Decree-o-matic: The peripherys permanent state of exception
Leigh Phillips is a journalist and science writer. He was a reporter and deputy editor with EUobserver until 2012 covering economic affairs, the environment and digital rights. He has also written for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, Nature, Scientific American, Red Pepper and Jacobin.
The Greek Frankensteins monster of a coalition government stitched together from the torso of the wounded conservative New Democracy and the decomposing, undead remains of centre-left Pasok and ex-eurocommunist Dimar passed legislation last week raising taxes on ordinary Greeks and corporations and then this week approved another package of moves restructuring state assets for privatisation and expanding the powers of the finance ministry
Ill not go into details of the problems with the legislation, termed prior actions, which was demanded by international lenders in return for the latest round of financing due this month. What I find significant is that the different pieces of legislation have not been presented as proper bills, but as edicts in order to prevent debate, which would slow down the approval process.
The coalition felt it didnt have time for the legislation to go through normal procedure as it wanted the bills to be already in the bag before finance minister Yannis Stournaras headed to the Eurogroup meeting (of finance ministers from the eurozone) on Monday, 21 January, where the first of three bail-out tranches worth 18 billion was to be considered and possibly approved.
Opposition parties, both the socialist Syriza party and the Independent Greeks the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy accused the government of bypassing parliament.
Their criticisms were how should this be put politely? lets say unvarnished.
You are introducing a new form of governing, Syriza parliamentary spokesman Panayiotis Lafazanis said. Ministers will issue edicts that will abolish parliaments rights and will not be debated at all. You are responsible for turning a parliamentary democracy into a parliamentary junta.
We are observing a situation where parliament has essentially ceased working, said Notis Marias of the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy, the Independent Greeks. Your attitude is Eurogroup uber alles.
It seems strange to be talking about legislation by decree in the 21st Century. The words decree and edict evoke images of the Catholic Church releasing papal bulls, or absolute monarchs issuing proclamations changing the religion of a realm overnight.
The development of modern democracy placed great emphasis on legislative supremacy (also known as parliamentary sovereignty). Whether called a parliament or congress or house, the deliberative assembly normally has exclusive authority to pass, amend or repeal laws, raise or lower taxes, regulate trade, and declare war. Western societies did not opt instead for a model of elected monarchs (athough Poland famously employed wolna elekcja, or royal elections, on occasion until the late 18th century).
Why did we do this? Well, its a long story and whole libraries could be and indeed are filled with discussions of theories of governance. But boiled down, the argument is that the executive branch the body that enforces the law and carries out the day-to-day administration of the state is the servant of the legislature, in order to ensure a separation of powers, which in turn serves as a sort of inoculation against tyrants.
By distributing power away from the executive, and maintaining the supremacy of the elected chamber, a polity is supposed to be protected against authoritarianism. In those places where there is little or no separation between executive and legislative branches, the different powers of government by definition are held by one person or one small group of people. (This situation, by the way other than during times of national emergency, or state of exception is the very definition of despotism you will find in any dictionary)
Yet what happened in Greece this past fortnight is far from the first time that governments in the eurozone periphery have turned to the use of decrees to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, though it has received little notice, the use of decrees, edicts and similar manoeuvres a direct challenge to legislative supremacy has been sharply on the increase in since the advent of the crisis.
Grand Duke Draghi of Frankfurt
Most controversially, the ECBs humiliating ultimatum letter to Berlusconi in the summer of 2011 that was leaked to Corriere della Serra, the Italian daily, included not only a series of demands for legislation in return for central bank bond purchases, but the detailed timetable bills needed to be passed by and that they be imposed by edict, only later to be approved in a similar up/down fashion to this past fortnights Greek decrees. According to the letter, the package of austerity and structural adjustment bills had to be passed as soon as possible with decree-laws, followed by parliamentary ratification by the end September 2011.
The bulk of the shock therapy that unelected technocrat prime minister Mario Monti has applied to Italy have been performed by decree the Save Italy emergency decree, which took place days after Super-Mario took power; the Grow Italy decree, the Fiscal Simplification decree, the Spending Review decree, the Sustainable Development decree, and so on.
Some of the actions undertaken by decree any progressive could support; others decidedly less so. But whether one supports or opposes a move is immaterial the method through which they are enacted is undemocratic.
Over in Spain, in May last year, Spains Mariano Rajoy used a decree to avoid parliamentary oversight of the decision to use public funds to bail out its drowning banks, offloading written-down assets into separate financial vehicles. Similarly, in February, Rajoy used the decree format to force banks to set aside certain amounts as cash buffers against losses. In March, there was a labour market deregulation decree in March, and in November an anti-tax-fraud decree and another delinking pensions from inflation.
After a woman killed herself when bailiffs tried to throw her out of her home and under pressure from protests, Madrid also passed a decree suspending home evictions for poor families with small children, the disabled and long-term unemployed. This action should certainly be welcomed, and probably did need to be instituted instantly for obvious reasons. But the question still remains, even for these sorts of measures why is so much legislative activity now being done without parliamentary scrutiny?
By contrast, this past week, US President Barack Obama unveiled his gun control strategy. Alongside a series of legislative proposals, Obama announced 23 executive orders that are enacted immediately. Republican opponents and hyperbole-mongers have attacked the president for bypassing congress and ripping up the constitution.
But in reality, every one of his gun control recommendations criminal background checks for all gun sales, reinstating an assault weapons ban, a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines, outlawing armour-piercing bullets and providing mental health support services in schools require congressional approval. The executive orders cover such matters as directing the Center for Disease Control to perform research into the causes of gun violence, requiring that federal agencies make relevant data available to the background check system, launching a national dialogue on mental health and starting a a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.
These are precisely the sort of relatively trivial moves that do not require parliamentary debate and oversight the sort of direction from the directors of the executive branch of government to its officers and agents managing their operations or the appointment of senior civil servants. In France, these are called décrets (although the president may not rule by decree except during national emergencies) and in the UK Orders in Council. Not all executive actions need to be put through the legislative sausage factory.
But major policy changes with significant impacts, such as cutting pensions, radical overhaul of labour markets, bank bail-outs and so on certainly should indeed be looked over by parliaments with a fine tooth comb. And when they arent, if there is genuinely some sort of emergency requiring immediate executive action, there needs to be a bloody good reason, and it should be explained why this exception is necessary.
(If you want to be technical about this, what were talking about here is the distinction between primary legislation crafted and approved by the legislative branch and secondary or delegated legislation laws made by an executive authority under powers transmitted to them by the primary legislation in order to carry it out)
Citizens ears should prick up every time they read that something is being passed by decree or edict. Nine times out of ten, it is a sure sign that democracy is getting a bit of a hair-cut. An historical wander through the textbook exemplars of the use of decrees are instructive for comparison.
Famously, George W. Bush enacted a whopping 262 executive orders, the preponderance of which were a clear usurpation of congresss position as the legislative branch. In this way, he blocked funding for stem-cell research, sidestepped the Geneva Conventions protection from torture, and offered impunity to US corporations operating in Iraq.
Those for whom the origins of Russias current managed democracy remain a mystery could do worse than read up on Boris Yeltsins privatisation by decree and ultimate disbanding of parliament and rule by decree in the autumn of 1993. Fantastic sums in public funds were transferred to banks owned by major figures in the Soviet state and the former Communist Party higher ups. These banks then spent the effectively embezzled funds to snap up state industries on the cheap in privatisation auctions they themselves conducted.
From 1972 to 2007, governance of Northern Ireland was carried out under what was known as direct rule in effect rule by decree. While the people Northern Ireland still technically elected members of parliament to the House of Commons, legislation administering the region was made through Orders in Council, a situation opposed by by both nationalists and unionists for its lack of democratic accountability.
Similarly, during the Algerian War of Independence, in 1956, the governor general of French Algeria, Robert Lacoste, abolished the Algerian assembly and ruled by decree to deal with the mounting political violence. Then in 1961, President Charles de Gaulle became the only French president to rule all of France by decree during a national emergency, employing special powers he requested from the National Assembly in the wake of an abortive rightist uprising in Algiers. Over the course of five months from April to September of that year, De Gaulle enacted 16 decrees expanding police powers, enlarging the power of the courts, banning publications, dismissing civil servants for encouraging subversion, and establishing special military courts, amongst other measures.
Now, one of the difficulties in discussing Europes democracy-on-a-diet approach to the economic crisis is that when anyone suggests that there has been a hollowing out of democracy, the cry immediately goes up from defenders of the strategy: Where are the tanks? Where are the gulags? Where is the police state?
But this is a category error, a conflation of autocracy and totalitarianism, as there can of course be creeping autocracy without totalitarianism. The advance of rule by decree does not signify the imminent appearance of a Duce or Fuhrer but with a blue and yellow flag. Mario Draghi is not Kim Jong-un.
Cindy Skach, professor of comparative government at the University of Oxford and one of the worlds leading experts on constitutional design, has described precisely this sort of legislative atrophying phenomenon as constitutional dictatorship. It comes from the use of emergency powers over a prolonged period during which authority is transferred to non-partisan, above-party sources, leading to a loss of substance in the democratic process.
In her work comparing Weimar Germany and the French Fifth Republic, she offers a warning of what results from this overuse of decree: Such periods are also characterised by opaque, nonaccountable decision-making in which the democratically elected institutions of the polity, such as the legislature, have lost their controlling capacity, as presidents become increasingly less accountable.
Such descriptions will of course be familiar to anyone who has followed the steady transfer of fiscal powers out of the hands of democratically elected parliaments both in EU-IMF programme countries and across the eurozone.
To be clear, I am not saying that Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries are being ruled entirely by decree, but a lot of the new rules do come in the form of decree.
This state of exception is becoming permanent.