Europe: from crisis to opportunity

The origin of the eurozone crisis lies in the overreach of the Maastricht treaty of 1992. A new process is needed to set the European Union on a new course - but this must have explicit popular consent at its heart, says Cas Mudde.

Many important people from all over Europe and beyond are presenting very similar and bleak scenarios about the European Union's future. They state that the EU faces a stark choice: further integration toward a European superstate - the unspoken model of most current elite proposals - or part-disintegration into a smaller eurozone alongside various "Europes" of different speed. Each option sounds alarming.

But the notion that Europe's problems are overwhelming and demand an urgent response is familiar; it has often been heard at times when European elites are worried about an awakening of the passive majority of the population. The French and Dutch referendums in 2005 on the EU "constitution" are a classic example.

I am not an economist, so I don’t claim fully to understand all the causes and consequences of the current economic crisis (in fact, I doubt it would have helped if I were an economist). But I do understand that the current apocalyptic warnings are nothing new - neither during this crisis, nor during the more than six decades of European integration.

Since autumn 2008 at latest, European citizens have been told that they have to bail out banks, give more power to "experts" (many of whom were in leading positions before the crisis), and prevent the eurozone's breakup in order to avert Europe's financial meltdown and even a descent into war. But as the elites conjure "solutions", and spend unprecedented amounts of citizens’ money, the economy is still in tatters and the democracy deficit within the EU is evident from Athens to Berlin.

Europe is indeed going through one of the worst economic crises in its history. It has mostly been caused by deregulation; irresponsible loans, debt and political spending; and structural variations within the eurozone economies. It is harder to define the best, let alone the most popular, solution to the crisis. So far, neither European nor United States solutions have made a fundamental difference.

A new treaty

In a longer-term perspective, the process of European integration has been more or less in crisis since the people began to become aware of the true consequences of the Maastricht treaty. Almost twenty years later, the European Union has more than doubled its 1992 membership (from twelve member-states to twenty-seven), yet support for the institution has dropped below 50% across the union. Many people in both the old and new member-states are sceptical about extensive enlargement and worried about Turkey's possible membership. Even support for the common currency, one of the few broadly supported innovations of the Maastricht treaty, has been undermined by the post-2008 crisis.

Maastricht indeed failed. It wanted to do too much, too quickly - but at the same time with too little backing. The probable consequences of the treaty were never openly discussed, in part because even many of the supportive elites did not anticipate them; this left Europe's peoples unprepared, and increasingly unwilling to accept them. The implication is that a new treaty to replace Maastricht is essential - with significant democratic scrutiny at its heart.

Hence, the emergency summit in Brussels on 8-9 December 2011 should - alongside establishing agreed "new rules" to prevent a "financial Armageddon" - begin a process to create this post-Maastricht treaty. But any such process will have a fundamental effect on European states and the democratic powers of its peoples. It cannot be underaken or completed by the current national governments alone, few of which have ever campaigned on the issue.

This means that a fundamental principle should operate: the new treaty should require the support of a majority of the people in all the European Union member-states - expressed either through specific national referendums or via the decision of a new government that has come to power after an election that focuses primarily on the treaty. The final decision, whatever it is, will not make everyone happy - but it will be the first time that the future of "Europe" will have been decided in a truly democratic way. The economic crisis will then have had at least one positive consequence.

About the author

Cas Mudde is assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007) and co-editor of Populism in Europe and Latin America: Corrective or Threat for Democracy? (2012). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.

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Cas Mudde is the Hampton and Esther Boswell distinguished university professor of political science of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Among his books is Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007)