discussion, in what direction should the EU go?

 

It’s not that there’s more space for the discussion. It’s a necessity. The more powers, especially in economic policy, that the EU institutions accrue, the less democratic the entire economic project is going to be. So, it’s not that now that the immediate crisis is over, let’s ponder questions of democracy. This is not a luxury. There just needs to be some adjustment for the legitimacy of the entire project to catch up with what has happened over the last two or three years and the amount of power that the EU has acquired.

 

Does this mean investing more authority in the European Parliament, for instance?

 

That’s a tough one. The European Parliament does everything it can to expand its powers. The problem with the European Parliament is that nobody really likes it, including the people whom the parliament should represent. So that’s a problem. I’m not entirely sure whether expanding the powers of the European Parliament as such, without corresponding changes in its legitimacy, is a good option. For instance, in Slovakia only 20% of the people voted in the European Parliamentary elections.

 

20%?!

 

20% of the electorate. Obviously it’s higher in countries that have compulsory voting. But in general the participation rate is very low. It’s much lower than national elections. Unless the legitimacy of the parliament is increased, then expanding powers is just going to create a backlash.

 

Maybe the two are related. If you expand powers more people will vote for it…?

 

The link is very tenuous. There’s lots of discussion about how this empowers various bases, but I’m not sure that the electorate will actually ponder that and say, “Okay, well now that the European Parliament can appoint individual EU commissioners, we have to vote!” Or, “now that the parliament has co-decision powers in more areas than before, now we have to vote.”

My hope for the resolution of the European democracy problem lies with pan-European political formations. You already see the beginnings of it. For instance, at these summits, there will always be a meeting of left-wing members of the council, left-wing prime ministers and right-wing prime minsters. There are European Parliament political groups that are pan-European. But this won’t really happen unless the citizens here realize that the European economies are interconnected and until the voters grasp the full extent of this interconnectedness and see that a victory of a right-wing premier in Spain is also good for Slovak right-wing voters. It already is happening. One of the symptoms of the crisis, paradoxically, is that people know much more about the politics of the European countries than they used to. How many people would know who the Greek prime minster is if not for the crisis? This is the way forward, I think, when in the distant future we have true, pan-European political parties or political formations with a joint platform for Europe, and with the traditional axis of Social Democrats, centrist liberals, and right wing. Then there are lots of different blueprints for the institutional setup for democracy on a pan-European level. You can make the council the upper house of the parliament, you can engage the national parliaments more, you can make an assembly of national parliaments. But the fundamental change in providing legitimacy to the entire European political space will happen when the Slovak left-wing parties feel some sort of affiliation with the SPD in Germany and the Socialists in Spain.

 

It would increase the number of people coming out to vote for a European Parliament if they felt those connections.

 

If we keep going like this, the link between the policy output of individual governments or at the EU, and the citizen’s vote will get very feeble. In many of these countries, whichever party voters support, they end up with the same policies. You probably heard this from lots of other peoples too already.

 

All the parties operate within a particular policy space that constrains their options.

 

The EU really constrains the space to maneuver for national parties, so much so that the people are going to revolt at some point. What’s called “policy accountability” is really suffering. There is political accountability at the national level, in the sense that the Fico government is responsible to the parliament, and the parliament is held accountable by the people in elections. Policy accountability is where politicians are held accountable to their policies. But if the policies are the same regardless of who the people vote for, this is what some people would say is undemocratic, because it’s dictated from Brussels, and therefore we need less integration.

I think this is true, that it’s undemocratic. But it doesn’t mean that we need less EU. We need more. And we need a more substantive and more multidimensional way of thinking about democracy, specifically one aspect of democracy completely absent from the paradigm in the 1990s and that’s civic participation. Here people think about democracy or the lack thereof mostly in terms of liberal values or the infringement of those values by the state. They don’t think in terms of civic participation. To what extent can people take part in decisions? Or to what extent is there policy accountability? This requires a new mindset or a new conceptual framework for democracy.

 

Do you see a different kind of European identity emerging in your generation? You’re working in Brussels, so you have a day-to-day understanding of what it means to be European that might be different from an older generation’s understanding.

 

I don’t see it in myself, but I was never very much into identity politics anyway. This side of political identification completely bypasses me. I don’t feel any strong emotional attachment to Slovakia, or even to Europe for that matter.

 

Do other people who you work with in Brussels share your perspective?

 

Definitely. They think European, they feel European. I wouldn’t question their European identity. But I’m not very big on identities. Maybe if the economics of the crisis improved over time and we all make it through, this could foster a sense of cohesion: we were in it together and weathered it together, as Europeans. The unemployment and the misery it inflicts are shared by Slovaks, Hungarians, Spaniards. If somehow we manage to turn this around, we would have this shared experience of overcoming the crisis without kicking out anyone like the Greeks.

 

That’s interesting. The European identity in the Cold War period was formed in opposition to the Soviets, but also as a shared experience of surviving the trauma of World War II. So it’s conceivable that something similar could operate today as well.

 

We definitely can’t construe our identity in opposition to something. Otherwise we’d be against the Chinese or the Americans, and that doesn’t make sense. So there has to be positive content to it. I do agree that the identity question has repercussions for everything else. If there was a common European identity, the entire economic crisis could have been solved much more easily. In the United States, people have a shared sense of identity and nobody has a problem with fiscal transfers from New York to Florida — they’re all Americans, so it’s not a big deal. But obviously we don’t have this in Europe, with all the Germans angry about all the money going to the Greeks. If there was a way to foster European identity, that would be the silver bullet.

 

Bratislava, February 11, 2013


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