Professor Alberto Alemanno from HEC Paris answers Euronews' questions on the health of the European Union and potential consequences of next year's European elections.
Isn’t it a paradox that people who dream, like Steve Bannon, of dismantling the European Union, are trying to organize themselves in a pan-European movement, whereas the Euro-enthusiasts, on the contrary, still act mainly through the national political parties?
Using Europe to destroy Europe sounds indeed deeply paradoxical. Yet this stems from a hidden, and therefore largely overlooked phenomenon. Historically, the ongoing Europeanisation of the political discourse has occurred at the fringes and been driven by radical, populist parties, such as UKIP, Le Pen’s Front National, Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid, Salvini’s Lega and Alternative für Deutschland. These political forces are the only ones that have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the EU (to beat the establishment) over the last decade. By developing one common political language across their pan-European electorate, they succeeded in what mainstream political parties never even tried. As a result, traditional parties have manifestly contributed to the emergence and success of these fringe parties. This lack of engagement of mainstream parties – such as the European Popular Party (EPP) and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) – on Europe, within and beyond their frontiers, has created a political vacuum that a plethora of new political parties and grassroots movements, as well as their emerging alliances, seems ready to fill across the political spectrum. Steve Bannon’s announcement is feeding into such a plot and that will continue to unfold regardless of whether the relevant EU right-wing political parties will accept his support. What Bannon is offering to the populists is an American vision of politics, which - being fundamentally money-driven and cynical - is still largely unknown to most of continental Europe. This shouldn’t be easily dismissed as media hype.
What if Steve Bannon was actually very useful for Europe and the EU, simply by forcing us to ask the essential question: Should the European Union exist? The next European election could provide the answer…
You may be right. By asking uncomfortable but urgent questions, populist and right-wing forces may potentially trigger a healthy and badly-needed public debate on an alternative Europe. Yet I nurture some doubts about this prospect.
The next European parliament elections are set to be a major political event. Its implications for the future of European citizens’ lives and our model of society will be very significant. At the same time, these EU elections may start to matter to more citizens; they are poised to become a battlefield for “a European civil war,” as President Macron recently put it. According to this prevailing narrative, such a war is currently being fought between the supporters of deeper EU integration and liberal values, on the one hand, and those who intend to pursue an EU of independent, illiberal nations, on the other. While this might appear an oversimplification, I am afraid that the ensuing polarisation won’t offer enough public space for an informed conversation on which Europe we want. Europe is not – and should never become – an end in itself; rather a means to a broader aim. Unfortunately, I don’t see many alternative ideas ready to compete on the political market and able to define Europe’s ultimate aim.
In sum, the European Parliament elections are set to go down in history more as a Brexit moment than as a genuine opportunity for European democratic renewal.
Besides Steve Bannon who is not a European, what forces inside Europe are the most harmful for European integration?
Enemy number one to Europe’s advance is represented by our national political systems and their respective political classes, including and especially its youngest leaders. Traditional political party politics continue to pretend to be able to govern all major challenges – ranging from migration control to climate change – at the national, as opposed to the European, level. Yet, today’s economic and social interdependence, across the continent, suggests that this is pure fiction. Our European economies and societies are much more europeanised than our political systems, which appear in denial of those realities. In other words, our European political system has never caught up with the impact that European integration has had on citizens’ daily lives. The absence of an authentic pan-European party system heavily influences the electoral game and partisan competition, which remain largely national. This absence also militates against the emergence of a pan-European public opinion capable of holding national political class accountable transnationally. Indeed, despite states’ interdependence in matters concerning their citizens’ daily lives—ranging from economic and environmental policy to EU-enacted data protection regulations—Europeans are exposed exclusively to domestic accounts of EU development.
This gap between the European streets and the corridors of Brussels condemns the EU to remain a convenient scapegoat for everyone to blame when something does not work. The only way to break such an impasse is for politics to become European and eventually offer the democratic legitimacy the EU desperately needs.
There are signs suggesting that long-time populists on the one hand and a new wave of little-noticed transnational parties, such as Varoufakis’ European Spring and the youthful VOLT movement, on the other, are poised to disrupt the parliament. Both strands of movements threaten the mainstream political parties that have historically held a monopoly on the European project. They are opening up alternative and competing new ideas about what Europe should be about. This is a welcome development within the ongoing realignment of the EU political system.
Speaking of centrifugal forces in Europe, can we say that Europe is just too big to be fully integrated? For example, there are so many differences in terms of history between Western and Central Europe. Can people from these two parts of Europe really feel like members of the same family?
Europe is not, and should not be, nurturing the ambition to replace national identity. Yet it is a recurrent mistake – also made by pro-EU voices – to sell the idea of an United States of Europe as a silver bullet capable of addressing all the tensions between our different levels of government, segments of society and geographies. A more nuanced formula is that of ‘demoicracy’, which attempts at combining the formal democratic channels of national and European democracy in tandem with each other. Why can't we accept that Europe offers an additional, complementary layer to our political, social and cultural identities? Europe is nothing else but a geographical and mental space that multiplies our individuals and collective opportunities by 27; to find a job, a partner, a house… in sum, a better life.
When it comes to a West-East divide, recent events in Poland, Hungary but also in Italy suggest that the greatest challenges today are common. These countries are following a common playbook by subverting the rule of law through an orderly, systematic modification of the basic principles governing their states while the EU watches them, largely powerless.
Europe is split into at least three blocks: those rallying behind the Franco-German axis (which is weakened by an outgoing Merkel and an isolated Macron), the Visegrad-4 (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) and the Hanseatic League 2.0 (led by the Netherlands and gathering seven other wealthy, northern countries) that is primarily united by a desire to act as a counterweight to Macron’s plans.
The EU is often criticised for its lack of democracy. What should be done to make the European institutions more representative of the will of the voters?
Europe’s major deficit is not democratic (those who make decisions in Brussels are our elected governments and representatives at the European Parliament), but one of intelligibility and actual political participation. Very few people understand how Europe works, to whom its many institutions are accountable and how citizens can actually influence their operation. Yet, despite its unintelligibility and perceived opaqueness, the EU’s day-to-day operation is, on average, more open, inclusive and accountable than that of most EU Member States. Multiple avenues of participation exist, ranging from agenda-setting via the European Citizens’ Initiative, advice via public consultation, and adjudication via administrative and legal actions before the EU Ombudsman and national courts respectively. Yet, these participatory channels remain little known. As a result, they remain underused by EU citizens. Paradoxically, the major beneficiaries of the EU participatory opportunities are not EU citizens, but euro-specialists – be they business (which represents 75% of yearly lobbying meetings) or civil society organisations. Yet unless citizens begin to organise and make their voices heard, the EU will continue to remain insulated from the wealth of experiences of local democratic experimentation happening all across the continent. This can be done through the establishment of genuine transnational parties – as they are timidly emerging these days – as well as through the cultivation of citizen-driven forms of mobilisation.
Unfortunately, neither of these phenomena – which could potentially legitimize the EU – are finding their ways into the EU institutional framework.
Think about it: What is the only thing European citizens never do together? We travel, get married, buy property across the continent, but we never do politics together.
Can the EU be fully democratic as it is composed of independent countries of different sizes? In a direct vote, the voters from 3 – 4 big countries could in some cases easily overwhelm the will of the rest of Europe’s citizens.
Since the EU is not a State, its democratic qualities can’t be the same as those of the nation-state. EU’s legitimacy must be found elsewhere. In its current, bottom-up, elite-driven form, the EU has largely accomplished its original aim of embedding peace among European countries, but it has become a victim of its success. Now the time has come to move to a different model that may perpetuate its integration goals while accommodating citizens’ demands for participation and political accountability. While the Member States are set to remaining in the driving-seat, citizens should – together with their political class – be ready to acknowledge that their decisions affect others beyond their borders and viceversa. It is only by becoming aware of the existing level of mutual interdependence that citizens and their political representatives may revitalise the EU. In so doing, the EU will cease to be ‘Brussels’, but will start existing in local conversations and decision-making within our communities. Yet, there are indications that social mobilisation in Europe is at its weakest when it requires addressing the needs of others (migrant crisis, Euro crisis, etc), and at its strongest when the interest of the individual or the state is the greatest.
Let’s see if the European Parliament elections will be up to the task to instil a greater awareness of mutual interdependence so as to attenuate national perspectives… I am hopeful, by nature, and feel a moral and professional duty to play my part in this Herculean task.
_Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law & Policy, HEC Paris_
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