Democracy in Europe is under attack.
A "cabal" made up of shadowy European elites is toppling democratically elected leaders across the Continent and replacing them with compliant, Brussels-trained technocrats. Attempts to give national populations a say on vital decisions, as in the briefly promised Greek referendum, have also been ruthlessly crushed by the euro "politburo". That, at least, is the picture painted by some Eurosceptics. And it is dangerous nonsense.
The technocrats in question are Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos. The first is a former European commissioner and the second is a former vice-president of the European Central Bank. Mr Papademos was officially sworn in as Greek Prime Minister yesterday. And Mr Monti is expected to be installed next week to replace Silvio Berlusconi as Italy's premier.
It is true that neither man has been directly elected. Yet the critics ignore the fact that they are being appointed to head unity governments with the approval of the democratically elected representatives of the major political parties in both nations. And there is nothing "undemocratic" about governments of national unity, as we in Britain should know.
It is also true that the so-called "Frankfurt Group", which has emerged as a key decision-making forum in recent weeks, includes unelected officials such as the heads of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Yet the two dominant members are Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, who have the largest democratic mandates in Europe. And the idea that this represents a ruthlessly efficient cabal is hard to square with the fact that disagreements between its members keep flaring up, whether it is French and German differences over the proper role of the ECB, or loud rejections from the Commission of French proposals for a two-speed Europe. How can such a body impose its will on the Continent when it does not even know what its will is?
There were cries of "shame" when Greece's former Prime Minister, George Papandreou, called off a national referendum on the bailout package last week after pressure was exerted by Germany and France. But if the Greek population should have been allowed a vote, should Germans not be invited to give their say, too? It is, after all, German taxpayers who will be effectively funding the bailout. And if the Germans and Greeks have their say, why not the rest of the eurozone population, too? To frame the question in this way is to recognise the impossibility of solving this crisis through a succession of national votes on each firefighting decision. There is much more to democracy than plebiscites. Government tends to work best when elected representatives are allowed the space to take measures they judge are in the national interest; measures they then defend in national elections once populations have had a chance to witness the effects of their decisions. That is even more true when it comes to financial crises.
The critics are not entirely wrong. There is a legitimacy gap in the eurozone and the European Union. And if the eurozone does end up forming a closer political and economic union, its constituent states need to decide upon new democratic checks and balances. But this is a job for when the eurozone's immediate existential crisis is over. The job in hand is to stop the single currency from being broken apart by panicking financial markets. Such an unravelling would inflict potentially catastrophic damage on the EU as a whole. Complaints about arrogant European elites are wrong-headed at best and, at worst, cynically irresponsible. The real threat at the moment is not too much firm European leadership, but rather too little.