Since 2008, a new economic crisis in Europe appears on the horizon every few months. The current negotiations surrounding Greece’s possible exit from the Eurozone seems different, however; it appears that the emergency as finally come to a head.
Over these past seven years or so, the rhetoric of emergency has been frequently used by various governments to describe the recession/depression, and subsequent government and international responses. Throughout the economic crisis, the various Irish Governments presented this economic crisis as such an existential emergency. Ireland was not unique in making use of this rhetoric, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012 describing the UK’s own financial crisis as tantamount to war.
With only Leaving Certificate economics under my belt, I am in no position to engage in economic analysis of what should be done to fix the Eurozone crisis. I will therefore remain agnostic about the merits of austerity but instead focus on the political and legal processes by which these austerity measures have been enacted and justified in various states throughout the Eurozone. These responses are, like the examples given above, often couched in the language of ‘emergency’. Such economic states of emergency face a number conceptual difficulties, however.
The Problem of Necessity
States of emergency connote sudden, unforeseen crises that require an exceptional response. This response is considered necessary to defeat the crisis at hand and restore the status quo that existed prior to the emergency coming into existence. Various different phenomena can trigger emergency responses by states: from war, to natural disasters, to economic recession. What characterises an emergency response is that it is one that is justified as being absolutely necessary to confront an existential threat to the state.
The emergency response deployed during crises that affect national security generally entails the restriction of human rights such as the right to liberty, due process rights, or privacy. In economic crises, the response can come in a variety of different manners: for example, state intervention in the private banking sector; changes to government income and expenditure rates; or both.
The rhetoric of crisis is a powerful one that can be used by governments to shape the contours of political debate. It silences opposition and creates a ‘rally around the flag’ effect, encouraging citizens to see sacrifices as necessary. The Government, or so the rhetoric goes, has no choice but to implement unpalatable decisions. If it does not, the alternative is presented as being the ruination of the state. Austerity in this context is presented as the lesser of two evils. This rhetoric of emergency therefore also instils a fear in people; a fear of the unknown. Greece’s referendum on Sunday, if it goes ahead, is being presented in such stark terms.
Of course, there are always choices, even during a state of emergency. Necessity is not a wholly objective concept but rather is relevant to the objective that one seeks to achieve. Some emergencies and the requisite responses may, however, be more necessary than others. In contrast, economic emergencies lack even basic agreement as to what is necessary. People may agree that the deficit needs to be tackled but may disagree about how this should be done. Very often, these disagreements are wholly irreconcilable: for example, whether to take a Keynesian approach and increase government spending; or do the complete opposite and reduce government expenditure. The rhetoric of emergency thus cloaks political and ideological choices in a veil of objectivity. The current negotiations between Greece and its creditors is a concrete example of this ideological disagreement. Thus it is not that austerity measures in Greece are necessary; it is that the Eurozone appears to be ideologically wedded to austerity as a solution to its crisis.
Of course, disagreement occurs in all walks of life, not least in politics. Indeed, there are those who argue that disagreement is the very backbone of politics. Many states therefore seek to resolve disputes through parliaments, for example. This is called democracy – something the Greeks are familiar with. Parliaments were designed precisely for this. Parliaments, so this theory goes, produce not necessarily the right answer or even the best answer but the answer with the most democratic legitimacy.
The Eurozone crisis, however, has illustrated the decline of parliaments across Europe. With ever more decisions taken at the international level and the increasingly technocratic nature of these decisions, parliamentary democratic input into economic issues has reduced. This decline of parliaments is not a Twenty First Century phenomenon but can be traced back decades. The current economic crisis has shown, however, how this process has accelerated in recent years.
The Greek proposal to put any negotiated deal to a referendum can be seen as a risky negotiation tactic. On the other hand, it can also be seen as an attempt to inject a degree of democratic legitimacy into macro-economic decisions that has been seriously lacking. It will therefore be up to the Greek people to decide whether or not to agree to the terms of a new deal. Of course, the referendum process is not infallible. Irish people know all too well that referendum campaigns are often not fought upon carefully reasoned arguments but on emotional rhetoric and, at times, misinformation and falsehoods. Moreover, with little time allowed between the announcement of the referendum and the actual polling date, the circumstances surrounding the Greek referendum are far from ideal. Nevertheless, this expression of democracy, if it goes ahead, would stand as a sharp relief to the technocracy that preceded it.
The Problem of Urgency
It is not just to ‘necessity’ that the rhetoric of emergency pleads to. Emergencies also connote images of urgency, immediacy, or inevitability. An existential threat to the state is seen as imminent and so the response must also be taken promptly. Ordinary procedures therefore are truncated in order to expedite a response. Time is a luxury that a decision-maker does not have in an emergency. Consequently, emergency decisions are normally taken by the executive, the branch of government most capable of acting quickly. The judiciary and parliament then defer to the executive’s decision of what ought to be done.
The problem of urgency presents a particular difficulty for courts, for example, which are notable for their slow adjudicatory processes and procedures. Parliaments, however, also suffer from this difficulty. Debate takes time. The legitimacy of a democratic decision therefore is dependent upon there being adequate time for debate. Otherwise, a parliamentary resolution becomes merely a rubber stamp for the will of the executive. This is something Ireland is no stranger to with over-use of the guillotine in parliamentary debates undermining the democratic legitimacy and the effectiveness of the Oireachtas. Again, we can see here how the claim to urgency results in the decline of parliaments.
Urgency also connotes the idea of an event outside the control of the various stakeholders. It is an event, the arrival of which cannot be avoided but at best can be mitigated or tackled by adequate emergency preparedness. The various Eurozone crises and the moment in which they crystallised cannot be seen unforeseen or uncontrollable consequences, however. Instead, their fruition is often used as part of the bargaining process by one side. This can be seen from the Cyprus negotiations in March 2013, for example. Cyprus’ emergency did not crystallise until the ECB declared that it would no longer provide emergency liquidity to Cypriot banks, resulting in Cyprus having to introduce strict credit controls on banks and limiting withdrawals. The Cypriot economic emergency in 2013 thus was not an external phenomenon wholly outside the control of the respective parties. The crystallisation of the emergency in this instance becomes, in polite terms, a bargaining tool in the negotiations; in not so polite terms, it is a gun to the head. Similar tactics can be seen during the current negotiations with Greece.
The Problem of Temporariness
Emergency responses are unpalatable and should, ideally, be exceptional. In a national security emergency, human rights are derogated from under the assumption that this arrangement is merely temporary. Once the emergency is defeated, the exceptional measures are no longer required and so they disappear.
Of course, very often this ideal type emergency does not come to fruition and measures supposed to be temporary become perpetual. When it comes to economic states of emergency, however, restoration of the status quo is often not on the cards from the outset as very often, the conditions that existed prior to the crisis were part of the problem. An economic state of emergency therefore effects permanent change.
Moreover, the lightning fast speed at which economic transactions can reverberate around the world means that swift decision-making in the field of financial regulation is not exceptional, quarantined only to emergency situations. If claims for expedient decision-making in an economic crisis are not temporary, this has very real consequences for constitutional democracies, again potentially illustrating the decline of parliaments.
Conclusions: questioning the rhetoric of an economic state of emergency
The situation around Greece and the Eurozone is incredibly fluid; whether a referendum ultimately will go ahead remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the observations regarding economic states of emergency are the same regardless of the outcome. The rhetoric of emergency in an economic crisis is used as a negotiation tactic or as an attempt to present one solution to a financial crisis as the only solution, thus hiding the underlying ideology that motivated this decision. Furthermore, the proliferation of this rhetoric – not just in the area of financial regulation but also in national security and other fields too – has serious constitutional implications, resulting in the side-lining of constitutional actors such as courts and parliaments. These arrangements are not, however, as the rhetoric of emergency implies, temporary. The rhetoric of emergency therefore should always be questioned and interrogated and those that seek to invoke it should be called upon to justify their decisions.
This post explores some of the themes discussed in Alan Greene, ‘Questioning Executive Supremacy in an Economic State of Emergency’ http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/lest.12082/abstract
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