'What about democracy?'

Protesters interrupted a speech by President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy on Friday with one simple question: “What about democracy?” Van Rompuy was delivering his speech - on the political and economic challenges facing Europe - at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. The EUI is the prestige university of the European Union. Many of the senior staff are former members or heads of European Union bodies, and a large percentage of the mainly post-graduate student body go on to take up jobs in European institutions.

Says Frank O’Connor of the Prezzemolo collective, which organised the protest: “One of our primary issues with the European Union as it exists is that it is becoming ever less democratic. There is a huge gulf between the leadership and the citizens. President Van Rompuy is the symbolic incarnation of this anti-democratic trend.

Our intervention was a symbolic one. The EU has an ephemeral quality, it is everywhere and yet it is nowhere. National politicians are occasionally confronted by their citizens (but unfortunately on an ever less frequent basis) and are to varying degrees held to account by the media and the electorate. Politicians at the European level, like Van Rompuy, never engage or even recognise the existence of the people they "rule over". We as a collettivo are lucky enough to be in a position to have an opportunity to force him to recognise, at least for a moment or two, the existence of another Europe. All of us Greeks, Irish, Italians, Portugese and Spanish members of the collettivo have personal stories of the economic hardships wrought by the crisis. Our intervention was an expression of solidarity with them.”

The Prezzemolo collective is made up of students, researchers and staff of the EUI.


Outside the church where Van Rompuy was speaking other members of the collective unfurled banners which read ‘End Austerity’ and ‘Real Democracy Now!’ They also nailed their Ninety-Five Theses on the Ills of Europe to the door of the church.

During the intervention, the crowd applauded the protesters and called for Von Rompuy to allow them to speak - a demand that was not heeded.

Says O’Connor, “All of us participants were warmly commended outside by both those present and by others who subsequently heard about the protest.”

Prezzemolo’s intervention has received widespread coverage in Italy. According to O’Connor, the anti-democratic turn within the EU “is clearly a very important issue [here].”

He goes on: “We are well aware that rhetorically calling for equality and human dignity will not resolve our immediate crisis, however the point is that they no longer even serve as a framework to consider when making decisions. The points of reference are the closed circle of self/referential notions of "markets" and "ratings agencies" and interest rates and so on. All of which are man made edifices.

Van Rompuy referred in the course of his speech to "the mysterious markets", but there is no mystery about the markets. They are man (and woman) made institutions that we created and are recreating on a daily basis. There is no inevitability about them; political structures exist that centralise them and prioritise them above all else including these core values that the Union is supposedly based upon.”

Having been prevented from addressing Von Rompuy directly, O’Connor read a prepared speech to the crowd outside the church afterwards.

The text of that speech is below.

I speak for myself and on behalf of our university based political collective. However, I speak in solidarity with the masses of Europeans who are currently struggling to live, work and in many cases, simply survive under the unprecedented and extraordinarily inhumane and unjust conditions imposed upon them by the European political and financial powers. As both proud Europeans and academics at the EUI, an institution that best exemplifies the boundless possibilities of European cooperation, it is incumbent upon us to defend the core values that have been betrayed by those entrusted to uphold them.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union affirms that the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.
Developments in recent times have unambiguously shown that these values have been and continue to be, disregarded by the European political elite, sacrificed at the altar of selective austerity and political expediency.

Unfortunately, the office of President of the European Council is the symbolic incarnation of the ever more blatant, democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union. The unelected and unaccountable head of a European people whose popular consent in the appointment was deemed superfluous, thus rendering the position void of any semblance of democratic legitimacy. At a micro-level today’s event encapsulates the diminished importance of democratic practises in the EU. We as obedient subjects should quietly sit and unquestioningly listen to a lecture on the Economic and political challenges of Europe, by the representative not of Europe’s citizens but the very architects of the ongoing economic, political and social crisis - Europe’s financial and political elites.

However, the crisis of democracy in the European Union is much more insidious than the simple appointment of a presidential figure head. The undemocratic ethos has infiltrated the very structures of the Union, evident in its consistent disregard for the expressed popular will of its citizens. A popular will ignored in the French and Dutch referenda and on two occasions in the case of Ireland. The ongoing deterioration in the standards of democracy has been most recently evidenced in the EU’s furious reaction to the Greek government’s effort to seek popular consent over the financial stranglehold imposed on the country. No longer are expressions of popular consent simply ignored, it is now even impermissible to consult Europe’s citizen body.

As the EU becomes ever less accountable to the people of Europe, it has hastened its drift away from its core founding values. There is no dignity in the calculated impoverishment of Europe’s most vulnerable citizens, there is no freedom in labour precarity and the dismantlement of public health systems, there is no equality in the rewarding of the financial sector for its recklessness and the collective socio-economic punishment of the working peoples of Europe. And there is absolutely no solidarity when the collective extravagances of a European financial and political elite are punitively extracted from the peoples of Greece, Ireland and Portugal and not from the instigators of this storm of poverty.

To conclude, we are of the view that another Europe is possible. We reject the false inevitabilities put forward by the shadowy edifices of the markets and rating agencies. We reject the apocalyptic menaces of the financial sector that are pathetically diffused by their political lackeys across the continent. Europe is the Europe of its citizens and not of a pompous self – appointed, fundamentally anti-democratic elite. Our Europe is and will once again be rooted in its founding values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity, constructed upon and protected by accountable and truly democratic political institutions. {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: Prezzemolo Collective.