My thoughts on how the challenges facing the EU from populism, and how progressives can fight back, in particular by rethinking how to do with governance of the Euro and how to re-envision the EU:
In recent years, the European Union has suffered through a cascading set of crises, including the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the security crisis, and Brexit. But rather than bringing the EU together, with concerted responses that would demonstrate its common values on its 60th anniversary, these crises have revealed cross cutting divisions among member states. What’s more, they have been accompanied by major crises of politics and democracy for the EU as well as its member states.
At EU level, questions are increasingly raised not only about the (lack of) effectiveness in solving the various crises but also democratic legitimacy. The causes are EU governance processes characterized by the predominance of closed-door political bargains by leaders in the Council and by a preponderance of technocratic decisions by EU officials in the Commission and the European Central Bank, without significant oversight by the European Parliament. At national level, concerns focus on the ways in which the EU’s very existence has diminished elected governments’ authority and control over growing numbers of policies for which they had traditionally been alone responsible, often making it difficult for them to fulfill their electoral promises or respond to their voters’ concerns and expectations.
At the start of March, the European Commission published a white paper ‘On the Future of Europe’. Vivien Schmidt and Matt Wood assess the Commission’s proposals, arguing that while the paper’s focus on differentiated integration is pragmatically useful under the current circumstances, this strategy could exacerbate distrust in the EU if it is not accompanied by greater accountability and transparency in decision-making.
See my op-ed at The Cipher Brief on the state of European Democracy after Brexit:
Democracy in Europe is in a parlous state at the moment. The British vote for exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) has highlighted deep-seated problems with democracy at both the EU and national levels. But it would be a mistake to think that this means the EU is undemocratic, or that Brexit spells the break-up of the EU. Rather, it shows that in the EU, even more so than in the U.S., politics has become increasingly volatile as citizens punish political elites for gridlocked governing processes and policies that don’t work.
The Brexit referendum was dominated by a populist campaign focused on immigration in order to “take back control” from the EU, which was depicted as an over-regulated, undemocratic superstate.
The same kinds of complaints voiced about the EU in the Brexit campaign are mirrored in most European countries, by the likes of, for example, Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who have also called for referenda on the EU. Euro-skepticism has been increasing more generally across Europe, along with disenchantment with national political elites. This is evidenced by the loss of trust in mainstream parties, the steady rise of populist parties on both the extreme-left and the extreme-right, and the rapid turnover of incumbent governments. The EU’s other crises have also played their part, including the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, and the security crisis. The EU’s poor management of all of these crises has been another reason why dissatisfied citizens across Europe, not just the British, may be asking why they should belong to such a Union.
Now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, all the attention has been focused on how it will go about leaving, or even whether it will leave in the end. But equally important is how the EU responds to Brexit: whether as an isolated case to be quarantined in order to avoid contagion to other member-states, or as the symptom of a wider disease. Only by seeing the Brexit vote as a wake-up call to reinvent the EU may the EU itself actually overcome the many challenges it faces. What the EU must do is to generate a ‘new deal’ for the EU as a whole, not to treat the UK in isolation.
The EU will probably treat the UK as exceptional, as the result of populist Euroskepticism gone mad in a country ill-served by a conservative party trying to solve its internal divisions via referendum, drip-fed anti-EU rhetoric by the tabloids, where the EU has been the scapegoat for the UK’s many home-grown problems. The EU is therefore likely to hunker down, to protect all the acquis so valiantly fought for over the years—including the freedom of movement of EU citizens that has been a major focus of the Leave campaign.
But however tempting it may be for the EU to treat the UK as an example—so that no other member-state follows suit—it would be a mistake. The EU would do better to listen to and address the concerns of British citizens, in particular because calls for referenda are now echoed in other EU member-states by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, among others.
As the referendum campaign nears its end, one central issue is remarkable for its absence, despite the fact that it has been a major contributor to the anger that lends support to the Brexit camp: neo-liberalism. The revolt against the political parties, the rejection of the experts, the distrust of the elites more generally—all of this has to do with neo-liberalism—as does the venting by working and middle class people against the worsening of their life chances due to stagnant wages, growing inequality, and the increasing difficulty for the young to get a foot on the real estate ladder, or a steady well-paying job. And yet the real cause of these concerns is never addressed. Instead, the EU and immigration are blamed for all of Britain’s ills. But whether the decision on June 23 is Leave or Remain, neither Britain’s problems nor citizens’ dissatisfaction will go away.
Neo-liberalism has been so resilient in the UK as well as in the EU that it receives barely a mention in the mainstream press or in public debates. It is so pervasive that it is hardly recognized as a major source of the disenchantment that lends support to the Leave campaign. Better to blame the outsiders (i.e., immigrants and Eurocrats) than to recognize that the problem comes from the inside, from the policies of British governments.
Democratically elected British governments beginning in the 1980s sought to transform the UK economy based on a neo-liberal economic philosophy. It touted the market as the solution, the state as the problem; denigrated politicians and civil servants as rent-seekers not to be trusted; believed that financial market players were rational actors who deserved little or at most ‘light touch’ regulation; and promoted a growth model focused on debt-based real estate speculation rather than rising wages, and on service industries in place of manufacturing. It should be no wonder, following the financial crisis of 2008 with the concomitant rise in job insecurity and poverty, in the face of no change in the neo-liberal discourse let alone the policies, that working people would have lost faith in their politicians, and expect some alternative. But, surprisingly, there is no mainstream alternative, just the sirens of the populists blaming immigration and the EU.
I was was in Brussels on June 16 to give a talk at a seminar hosted by the Open Society European Policy Institute and the Istituto degli Affari Internazionali based on my contribution to the IAI’s essay collection Govering Europe: How to Make the EU more Efficient and Democratic.
In the piece, entitled “The New EU Governance: New Intergovernmentalism, New Supranationalism, and New Parliamentarism,” I explain how governance in the EU has changed in recent years, what its problems are, and how it could be governed in the future.
I argue that only by by considering the actions and interactions of all three main actors together can we fully understand the “new” EU governance and its problems. I use, by way of illustration, EU’s crises of money, borders and security, suggesting that it is best to think about the future of EU governance not in terms of any hard core but rather as a “soft core” of member-states clustered in overlapping policy communities. Finally I propose ways of reinforcing EU-level capacity for policy coordination with national-level decentralisation to address problems of democracy and legitimacy.
Spanish readers: Here is the link to an article on “The Seven Challenges Facing Europe,” for which I was interviewed along with Christopher Bickerton, published yesterday in El Español: http://www.elespanol.com/mundo/20160504/122237835_0.html. I gave this interview in conjunction with a talk on the impact of European integration on national democracies for the BBVA Foundation in Madrid on May 5, 2016.
The paper argues that the EU’s sovereign debt crisis is not just economic; it is also political, resulting from the failure of EU leaders to offer solutions that calm the markets and convince the people. These failures stem from problems with EU leaders’ ideas about how to solve the crisis as well as their communication about them. That communication encompasses not just EU leaders talking to one another in negotiations of crisis solutions but also speaking to “the markets’ and to ‘the people’ about those solutions, all of which may interact in perverse ways. My article uses the analytic framework of “discursive institutionalism” to consider the different forms, types, levels, rates and mechanisms of change in ideas followed by the EU leaders’ discursive interactions in the “coordinative” discourse and their “communicative discourse” to the global markets and European publics. It uses a range of country cases, but in particular Germany and France, in illustration.
During the euro’s sovereign debt crisis, European leaders have been obsessed with rules, numbers, and pacts, including the so-called ‘Six-Pack,’ the ‘Two-Pack,’ and the ‘Fiscal Compact,’ each more stringent on the nature of the rules, more restrictive with regard to the numbers, and more punitive for member-states that failed to meet the requirements. In the absence of any deeper political or economic integration, the EU ended up with ‘governing by the rules’ and ‘ruling by the numbers’ in the Eurozone. Austerity policies focused on rapid deficit reduction along with pressures for structural reform – often shorthand for reducing labor rights and protections – have wreaked havoc on ‘Social Europe,’ in particular in countries in the periphery.
Slowly but surely, however, under pressure from deteriorating economies and increasing political volatility, EU leaders have been changing the rules by which they have been governing the economy. But they have not done this formally. Instead, EU leaders have been informally and incrementally reinterpreting the rules without admitting it in their discourse to the public. This has helped to slow the economic crisis but not to end it.