By Timothy Spyrou
THE EU parliamentary elections to be held next month are being hailed as a great opportunity. For decades, critics and arch-supporters of the European Project alike have been saying that the EU is too remote from the citizenry. The drafters of the Lisbon Treaty decided that the way to fix this “democratic deficit” was to have the presidency of the European Commission determined by results of future elections to the European parliament (EP).
The candidate of the European coalition that wins a plurality of seats will be the first choice for the job. For the first time, the future of the EU will be in the hands of the electorate, and the EU’s institutions will have faces that are made recognisable, relevant and responsive to the public through the act of voting.
Although I support the EU, I have to be honest. The line of thought presented above is simply not credible in a time of multiple existential crises. Even in non-crisis years, it is hard to believe that polls for the parliament in Strasbourg should be given the clout to decide on who should hold the most powerful posts in the EU’s bureaucracy.
For one thing, EP elections are often treated as the equivalent of mid-terms, as an opportunity to give incumbent national governments a bloody nose and to vent frustration. It is a poor measurement of people’s commitment to Europe. Even people who would vote ‘no’ in any referendum on whether their country should exit the EU hardly show up at the polling stations. In fact, it is doubtful as to whether those who are passionately pro-European turn out to vote.
Look at Britain for example. True, Britain was always a Eurosceptic outlier, but you would think that the Liberal Democrats would score highly in these elections given that they are the party that is most consistent in supporting the idea of Britain being a key partner within the EU. Logic would dictate that the Lib Dems would be able to push its voters to the polls.
Yet, in the Euro elections of 2009, the liberals got a middling 13.7 per cent. A lot of voters who may be pro-European are disinclined to vote based on Europe because they are motivated by local concerns like health care, education, crime and jobs and have little time to contemplate European issues.
They have even less time or inclination to see how European issues could impact the same local issues that they care about. Very few people spend time thinking about whether this or that EU measure or project will boost their economies’ prospects or make their lives more secure from criminal and terrorist networks. Brussels’ bureaucratic complexity is hardly helpful when it comes to motivating pro-Europeans to go to the polls.
On top of that, the EP elections act as a magnet for those who are resolutely opposed to further EU integration, whatever form it should take, making the turnout disproportionate compared to regular elections. Although the EU parliament may be useful, before we start using European elections as the most important instrument for deciding the future of Europe, national parties have to make a greater commitment towards campaigning on Europe during regular elections. Rather than keeping Europe marginalised because the discussions are often perceived as uninteresting and potentially unpleasant, mainstream politicians in Britain, Germany and wherever should commit themselves to putting Europe at the centre of debate, rather than let it be dominated by people who are engaged in hysterical populism.
We are not in a non-crisis year. We are in the fifth year of the Eurocrisis and the sixth year after the events that sparked the Great Recession of 2008. If you thought that previous EU parliamentary elections were exhibition matches for Eurosceptic parties, this one is going to be the UEFA European championships. The fringe parties of the left and the right have gained ground by bashing globalisation, immigration, the euro, bank bailouts, and austerity.
In Greece, democracy and social stability are literally under threat because of the rise of Golden Dawn as a neo-Nazi like paramilitary party. The mainstream Greek coalition government could lose the EU elections to SYRIZA by a margin large enough to force it to call early general elections. This would spark a repeat of the Eurocrisis’ most intense period in summer 2012, when there was a real chance that Greece would be unceremoniously kicked out of the eurozone and EU altogether. Meanwhile, Geert Wilders of The Netherlands and Jean Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine are gallivanting around Western Europe with their pledge to “wreck” the EU from within the parliament.
For the first time in years, the talk about a referendum in which the British vote to leave the EU is not just talk – it is a real possibility that would result in both Britain and Europe being diminished on the world stage. Britain’s divided Conservative Party is demanding that Brussels cede back some as yet undefined powers back to Westminster in exchange for a strong campaign on the part of Cameron to ‘stay’. It is unclear as to whether the EU partners are in a mood to negotiate.
The reader may find this statement odd, but the EU economy could have experienced an even harsher recession. Furthermore, the fog of a harsher recession, far from dissipating, may be getting even murkier. From Brazil to Turkey to India, the emerging markets are groaning from their own failures to make necessary reforms. Even mighty China may stumble because over-investment has led to a tsunami of bad debts.
This will hurt Europe’s ‘recovery’ because European manufacturers will see the drying up of export orders from these countries; Germany’s massive trade surplus will shrink, reducing its ability to prop up the rest of the eurozone. It is already happening, with Germany growing at a meagre 0.4 per cent in 2013. Youth unemployment may even increase beyond its already terrifying levels in some countries as the prospects of recovery in Greece, Spain and Ireland evaporate due to a decline in confidence.
Finally, we have the crisis of the big, growling, drunk Russian Bear threatening to rampage through our common European backyard. It just so happens that, by being dependent on hundreds of billions of euros worth of Russian energy and finance, we are inadvertently sharpening the claws and jaws with which Russia can threaten our security. Putin thinks the EU and US are both on a path of permanent decline because of their internal political dysfunction.
Do you honestly believe that Putin and his cronies would be so nonchalant at the threat of sanctions if the US hadn’t been consumed by five years of energy sapping rows in the US Congress? Do you honestly believe that Russia would be smirking at the Europeans if they had spent the last five years of crisis by becoming more dynamic and resilient rather than engage in kicking the can down the road?
It is time we got serious about the challenges facing Europe. I am not arguing against ever using EU elections as a basis for choosing Europe’s direction. I am merely arguing that we are far from ready from doing it now after five years of ever growing anger at the whole European project.
The three main candidates for the European Commission presidency and the chairman of the European Council [Herman Van Rompuy’s term ends in November 2014, so it is widely suspected that the runner up to the Commission will take that job] do not cut impressive, inspiring or dynamic figures. If anything, the selection of former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker, European parliament speaker Marten Schulz, and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt could make the EU’s problems worse. None of them possess the leadership qualities needed to: keep Britain from leaving the EU, send a message to Russia that we are not a collection of pushovers or reform Brussels so that its initiatives will actually be taken seriously. They don’t have the abilities to close divisions between debtor and creditor economies or re-consolidate Europe’s position on the world stage as the second pillar of the West alongside the United States. That is not to say that these fellows aren’t fundamentally decent chaps. What I am saying is we need someone who can conciliate, inspire and knock heads together. These three can’t do any of the above.