Is there anybody out there?
How the desertion by national politicians of the EU is feeding the citizens’ feeling of a European political vacuum.
There is something wonderful about European politics. First, it doesn’t really exist in itself since most of the political power remains at the national level, but still the first target is always « Brussels! ». Second, the more perilous the political and economic outcome of the crisis is likely to be, the more urgent a radical solution becomes, and the more the national political classes seem to be ignorant if not indifferent to European issues.
It is amazing to see how the EU has evolved and deepened during the last decades. But, at the same time, national politicians have still followed their provincial paths towards power without a glance towards the cold bureaucratic world of Europe. The so-called gap between the EU and its citizens is in fact a gap between national politicians, who strongly hold the power in their hands, and where a significant part of our democratic power is exercised, e.g. Brussels. Such politicians reflect a true and complete inability to understand the EU, which makes their natural recipients, the electors, feeling pretty uncomfortable when it comes to judging how the EU is managed. Who could blame them?
Actually, the strong rise of populist speeches if not ideas (the two are probably not the same since populism is more about reaction than action) in Europe is clearly fed by this fundamental inability of the political elite to understand the EU. It gives a feeling of big issues being out of the control of elected governments. That impacts strongly on the credibility of what moderate leaders could express. It also becomes easy for populist divas (there is an intriguing proportionality between lack of political maturity and the size of the egos) to point to the inaccuracy of decisions when there is indeed a lack of coordination within the EU for reaching consistent and efficient policies. Hubris, or possibly shyness, prevents leaders from talking about the reality: for large-scale issues such as the economy, foreign policy and defence, none of the Member States have any longer the means, if not the will, to act alone.
European convictions have long been the consequence of a personal path for leaders of the continent (Adenauer, de Gasperi, and so on). But Europe has never been a royal way towards power. Quite the opposite. As a result of it, except if you had strong convictions, which is not always the key quality to be a successful professional politician (at least in times of peace), you have no incentive to get involved in European affairs. It is therefore all the more logical that now that the generation of leaders who had experienced the War have stepped down, Europe looks like a naked king. For instance, can you mention a major French politician under the age of 60 who is publicly known for his or her long and permanent commitment to the EU (except from a general sympathy thankfully many of them have)?
The consequences of this are well known. When going to the Commission or the European Parliament, politicians feel in exile. Either you go there to wait for a more prolific time, or as a final prize for good services towards your party. But never for the right reason: to act.
The European project in itself can be blamed for it. Monnet and his fellows, probably by cautiousness towards traumatised national opinions in the gloomy time after the War, did not integrate the political dimension at the Community level (the elected Parliament came later on). They only focused on the bureaucratic and legalistic dimensions, letting the political consensus be reached between national governments, which is workable at 6 and with post-War leaders, but which is impossible to achieve efficiently at 27.
For citizens with strong European convictions, it’s something very sad. The true damage is however elsewhere. If politicians keep sticking to the national tracks, there is a clear dead-end ahead of us. You can think that the responsibility for the current mess lies with the bankers, the greedy capitalists, and so on, but still there is something you can’t escape: the crisis makes obvious the failures of our European political system. The unbalanced nature of the EU, federal in some ways but politically almost purely national, makes it unsustainable in its current shape.
This is nothing new, though. For instance, when the Euro was created, many economists and politicians claimed that you needed budgetary coordination (the famous policy mix) and enhanced capacity if you want to make Europe work. The call of the head of the European Central Bank for a EU Finance minister is all about that issue, but it is still incomplete. Indeed, you won’t get such a European Minister without an embryo of what could be considered a European Government (as the Commission should be), with a decent budget, if you want him or her to have enough power and, above all, legitimacy to regulate the all system. It’s the politics, stupid.
We are now facing a turning point. Nationalist and populist forces are still in the minority but are rising almost everywhere in Europe. They may never reach the power but still their impact on our institutional system could be irreversible. The crisis has created a situation where leadership is not only about efficacity but also about survival, at least for the EU. It is high time for our politicians to have a look at it. If not, the euro zone, and subsequently the entire system, will be threatened with collapse and nobody can predict the consequences of it. That’s maybe not about winning the next election. But nobody will win if citizens follow the wrong road and History could be a harsh judge.
At the end of the day, the issue of reforming the EU could be complex when it comes to implementing it. The European level needs now its own political heart, but huge debates are being held on how this would work. Either through parliamentarism, the Spinelli option (the Commission being the political emanation of the majority group/coalition in the PE) or the Blair option (through a directly elected leader). However, the triggering factor could be much more simple: would national leaders accept the political price of the Union, e.g. having a clear and legitimate leadership at the top of the EU? I can hear already the comments « never, politicians are too conservative! ». Yes, they are, but sometimes change happens even if you refuse it. In particular when the next generation is waiting and pushing hard.