To lecture us about democracy, you have to be democratic…

Rob democracy of the fundamental principle of opposition, and what remains cannot really be described as ‘democratic’ at all

Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen

One of my all-time favourite Maltese expressions has always been ‘biex tiskongra, trid tkun pur’.

I’ve often seen it translated as ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t…um… undress with the light on?’ No, that can’t be right. Hang on while I consult my old ‘First Aid in English’ schoolbook: ah, here it is. ‘Throw stones’. That’s what people who live in glass houses shouldn’t do, according to the popular wisdom of the inhabitants of Great Britain.

And yes, it might even work to convey the same general drift… but it falls far, far short of our own humble proverb, which literally means: ‘to exorcise [demons], you have to be pure’.

To appreciate the full impact, you admittedly have to believe (or pretend to believe) in both the existence of demons, and the power of exorcism to dispel them. But it’s worth the effort, because the resulting difference is very… revealing.

When people in glass houses throw stones, at most they will be inviting the demolition of their own home by the return volley.

That is, of course, a pretty serious deterrent in its own right… but it’s still only one person’s home that will have been demolished. The effects are limited only to the stone-throwing, glass-house dweller in question: society at large remains by and large unaffected.

Ah, but what happens when people who are not pure try to exorcise demons? In the best-case scenario, the exorcism itself will simply fail (and that’s another way of saying that ‘the demons will win’.) The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, might involve accidentally opening a portal to Hell itself: thus unleashing all its devils and demons onto the world at once.

As such, the consequences will not be limited only to the impure, wannabe exorcist who tried to defeat those demons in the first place. Oh no: everybody (except maybe Satanists and Black Sabbath fans) will suffer when that happens.

Now, let us look at a classic case of this hypothetical scenario unfolding in the real world. For some time now, a lot of people – all pure as the riven snow, naturally - have been trying to exorcise all the demons inherent in Malta’s political set-up.

The European Parliament has passed countless resolutions ‘condemning’ us over our ‘anti-democratic’ practices; there have been calls for the invocation of Article 7 against Malta – which would mean stripping our country of voting rights in the EU’s Council of Ministers – and more recently, the Council of Europe took time out of its busy schedule to pontificate to us about exactly how and where we should be tinkering with our political model to make it more ‘democratic’.

Inherent in all this is the (incredibly humble) presumption that the rest of Europe is, by its very nature, more democratic than we are. Like all wannabe exorcists, these dispellers of evil spirits seem to somehow think that they are actually ‘pure’ themselves.

And yet, I’ll be damned (ahem) if I can see what they actually base this presumption on. Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano recently claimed that Europe’s most corrupt countries are, in fact, Germany and Britain. And, oh look: It just happens to be British and German politicians who are leading the cavalcade against our own demon-infested country…  

But hey, let’s not simply take Saviano’s word as Gospel Truth. And above all, let’s not do what the rest of Europe does to us, and simply pick on individual countries while ignoring the bigger picture. No, let us look at the European Union itself, with a view to determining whether it is ‘pure’ enough to exorcise all our demons in the name of democracy.

After months of speculation and back-room horse-trading, the Council of Ministers last week announced its nominees for the posts of Commission President, Council President and European Central Bank Governor, among others. You know: the people who will be determining the shape and substance of the future EU… something that will affect all of us equally (and all of our dogs, too.)

Just like that, with no forewarning whatsoever, the lucky winners of this European top-job raffle were announced. I’m willing to bet that 99% of the people reading this had never even heard of Ursula von der Leyen before she was simply foisted on us all, with not a word of explanation, as the next Commission president.

So outrageously non-transparent was the selection process, that even outgoing president Jean Claude Juncker managed to sober up for long enough to complain about it.

Heck, even our very own Roberta Metsola – hardly what you would call a Euro-sceptic – voiced her misgivings at a recent seminar. Ursula von der Leyen’s nomination was a “non-transparent rebellion”, she said, which will cause complications further down the line.

Hmm. Forgive me for asking, but… isn’t ‘transparency’ supposed to be one of the main, fundamental pillars of any democracy? And wasn’t it precisely the lack of transparency in our own decision-making processes that provoked all this tsunami of international condemnation?

Now let us make a list of all the unanswered questions surrounding the utterly non-transparent selection process we all just witnessed. On what criteria were any of those people chosen? Out of what pool of alternative candidates? Were there any public debates, in which the contestants had to outline their views on the future of the EU that they will now be shaping?

Honestly, it makes you wonder how all these ‘pure’ European institutions would have reacted, had Malta appointed its own Prime Minister in a comparable way: i.e., just announcing a decision that was taken behind closed doors, for all the world like a Conclave to elect a new Pope.

But the question I would like an answer to is… what was traded behind the scenes to reach that uneasy compromise? What backroom deals were struck? What European assets were simply carved up between the Council’s members, with no information whatsoever relayed to the EU’s 50 million citizens?

I shudder to even imagine. But I can’t comment further, because I simply don’t know. Neither do you; nor do any of those other 50 million Europeans. In terms of how much say we had in the choice, or how much information we were given… we may as well not even exist at all.

Nice ‘democracy’ we’re building up in Brussels, don’t you think? Now let’s look at the new European leadership, and try and guess what sort of ‘European Union’ these lucky winners will be forging over the next five years.

Ursula von der Leyen is on record stating that: “My aim is the United States of Europe — modelled on federal states like Switzerland, Germany or the U.S.”

Now: I can’t comment much on the federal systems in Switzerland and Germany; but we’ve all had some experience watching US democracy in action. Granted, we might not all like the choices made by the American electorate… but there can be no doubt that Donald Trump (and all his predecessors) became US President as a result of an open, transparent process.

He had to first win the nomination within his own party… which involved public debates with rival candidates, who were all given a chance to have their own say on live TV. He then had to win an election, which meant he had to campaign; give public speeches; fend off scrutiny into his private affairs; lay down some kind of ‘vision’ for his Presidency… and so on and so forth.

Did von der Leyen have to do any of this? The short answer is No. But let’s not be too hasty. The counter-argument is that she was chosen – however non-transparently – by a Council of Ministers that is composed of democratically elected heads of state; and she will have to face a grilling by the European Parliament for confirmation.

Small problem with both those provisos, however. We already know, from the above quote, that von der Leyen intends to annihilate the very Council that nominated her. Her dream of a federal ‘United States of Europe’ depends on the existing 28 members states morphing into a single country under a centralised government. There can be no ‘Council of Ministers’ under those circumstances, because there will no longer be those 28 countries to actually represent.

So an undemocratically appointed ‘Prime Minister of Europe’, is effectively proposing demolishing the last point of contact – however remote – between the European electorate, and the government of Europe. Future Commission presidents will no longer be chosen by democratically elected heads of states. How, then, will they be appointed?

The only answer that can vaguely remain within the realm of democracy is: ‘by a Europe-wide election’. And yes, in that scenario, the choice could indeed be described as ‘democratic’.

But how fair would that system be, in a Europe currently composed of little, large and positively microscopic countries?

Let’s face it: it would be about as ‘democratic’ as the Eurovision Song Contest. Malta’s measly half-million inhabitants will find that they have even less of a say in electing European leaders than they do today: and we’ve all just had our noses rubbed into how very non-existent that say is, even under the present set-up.

Meanwhile, there is the EP grilling (which took place Tuesday). On the surface, this looks more like it: the EP does, it seems, have the power to block the appointment. But this does not address the lack of any proposed alternative: or ‘opposition’, to use the democratic jargon.

In a real democracy, the choice should not be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to one pre-selected candidate (with the prospect of chaos and confusion in the event of a ‘no’). It should be between two or more candidates, each proposing different visions to actually choose between.

Rob democracy of the fundamental principle of opposition, and what remains cannot really be described as ‘democratic’ at all.

And yet, this the selfsame institution that lectures us all about how very ‘undemocratic’ we are… (tut-tut, tsk-tsk, etc): the same people who, as we speak, are enthusiastically eroding what little remains of ‘democracy’ across the length and breadth of 28 soon-to-be-extinct countries, to replace it with… erm… who knows?

After all, these believers in ‘openness and transparency’ never exactly told us, did they? So we will just have to wait and see what parody of democracy they’ll come up with, and simply accept it without question… won’t we?

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