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In his last official visit to Europe as president, Barack Obama visited the Acropolis in Athens before delivering a speech on democracy that same day (November 16).

In his last hurrah on the world stage, US President Barack Obama visited Greece and Germany just over a week after the election of his successor in the White House. 2016 has been a year of hope to many, but also a year of dismay for the political old guard, which was reflected in Mr. Obama’s message throughout the trip. Seeing key pillars of the transatlantic relationship under threat, from future trade deals to European unity, he sought to defend his view of shared values. In Athens he delivered a speech centred on democracy, including gratitude to Greece for inspiring modern democracy:

Most of all, we’re indebted to Greece for the most precious of gifts –the truth, the understanding that as individuals of free will, we have the right and the capacity to govern ourselves. For it was here, 25 centuries ago, in the rocky hills of this city, that a new idea emerged. DemokratiaKratos –the power, the right to rule– comes from demos –the people. The notion that we are citizens –not servants, but stewards of our society. The concept of citizenship –that we have both rights and responsibilities. The belief in equality before the law –not just for a few, but for the many; not just for the majority, but also the minority. These are all concepts that grew out of this rocky soil.

His speech covered topics from globalization to the NATO alliance, all through the lens of democratic values. When tying it back to Greece’s ongoing economic and political struggles, however, he underlined the importance of the European Union (EU) and European integration, which he qualified as “one of the great political and economic achievements of human history.”

Mr. Obama is right to laud democracy in its cradle, as he is right to defend the spread of democratic values. It appears he fails to understand, however, the fundamental incompatibility of the EU with democracy.

From its inception, European integration has been an elite-driven project. Jean Monnet, the architect of the European Coal and Steel Community (the EU’s precursor), never held public office. He was a pragmatist, knowing that his project for a federal Europe would not come about through the ballot box but incrementally, as opportunities presented themselves. In his memoirs, he famously claims that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”.  In his time, the dire need for coal and steel to rebuild Europe’s war-torn nations presented an opportunity for the Europeanisation of those industries.

A German stamp from 1977 featuring Jean Monnet, considered one of the Fathers of Europe.
A German stamp from 1977 featuring Jean Monnet, considered one of the Fathers of Europe.

More recently, the project of integration has continued in spite of democracy, not because of it. Major EU policy directions are often decided behind closed doors, or ready-made legislation by the European Commission is handed down to the European Parliament to rubber-stamp. On the rare occasions when member states put new EU treaties to the people, they often fail. From the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 to Ireland’s votes on the Nice and Lisbon treaties, to the French and Dutch “no” votes on the Constitutional Treaty of 2005, there has been considerable public opposition to further integration. This opposition has been met with equally considerable disdain by Brussels, which has always found ways to bypass it.

No vote has made clearer the distrust many people have of the EU than the British vote to leave the union in June of this year. The last time Britons were consulted was in 1975, when they were asked whether they wished to remain in “the European Community (the Common Market)” (the two terms were largely interchangeable then). This organization, which many Britons saw as more of a market than a federal entity, would eventually turn into the supranational economic and political union of today.

It is true that it was the democratically elected British parliament that allowed the EU to claim more powers over the years. What June’s vote laid bare, however, is the disconnect that often exists between citizens and their own elected representatives. Indeed, a large majority of British MPs were in favour of maintaining EU membership prior to the referednum. If such a chasm already exists between the demos and its representatives at the national level, how can a supranational body like the EU ever come close to resembling the will its citizens?

The reality is, the peoples of the European continent never have, and never will constitute a single demos. Europe’s greatest strength has always been its diversity, and the top-down project of integration that has taken place over the past seven decades has likely done more to foster animosity between people than foster solidarity, as the European debt crisis has made evident.

Mr. Obama’s words about citizens as stewards, not servants, are inspiring. However, his message loses its coherence when he prescribes the continuity of fundamentally undemocratic institutions. After decades of neglect, demokratia is on the rise throughout the European continent, and if the British vote in June is any indication, tomorrow’s democratic order will not include the EU.