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Democracy and Numbers

“The Greek mess is one in which there is plenty of blame for all sides.” A good first line is important, and Brian Lucey’s, in his Irish Times opinion article (July 3rd), is indeed a good one. Unfortunately, having staked its claim to be even-handed and fair-minded at the outset, his piece gradually goes downhill, or off-piste, concluding, more or less, that the people that Irish Times readers should feel most aggrieved about in the whole sorry affair are the German and Irish finance ministers, Wolfgang Schäuble and Michael Noonan. Yes indeed, these are the men who have been running the Greek state since it acceded to the European Union, and European Union funds, in 1981.

The piece concludes:

Rumour has it that the quid pro quo for corporation tax not coming back into discussion was that we, the anti-Greece, the poster boys for the troika, lined up to hold the coats of the big boys as they put the boot into Greece.
And we did.
But that is not democracy, it is naked power. A union of sovereign states must be constructed on the basis that each is as important as the other. This is clearly not the case here.

Dr Lucey seems to be very sure what democracy is ‑ and that it has nothing, or little, to do with power, or even, it would seem, numbers. But isn’t “a union of sovereign states” a problematic, if not oxymoronic, concept? Once states band together in a union in the interest of what they perceive to be both their individual and common good, they will have yielded some of their sovereignty, or at least placed it on the table (sovereignty itself being a slippery enough category – and certainly not an absolute ‑ to begin with). The European Union, or European Economic Community, was, nevertheless, originally built on the ideal of equal political weight irrespective of population size, though significantly perhaps at a time when it had only six members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). Even back then it must have sometimes been a bit of a stretch to feel that one must accord the same consideration to, say, Luxembourg as to France, but good will and mutual respect counted for quite a lot ‑ and to some extent still do. With gradual enlargement and now twenty-eight members – including some occasionally difficult or reluctant ones like the UK and Hungary – things have certainly become more strained ‑ and of course majority rule does now apply in some areas. But the institutions’ and the member states’ default position is negotiation and parlay rather than digging in and veto, built on a muscle memory of give and take, win some/lose some and the pursuit of essential interests over the long term (or, if you like, wheeling and dealing).

We now have a situation where twenty-seven members are lined up on one side of a very serious question and one on the other. (Dr Lucey seems to think – that is to say “rumour has it” ‑ that we in Ireland have taken up our position in this matter – “holding the coats of the big boys” as he puts it – on the basis of a nod and a wink over our business-friendly corporation tax rates; what, one wonders, were all the other minnows offered?) So what does a democracy do when twenty-seven think one way and one another? Not that the EU is ‑ exactly ‑ a democracy. It is a little more complex than that.

Dr Lucey, concerned for the sovereignty of individual units in a greater whole, might perhaps prefer the American model, where, for example, the people of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska (total population 9.66 million) elect fourteen senators, while the people of California, New York and Texas (total population 85.56 million) elect six. And the senate that is composed in this way can of course obstruct the reforming will of a popularly elected president. Well that’s one way of doing democracy and it and other institutional arrangements do at least tend to deliver more autonomy, if not quite “sovereignty”, to individual units of the whole. Thus, while the United States has an overall infant mortality rate of 6.4 (per 1,000 live births), Alabama, rather than being levelled out, can come in at 8.8 and Missouri at 9.9. (Ireland, adherents of the failed state/banana republic thesis might be interested to know, comes in at 3.8, equal to the Netherlands and Switzerland and ahead of Austria, Australia, the UK and Canada.)

It may be desirable, if not always practicable, that each state in a union of twenty-eight should be treated as if it is as important as any other. At the very least, each should be treated with equal respect. But it may be a little too much to ask that one state be treated as being as important as twenty-seven others, particularly when all its energy seems to be expended not so much in engaging with that larger community as in an exercise of revolutionary gymnastics for the benefit of its own domestic electorate.

4/7/2015

Read Brian Lucey's article: http://bit.ly/1LYMsLI