Home Open Space In Conversation with Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy.net


On Democracy and the EU


AB: There is a re-shaping of democracy taking place. There is both a crisis of the institutions that are representative of democracy everywhere and there is also what my friend calls the ‘democratic warming’- people want democracy more . This is one of the reasons why governments are giving it to us less. Because they feel threatened by the demand for participation. So there is a growing gap between government and popular sentiment. I think this is an international thing…in all existing democracies… and I think the traditional political parties are no longer giving expression and voice to people’s feelings and interest. Therefore the party becomes a machine of administration. People do not feel represented by these parties.. there’s not much to choose between them. This is a general phenomenon… very striking in most of Europe.


One example is in Britain. The EU is seen as making the rules and laws now but nobody votes for it. And if you were to have a referendum in Britain, the majority would leave the EU.


CfP: Why?


Who are these people? They are not democratic. They’re making all these laws. It’s partly a form of nationalism, but its articulated as ‘we were a proud democracy …and we are no longer our own masters’. And the political elite does not want to give the population the opportunity to say that.


The corporations want the EU. Because the EU is a big power. Because it is making the rules in the international market. And the elite also want to stand up to America and China so there’s a sense that this is the way to be a big player in the world.


The origins of the EU was a very positive one and I’m very for it because it was a machinery for preventing Europeans going to war with each other. And in terms of France and Germany this was a very, very positive development. But it has become a means of taking away from people the capacity to govern themselves. I think the Lisbon treaty which has created a more constitutional structure is very unpopular. We have a new President of Europe who is chosen by the Council of the Heads of Europe. It was a Belgian who was selected. There is no election process at all. Technically all the countries have to agree but in reality if the French and Germans agree then that’s it. We don’t understand the process.


CfP: It’s not transparent ?


No it’s a fix. …So this is one example of the alienation of people…The European law is created by the European Commission…electing the President is a very complicated system. And the corporations have access to that process in a way that nobody else really has. So the functionaries who are building Europe are more easily influenced by the corporations than most other political forces. Europe is 600 million people it’s …27 countries ……


CfP: How did it change? If the original idea of the EU was sound…someone said that a handful of corporations drafted the constitution ..is there documentary evidence of this?


The reason the change happened is that the original impulse was to take down barriers…to take down barriers to travel, trade, taxation…that’s a very good thing. Then it started to build its own institutions and laws and regulations. So instead of being a negative clean up of impediments it started to construct its own legal systems, its own laws and regulations. The currency is an example. You have a currency that doesn’t have a clear political master… Decisions taken about interest rates are political. It serves the interest of whatever is defined as the interests of the market. The main influence is probably German. It’s going to cause tremendous problems.


Take one example – Greece. Greece has a new socialist government. I know the Prime Minister…he’s honest, a democrat. And Greece was saying it had a 6 to 7 % budget deficit. You are allowed a 3% deficit under EU rules. Actually it was a 12% deficit and they were cheating. So the Socialist government comes in and they open the books and discover the real deficit .. and they are immediately punished for this.. for being transparent. The point is that a political decision could be taken…that Greece is now becoming transparent. The markets are saying this is a test for the whole European system.


CfP: And what are the ramifications of this?


I think they can literally force the government to cut its expenditure. .to drop its programmes and pay people less. And then of course there would be riots. It’s a small country and it wouldn’t cost very much to support it…that’s one of the problems of having a shared currency without a clearly shared political project.


CfP: What if historically Europe had been one country? What if there could be a Central Bank like we have here? In some sense we are a nation of fractious nation states...


If Europe had been one country there wouldn’t have been the Second World War. And the British would not have left India when they did. …you would have had a very much harder job if Europe was your colonial power and had been as big at that time and as populous..


CfP: What I’m trying to understand is what is the difference between having a Central Bank of Europe and what we have here – the Reserve Bank of India..


One difference is if you have a poor state here, then the decision to subsidize that state is a decision taken to secure the unity of India. So everybody feels this is a part of our country and of course if they are poor and have extreme situations we must do something to equalize this. If you have a very thriving economy here then you try to help those parts so they are not left behind. And the politics of this is the politics of national integration.



If you have this inequality growing now, coming out of the recession, and the central economy of Germany and France start to grow…that would mean having higher interest rates ..to keep the growth under some sort of control… but the smaller economies will still be very behind and they need low interest rates. Or they need to be subsidized. But the rich countries are saying we are not going to subsidize Greece.. we are not going to subsidize the Slovaks or Lithuanians or the Irish– because they are not our country. So you don’t have that politics. And they have their own problems in Germany or France or UK and people there don’t not feel it is their job to be paying …to be subsidizing foreigners. Its like saying to people here you must pay money to assist people in Ghana or Pakistan ..that you must pay taxes for that. People will say we’re not going to do that.. we have enough problems of our own …so its understandable.



CfP: Is the EU a electoral political democracy because in India for example many of these decisions have electoral repercussions so they are part of the whole party politics - both regional and national elections etc. But in this case there are national level elections in different countries but there actually isn’t an equivalent of the Lok Sabha elections in EU.


Well there is an EU parliament but there aren’t European parties. So this government doesn’t speak for anybody.


CfP: Is there something written about the role of the corporations in the shaping of the EU that you can guide us to?


There is something written about the role of the corporations in the database state…


On Open Democracy


The story begins in 1988 when I along with the then editor of New Statesman started something called Charter 88. This came about because there was a supplement in the New Statesman about the year 1968. And Stuart Weir who was the editor rang me up and said would I like to write an editorial about this. Because I’m a 68’er- its my generation and I had an article in the supplement. And I said the real anniversary is 1688 when the revolution in England produced the origins of the non –constitution in England. We didn’t have a Bill of Rights. We had an informal, unwritten constitution . In 1688 the parliament threw out the King – Charles II and brought in William and Mary and there was a revolution. It was a very peculiar revolution.. the first in many ways of an European revolution and it laid the basis for the role of parliament ..gradually becoming more powerful than the King. So it was the beginning of the British democratic revolution…. And I said 300 years is enough.


CfP: Enough of?



Of 1688..of an unwritten constitution. ..we need a written constitution, a Bill of Rights, parliaments in Scotland and Wales…so this became a very influential movement and was part of the formation of the new Labour . Labour was looking for a way of being modern. ….About 80,000 people signed it. It was very influential. And that’s when I met Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the leader John Smith .. who made a big Charter 88 speech saying we must have a new constitution settlement. And the Labour party became committed to the Human Rights Act and various other constitutional reforms. But it didn’t deliver it in a democratic fashion…


When Labour came to power I became quite frustrated because Labour started delivering what I call corporate populism. It was taking the corporations as a model of how to govern . It was doing things, it wasn’t lethargic but its idea of action was corporate and involved with the media . Some of the reforms were powerful ones.. there is now the Scottish parliament and the Welsh parliament ..there is a Mayor in London, there is a Human Rights Act and so on. But the spirit of democracy was missing. If you want to have more democracy you have to democratize the existing power and power is now international . The media is international, the issues are becoming international. So it seemed to me that we needed to use the web to start a discussion about how the world was governed. And out of those discussions the proposal to start Open Democracy came about.


It was an attempt to say there are big global issues… there is a crisis in the way that the world is running….and we need to use the web to have international participation…to have a single conversation in the English language which is looking at these big issues. This was before 9/11.


I had a model – putting together a magazine and publishing on the web. Which is quite an expensive thing to do. You need editors…people who know publishing.. the process as I conceived it was quite expensive and needed quite a lot of people. So we needed quite a lot of money and we didn’t raise the money so I said let’s go ahead – because obviously the idea was needed. We launched in May 2001 and in September there was the attack on the World Trade Centre. We had this idea of just publishing on a fortnightly basis – rather slowly – being thoughtful and not rushing…and with 9/11 we went daily. There was an international discussion about the meaning ( of the attack) . And I started a debate the day after the attack which was called ‘Is terror the new Cold War?’ I think I was a bit ahead of the times…so that was really the start of Open Democracy.


There was a global public that was not being serviced journalistically – who were interested in world affairs, working in world affairs and who would want to read this and want to write for it…and would become a sort of influence by giving expression. There are at least about a million people in the world working in foreign affairs, United Nations, international networks, in Oxfam. But we do not feel a part of the global public. Our main identities and interests remain either national or technical. If you are interested in international financial systems or international health or international biology – these networks – the web connects and intensifies them. But they remain specialist. And when they read the newspaper they read what their own national situation is. They don’t vote for the UN. And the elites who run these institutions are specialists. They would like the world to be interested in what they are doing but they are not interested in talking to the world or being accountable to that world. So at the moment I think there isn’t a global public. So we gained quite rapidly a core readership of 30 to 40 thousand people .. and it has now grown to 50 or 60 thousand…but it didn’t become a quarter of a million. We have about 2 million people who look at Open Books.. they come from Google…but they are not attached to it.


So we’ve created a global brand…and I’m very proud of it…In many countries of the world people say ah yes. .very impressed.. very good…and the sense of it having standards and integrity …and that’s very powerful . But it is not a home for debates that shape events. People are not looking at it for that yet.


I secured funding from the Ford Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropists….

I realized in 2006 that I was facing two problems – instead of writing I was fund raising and the second was that the business model was not going to work. It was not viable. I handed over to a much younger person called Tony Curzon Price who had created a mathematical software company in California. And he cut the cost hugely - by about 80%. We now don’t have an office – we rent a space on a hub. Most people work from home and we use the web itself to have editorial discussions and decision making.


…How you design your website affects your ability to comment, how quick it is in different parts of the world, it affects how you link so the design of your backend is part of the reading editorial experience. So your editor in chief needs to be literate in the backend stuff. So Tony’s rescued Open Democracy by cutting the costs. By turning it into a web publication. So he’s now the boss and has just written a statement on how he wants to go forward. And the key issue now is what is legitimate government. How can you affect climate change ? How do you control the banking system so that it is legitimate? This is not just a national issue – it is now a global issue.


We’re just in the process of formulating a statement about what Open Democracy will be about. I was about open democracy but he comes from the web world and he is about openness. What does it mean to be open. …what is the consequence of being open…so this is something I’m very excited about.

-- Anthony Barnett: Founder of opendemocracy.net. A social entrepreneur of wide experience, Anthony helped launch Charter 88 in 1988 and was its first Director. Generating widespread support he turned it into a movement for the democratic reform of Britain (at the end of the 90s the Telegraph described it as the UK's "most influential pressure group of the decade").


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