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Die Presse, Austria

What Lessons Europe Can Learn
from US Presidential Election


By Anton Pelinka

Growing diversity is no reason for development toward a European federation to come to a standstill.

Translated By Sandra Alexander

24 November 2012

Edited by Lau­rence Bouvard


Austria - Die Presse - Original Article (German)

The motto of the Great Seal of the United States reads “E Pluribus Unum” — unity out of diversity. What that can mean was impressively demonstrated on November 6. U.S. President Barack Obama was successful because he understood how to politically convert the complicated puzzle of American diversity into an alliance of the only natural majority — women — with ethnic and religious minorities.

What Obama brought off in 2008, what at the time had been judged a one-time success in the face of a finally extremely unpopular Republican president, was able to be repeated in spite of his overall unimpressive performance as president: The majority of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, young people, Catholics and Jews decided in favor of Obama and so secured his success. The loser was in several regards the old America — the America of old men and white Protestants. America’s diversity had won politically. This development in the U.S. contains a clear message for Europe.

Decreasing Definitude

The idea still to be observed in Europe, that a democracy requires societal homogeneity, is false — as the example of India also shows, which (similar to Europe, but different from the U.S.) is also a country where a large number of languages coexist.

The decline of societal homogeneity in the U.S. quite apparently does not endanger the country’s capacity for integration and democracy. America is becoming more diverse, yet remains nonetheless a democratic union. Why should European diversity be an insurmountable impediment to European political union? Why should the cultural features of Polish or Portuguese, Protestant or agnostic or even Muslim Europeans not have a place in a European Union that respects rather than negates diversity?

The fact that the EU builds upon different, even opposing national narratives which are not easily merged into a European identity and are repeatedly a cause of nationalistic reflexes; that the EU has to fight with a strong decline in economic and cultural developments — all that creates problems.

But this growing diversity and the complexity associated with it are not a decisive reason for the development into a European federation to come to a standstill.

Europe can learn yet another lesson from November 6: The fact that the House of Representatives continues to have a Republican majority, that the U.S. will once again be governed by a “split government” — and the necessary compromise between president and Congress will be extremely cumbersome — points to a long-negated American-European similarity.

In most of the European democracies and in the EU itself, there is a lack of clear majorities in the electorate and in the parliaments. Decisions must be brokered according to a model of a concordance or consensus democracy.

That means blockades, and with them continually recurring political paralysis, are part of the daily routine of the decision-making process. “Split government,” confirmed in the U.S. in 2012, is the American variation of the European constraint around forming coalitions.

Arend Lijphart has designated the EU’s democratic model as a special form of concordance democracy.

Democracy à la Switzerland

In fact, the EU exhibits clear features as it stands in the center of division of power in a structured democracy: a European parliament whose decisions are for the most part negotiated by both of the large factions and then carried together, a commission that consists of persons from different party political origins and in many ways resembles a grand coalition and a tendency to negotiate compromises behind the scenes before advancing them publically.

The EU is just such a democracy, à la Switzerland. The fact that U.S. democracy also exhibits such characteristics contradicts the usual assumptions about a presidency characterized by a dominant personality. These parallels underscore the analogy between democratic processes on both sides of the Atlantic. This analogy points to some further commonalities between the U.S. and EU. The U.S. Constitution, negotiated in Philadelphia in 1787, was a compromise between states that often pursued dissimilar interests.

American Compromises

The southern states wanted guarantees that slavery would not be constricted by the Constitution. The northern states were defined by growing moral outrage directed against the institution of slavery. The compromise: Slavery remained outside of the Constitution — until the Civil War.

In 1787 the small states wanted the division of power within the union be assigned first and foremost to the states themselves; the large states, by contrast, that the population should be the deciding factor. The compromise: The Senate is comprised of equal representation for the states, the House of Representatives is based on head count and the Electoral College takes both into consideration, the principle of statehood and total population, a compromise within a compromise.

The EU is likewise presented with such or similar constitutional challenges. To be sure, human and fundamental rights (different to the U.S. in 1787) are beyond dispute today in Europe. But the weighting of the states in the distribution of seats in the parliament, in the nomination of members of the commission (other than the European Court), but above all in the council, is a principal and persistently unresolved question that becomes more urgent with every step toward expansion.

The EU Is a Special Case

“E Pluribus Unum:” That could be the motto for unifying Europe. In theory, the EU is a special case that is classified between the federal state type and the commonwealth type. The differences between American and European diversity cannot be ignored. But this Europe is certainly no longer so different from the type of federal state the U.S. is. The U.S. election on November 6 has called this to mind again.

This commentary came about in cooperation with the Austrian Society for European Policy; it is part of a new series, “Policy Brief”: www.oegfe.at/policybriefs



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