Can Europe Make It?

So, who should run Europe?

European citizens through a democratic process or national governments and lobbies? Will Europe integrate and renew democratic legitimization, or remain a loose economic association of neoliberal experimentation?

Matthaios Tsimitakis
16 June 2014
David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Germany.

David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Germany. Demotix/ Simone Kuhlmey. All rights reserved. "In Europe every opinion gets a fair chance" insisted the video commercial released by the European Parliament before the elections of May 25, urging voters to "choose who is in charge". In one regard it was a surprisingly successful campaign, stemming a historical decline in voter turnout and prompting a significant proportion of Europeans to respond positively to a democratic experiment of historical significance.

Contrary to all predictions, 43.1% of European voters did claim their right to have a say on how the Union works as provided by the Lisbon treaty, which forces the European Council to "take into account the elections to the European parliament".

Five candidates chosen by the main political groups in the European Parliament waged a pan-European campaign for the first time in the EU's history, publicly arguing about the hot topics that rock the continent at this moment in its history. From austerity to making a competitive economy that respects the environment, and from Euro-Russian relations currently in crisis over Ukraine to the peace process in the Middle East, the candidates tried to engage citizens in decision-making on a level that has been largely perceived to be bureaucratic and obscure, but essential to peoples lives. They provided a democratic context for the different perceptions that are shaping the future of the continent.

David Cameron trying it on

However, the political reality that emerged out of the ballot, shows that this democratic turn may have arrived as far "too little, too late". The EU is in fact going through a profound crisis of a political nature.

The Eurosceptics procured a large share of the vote and cast a veil of fear over the continent. They represent those who prefer a return to the ‘safety’ of the nation-state. A staggering 25% for Marine Le Pen in France and a clear victory for Nigel Farage in Britain, to name but two countries, has resulted in a question mark hanging over the terms in which the discussion over the future of the EU will now take place.

David Cameron was quick to take advantage of the "eurosceptic effect" by threatening to launch a referendum in the UK asking whether his country should leave the EU or not, in the undesirable eventuality that Jean Claude Juncker - the nominee of the political group that won these elections - is given the right to form a qualified majority in the parliament, and is appointed President of the EU Commission.

Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in the EU, tried to balance declaring that the European Council maintains the right to choose an alternative figure for the job, thus ridiculing the faltering democratic steps that have been taken so far, and undermining the support she had provided for her own candidate of choice.

Thereby, she also provoked an unusual enraged outburst against the British PM from French and German lawmakers and analysts of all political factions, who went so far as to urge their leaders to let the Brits go, if they wished to!

Apart from the post of the president of the EU Commission, member states are negotiating a package of posts in various EU structures, ranging from the president of the European Parliament and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to the president of the European Council. David Cameron is following a successful negotiating tradition that goes back at least to John Major, the prime minister who succeeded Margaret Thatcher and has resulted in extended benefits for the UK in the EU, in particular the positioning of high ranking officials who safeguard British interests.

Despite the tone of the dispute, it is clear that it is in the UK's interests to continue being a part of the EU: therefore one can assume that a compromise will indeed be reached and that Jean Claude Juncker will probably receive the mandate to become the next Commission president.

But it will be an appointment that downplays the democratic experiment and falsifies the treaties - treaties that in any case sceptics such as David Cameron openly question.

Most importantly, it will not do anything to resolve the widespread political rejection of the EU or to strengthen democracy both within the nation states and in the EU as a whole.

More democracy, not less

British Prime Minister, David Cameron is accusing the European parliament of a power grab by the backdoor. There is an obvious paradox in this thinking, but Mr Cameron is going even further:

“Voters sent a clear message at last month’s European elections. They are disillusioned with the way Europe is working. They are demanding change so it focuses on what they care about: growth and jobs. And they want the EU to help them, not dictate to them”.

I couldn't agree with him more and I couldn't accuse him of anything less than serving the opposite outcome.

Concerns expressed by the German Social Democrats and the European Left prior to the elections that the EU is intent on continuing the long tested method of backroom deals, methods that have led to the current yawning democratic deficit, seem to be coming true and the UK is in the centre of such a process.

What Europe needs is an enhanced process of democratic legitimisation in order to balance top-down power relations that are drastically changing ordinary peoples lives: austerity programmes that wouldn't stand a chance if scrutinised in the European Parliament, and international trade agreements like the transatlantic trade agreement (TTIP) that impose legislation on nation states that would in all likelihood be rejected by national electorates, if voted upon.

Finally, powerful lobbies have taken advantage of the lack of transparent and accountable politics at the EU level. How could Cameron's plan for a loose trade-based union possibly serve as a cure-all for these ills?

The message of the elections

When all is said and done, those Europeans who voted have chosen to send a message to their political leaders: they wish to establish some form of accountability. It is this desire that would seem to lie behind the resurgent rightwing Euro-sceptic parties and also those supporting greater democratic integration on the level of the EU as a whole. This desire for accountability is the political trend that needs to be addressed.

Turning the democratic experiment into a farce, either by appointing a president of the EU Commission other than one of the campaigning candidates, or by appointing a figure like Tony Blair, as the head of the European Council (on top of Juncker), will only strengthen Euro-scepticism and serve the rhetoric of those who desire the EU's demise.

Cameron and his Swedish and Dutch counterparts are already eager to put restrictions on freedom of movement in the EU in order to crack down on alleged benefit abusers. Is the Europe they imagine one in which goods move freely from North to South, while people are prohibited from going in the other direction?

One should not forget that this is not a new question but one that has already been given the answer Mr Cameron is once again propagating. In 2004 the dilemma posed to Europeans was “enlargement” or “deepening” of democratic institutions and decision-making processes. Europe chose enlargement. A few years later the EU turned through the Troika, from a technocratic body of harmonizing legislations to an essentially political institution directing policies instead of elected governments.


But there is also a political reason why Mr Cameron's thinking will not benefit the Conservatives in the UK either. So far, the Euro-sceptic parties have done nothing more than to capitalize upon the politics of fear that followed on from the financial crisis and the ambiguity that marks the European project in this new phase. If mainstream political forces choose to draw upon this sentiment they will only achieve the further strengthening of the extreme right, as this is the genuine expression of these fears.

Top-down decisions have deprived people of an acceptable standard of living. EU leaders, especially Angela Merkel, have trashed the idea of European solidarity. Germany and other northern European countries have exhibited an economic nationalism hidden behind the bailout programmes, that is turning out to be the real driving force behind the rise of the extreme right.

There are many lessons to learn from the current state of Europe: the neo-liberal dogma that has dominated our world since the 1990's shapes social inequalities that urgently need to be addressed with financial regulation and democratic legitimation. A Europe of high unemployment, bankrupt banks, little democracy and no growth is not a sustainable project. Mr. Cameron does not provide an alternative.

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