It is unquestionable that what the European Union is experiencing today is the most serious political crisis of its sixty-year history. The economic and financial crisis, that has inflicted severe damages on our continent’s economies in the last five years, has expanded into the political, social and cultural spheres, jeopardising the achievements of the last decades and undermining the Union’s credibility. If, on the 9th of May 1950, at the dawn of the project of European integration, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman appealed to solidarity, to “the coming together of the nations of Europe” and “the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany”, as first steps in the way towards economic unification and the construction of a Federal Europe, “indispensable to the preservation of peace”, what we are witnessing today is, by contrast, a new and deep wave of disbelief and suspect towards integration and a sharp erosion of the pro-European feelings in the public opinions of the EU member states.
This is the result of two main flaws of the European construction. On the one hand, Europe does not seem fully capable of ensuring a lasting solution of the crisis, a full economic recovery, a comprehensive strategy aimed at reducing unemployment throughout the continent – in a moment in which more than 19 million Euro zone citizens are out of work – and, last but not least, of providing answers to the widespread social unease and uncertainties that pervade Europe.
On the other hand, because of its technocratic features, the European Union is increasingly perceived by the EU citizens as a cold, distant, bureaucratic power, detached from the hard reality of the common people, who feel impotent and incapable of exerting their influence or control on the decision-making processes taking place in Brussels.
If a US citizen wishes the American administration to pass and implement expansive policies, he or she will simply vote for a Democratic president; if, on the contrary, the goal is the cut of social spending and lowering taxes, the US citizen will give his or her vote to a Republican candidate.
In Europe things look quite different. The main decisions on the economic policies are made in Brussels, not in the European capitals, and they undergo a large series of treaties, rules, restrictions, obligations and sanctions. Most of these constraints – presented as neutral and technical – are actually based on a neoliberal ideology and are the consequence of a shift of the European cultural basis from a solidarity-oriented approach to a neoliberal one. A shift that occurred without a clear political decision or citizens’ participation. Against this background, it is not surprising that the European citizens increasingly perceive that their capability to be involved in or supervise the decision-making mechanism, to affect choices and decisions affecting their lives and future, is progressively dying away.
The outcome of such developments is the spread, in many European countries, of anti-political feelings – based on the belief that politics is increasingly unable, or even unwilling, to deliver solutions –, of a growing anti-European mood, and in particular of Eurosceptical populist forces.
As for the latter, it should be mentioned that categorising populist movements or parties according to traditional political science criteria is somehow difficult, because such political forces do not place clearly themselves on one side or the other of the usual left-right cleavage. Rather they embrace ideals, goals, reasons taken from both the tradition of the left and that of the right. Also, they generally tend to perceive the entire body of institutions and political parties, at national and European levels, as costly and useless superstructures, burdening society instead of solving problems.
What these movements across Europe have in common are: firstly the call to the demos against the elites – political elites, in particular, but also economic and financial ones – identified as those responsible for the crisis and for the lack of prospects suffered by a vast number of citizens; secondly, the call to the – national, regional or local – ethnos against globalization and against a Europe perceived as distant, hostile and undemocratic.
The response to this dangerous political drift must go along two parallel paths: changing the content of policies, aiming at growth and development and getting out of the oppressive austerity atmosphere that has characterized Europe in the last couple of years, and, above all, taking politics to Europe. This means, in particular, reinforcing the relationship between the citizens, the European Parliament and the Commission; relationship that lies – or should lie – at the the core of European democracy, but which has been largely neglected.
The transfer of power to the Council, which has occurred in the last few years, has meant de facto the transfer of power to the strongest EU member states and has been understood as the impoverishment of the European democracy. Decisions are the results of bargaining among governments, giving only the illusion of neutrality and of legitimacy, while they veil the fact that economically stronger countries play from a position of advantage over the weaker ones.
A Greek citizen, who is making every single day hard sacrifices to eke out a bare living, a Portuguese or an Italian one, struggling to preserve his living standards despite the tough austerity measures imposed by the European Union, perceive such sacrifices not as the outcome of shared decisions made by common institutions, but as the effects of obligations inflicted by the government of another member state. The predictable consequence of this situation is that divisions, nationalistic resentments and mutual distrust between strong and weak countries, creditor and debtor ones, between Northern European and Southern European or – using a disagreeable distinction – central and peripheral member states are intensifying.
What emerges is that there is a sort of paradoxical mismatch between a decision-making process taking place in Brussels and the almost complete lack of a Europe-wide political debate, a European political dimension and a common public sphere. A mismatch that needs to be corrected if we really want to recover from the crises. Both the economic and the political ones. The reduction of the intergovernmental aspects and the concurrent increase of Europe’s democratic strength and legitimacy, and its capability to produce a truly political dimension are the essential preconditions to ensure Europe’s recovery.
It is not so much a question of introducing radical institutional reforms overnight, or maybe directly electing the President of the Commission or of the European Council. We must be pragmatic. Institutional reforms will have to be negotiated in the next future and the creation of a genuine federal Europe remains the aim and the dream for those, like myself, who deeply believe in the European project. Nevertheless, if it is time for a leap forward in the process of European integration, it would be unrealistic to attempt a wide-ranging modification of the institutional framework without the necessary political preconditions. Therefore, we must, first of all, unfold the full potential offered by the Treaties and, through a courageous political initiative, we must provide the European political parties and the President of the Commission with larger democratic legitimacy. This could be done already on the occasion of the next European election, if each European party family presents, during the electoral campaign, a political programme shared by the national parties and a common candidate to the position of President of the Commission. This would surely help reduce the gap between European institutions and citizens, who would be actively involved – in a bottom up process – in the choice of the candidate to one of the most important positions within the EU and, therefore, would become engaged with the European project. Moreover, for the first time, we would have truly European elections, and no longer the mere sum of national ones. Last but not least, this could counterbalance anti-European parties’ and movements’ weight during the campaign and the polls.
The main goal must be to overcome that separation between policies and politics that is producing devastating effects. Without politics – which means debate, confrontation between different positions, exchange of opinions, search for a common ground, compromise between options – policies become a technocratic fact. Without policies, politics at national level risk to be more and more reduced to simple narrative, to propaganda. Therefore, away from people’s real life.
If we think that in a country such as Italy, traditionally a very pro-European member state, the feelings against Europe have become so strong and widespread to induce the formation of an odd coalition between left and right, we can grasp the extent to which in Europe the pro-European areas are progressively shrinking. Without a bold action, the risk we run is to waste the remarkable achievements of the last decades. Achievements such as the Single Market or the common currency. At the end of the day this would damage even the strongest countries, including Germany itself.
German sociologist Ulrich Beck recently expressed his concern that the European Union might increasingly become a “German Europe”. This, he argues, would be a risk not just for Europe, but for Germany itself. German democratic forces have always believed that Germany’s destiny was that of a strong country, firmly linked to the European integration project. Yet, what we are witnessing today is no longer the development of a European Germany, but of a German Europe. This entails a detrimental hierarchical relationship between member states and, as mentioned, European people’s increasing loss of faith into integration.
This is, therefore, high time for strong and bold actions. I think that, if we do not want the pro-European forces and parties to become minority in our continent, what we do need is a new social pact among member states and between the great pro-European cultural forces. A new social pact and a new political pact between the progressive forces on the one side and the conservative ones on the other side.
To say that we need more Europe is correct. Yet, it is not enough. We need to make the European Union more democratic but also more efficient, particularly at addressing questions such as inequalities and employment. We need to implement an effective solidarity mechanism to support the countries with the highest debt, not because one country should pay for the other’s debts, but in order to bring down interest rates and spread indicators by creating a mechanism of European guarantees. In this sense, the idea of a debt redemption fund, proposed by German economists, seemed interesting and should have received greater attention. Furthermore, we need European investment programmes, and in this respect the inability to decide on project bonds and the recent cuts to the Union budget, that will certainly result in fewer resources for research and innovation, are highly disappointing signals.
To re-launch growth, we must also intervene on the demand side. To this aim the completion of the Single Market, the promotion of competitiveness and the removal of obstacles, such as monopoly positions, are key measures. But, without a wide investment policy in fields such as innovation, green economy, youth employment, like the Obama administration has been doing in the United State, everything else risks being made in vain.
For those, like myself, who strongly and unfailingly have faith in the European project, it is time for a strong political action. We shall address the European public opinions, making clear that the question does not lie so much in the option between “Europe, yes. Or Europe, no”. Because there is no alternative to the European project. The problem is what political choices we shall make now in order to give back credibility to the European Union and to reconcile European citizens and European integration.