EU flag in Italy. Photo: Tiia Monte/cropped from original/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, linked at bottom of article EU flag in Italy. Photo: Tiia Monte/cropped from original/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, linked at bottom of article

The European Union preaches democracy but its practice is very different, argues Chris Bambery

One of the most depressing things about the Brexit referendum and the debate both beforehand and since is how insular it is in most part. Little attention is paid to what the European Union actually does. 

As someone who identifies themselves as a European I cannot accept this European Union. Its record in Southern Europe following the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Eurozone economic crisis was scandalous. In both Greece and Italy it imposed unelected ‘technocratic’ governments on top of the austerity measures which still blight most Southern European economies. 

The supposed refugee crisis is another case in point. Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain are left to carry the burden while countries like France and Austria close their border. The new flash point is in the Canary Islands – where locals are arguing that they cannot accommodate the boat people arriving from Morocco, although if plane loads of British tourists were somehow to arrive the story would be different. 

This week two events highlight the deeply undemocratic nature of the EU, where unelected politicians hold sway and the European Parliament has far less power than Westminster, if such a thing was possible! 

Last week saw the appointment, yet again, of another unelected, ‘technocratic’ prime minister in Italy, former European Central Bank president from 2011 to 2019, Mario Draghi. The coalition government made up in the main of 5 Star and the centre left Democrats had collapsed. Formally Draghi was appointed by the Italian President but the dogs in the street knew this selection was made in Brussels and Berlin first. 

There is grave concern over Italy’s ailing economy and its banks, and over growing opposition to the EU which is reflected in the high standing in the polls currently of the right wing Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, and the even more right wing Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) which includes open fascists.

Thus the EU hopes Draghi will turn things round. After all he is lauded as ‘the man who saved the Euro’ during the Eurozone crisis. That he did so via years of austerity, crucifying Greece and leaving even now Spain and Italy with high levels of youth unemployment is no matter. Here he is welcomed from the Financial Times to The Guardian (‘The right man for Italy now,’ said its editorial). 

My bet is that this move will only deepen suspicion of the EU in the most Eurosceptic nation of the Eurozone. We should recall the EU was once held in high esteem there as the hopeful saviour of the country from a corrupt political elite. Italians found however that this did not overly concern the EU. Unfortunately, currently the far right are the ones who will benefit. 

The second event concerns the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, the unelected Josep Borrell. Previously he had been president of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007. Having retired he re-entered politics stating his intent to fight the Catalan independence movement. A member of the Spanish Socialist Party, he is also a Catalan. 

On Friday after a meeting in Moscow with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Borrell delivered the EU’s message that opposition politician Alexei Navalny must be released from jail along with his supporters. Let’s make clear now that I am no fan of either of the opposing sides in Russia, and I’m against the levels of state repression. But Borrell’s hypocrisy is fairly astonishing.

Things took an interesting turn at the press conference which followed the meeting between the two politicians. Kicking off, Borrell repeated the EU position for the release of Navalny and stated that the EU expects an ‘independent and comprehensive’ investigation of the poisoning of the opposition leader last summer. Lavrov replied by recalling recent cases of police abuse in Europe and the United States and then cited the situation of the Catalan pro-independence prisoners, which he which he described as an example of ‘politically motivated judicial decisions’. 

He argued, ‘The pro-independence leaders are in prison for organizing a referendum, a decision that the Spanish judiciary has not withdrawn despite the fact that courts in Germany and Belgium have ruled against it.’ His chief accusation was that the EU operated ‘double standards.’ 

Lavarov was lucky Borrell stayed to hear him after all he had previously stormed of BBC World’s Hard Talk programme when challenged about his view on Catalonia. 

When he became Spanish Foreign Minister in 2018 as part of a minority Socialist government he explained he had an obsession, which was to repair ‘the damage done to Spain’s image’ by the Catalan independence issue, to put an end to the ‘black legend’ concerning Spain’s actions during the Catalan independence referendum held in October 2017. 

You might recall that Spain’s paramilitary police, the Civil Guard and National police, were ordered to halt voting in a referendum approved by the Catalan parliament but declared illegal by Spain’s highly politicised Constitutional Court (stuffed full of politically appointed judges). That culminated on polling day when armour wearing police attacked voter and smashed their way into polling stations to seize ballot boxes and voting slips. 

The violence was totally one sided because of the Catalan independence movement’s total commitment to non-violence. But no, the videos you can watch on social media of police batoning peaceful protesters or using a sledgehammer to smash down the doors of a polling station are, according to Borrell, a ‘black legend’ designed to damage Spain. 

In the wake of the referendum going ahead, despite Spain’s actions, Borrell cheered on the right wing Popular Party government in abolishing devolved government in Catalonia and urged Catalan leaders be tried for their part in the referendum. Nine are now in jail for up to 13 years. 

Of course, the Kremlin does not support self-determination for small nations let alone independence but it was miffed when, last year, the Spanish secret service circulated a high profile ‘story’ that Moscow had intended to send military support to assist a Catalan secession. I used inverted commas because it was total rubbish. 

No matter what Lavrov was doing in raising the Catalan issue was to stress that in the face of this situation, Spain has upheld its own judicial system and asked others not to doubt its decisions, while, for its part, Russia had no made political comments on this.

For a brief moment a truth had been aired. The silence from Brussels over Catalonia is total. Nothing must upset Madrid. So while the European Commission, unelected, threatens the unpleasant government of Poland and the Czech Republic over political interference in the judiciary and legal system it stays silent on Spain with its bevy of politically appointed judges, courts which ignore the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights and which strike down Catalan legislation without shame, including a ban on bull fighting because of its centrality to the Spanish national identity.  

But the truth is European Union is a neo-liberal club where Germany, and to a far lesser extent, France hold sway and small nations can do what they are told. 

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.