The Cycles of Decline: Addressing the Political Backlash in Europe
Following the European Union elections, the main conclusion seems to be that bashing Brussels is a mobilizing force on both the left and the right and that national governments around the continent are in for even more turbulent times. That limits expectations for a more coherent, proactive, and integrated EU in the next few years. In fact, the blowback against the institutional framework of the EU is directly linked to the domestic unrest and uncertainty within the member states.
Yet, as so often in the past, the EU could take a step backward and then emerge with new momentum. That will depend to a large extent on how the new faces in Brussels appear to a skeptical European public and on what relationships evolve between Brussels and the national leaders—and in particular with Berlin.
Whoever follows Jose Manuel Barroso as the next Commission President inherits a huge challenge in generating support for his agenda both within the EU system as well as in the member states.
The EU Council President following Herman Van Rompuy will have an equally difficult task in filling out that slot. Then there is the job of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton’s successor.
The problem of all these jobs is, among others, that they all involve coordinating and collaborating with the twenty-eight member states who all guard their own portfolios in the EU system. If someone with an oversized ego is operating in any of these positions, it can be counterproductive in generating consensus around policy options. In addition, the European Parliament will be actively engaging its prerogatives, especially with the new representatives of the splinter parties on the right and left. Orchestrating all of these entities is becoming increasingly complicated.
In Strasbourg, the European Parliament will remain predominantly in the hands of the two major political groups who will continue to steer policy debates. It will be accompanied by a more aggressive pushback from the smaller groups now represented among the Parliament’s 751 members.
The role of Germany—and of Angela Merkel in particular—will be further enhanced during the coming years. Her sister party, the CSU in Bavaria, was a loser in this election and Merkel’s coattails from the September 2013 national election victory accounted for a stronger showing than the Social Democrats. Now Merkel has to decide who she will ultimately support as President of the Commission. Presumably that will be Jean-Claude Juncker, although that is still subject to negotiations with the Social Democrats in Berlin and to the talks between the two major winners of the EU election. Martin Schulz could inherit Catherine Ashton’s job if he does not become Commission President.
But these are not the issues that motivated the voters in Sunday’s elections or, for that matter, those who did not vote at all. It was the economy, uncertainty about immigration policy, and general uncertainty about their futures that motivated voters one way or the other. Unless the new leadership can find a way to bond with voters over these issues, it may not really matter who assumes the high-level positions in Brussels or in Strasbourg.
This seems to be a general trend in Europe, which in many ways resembles that of the American political environment going back decades, if not centuries.
Politicians in the United States continually seek to get elected by campaigning against Washington. However, once in the capital they want to remain in office while claiming to voters that they are fighting against Washington for the rights of voters. This schizophrenia in American political behavior has been going on for a very long time, generated by a question in the American electorate boiled down to this: What’s in it for me? The government in general is held under great suspicion—until, of course, it is needed. Yet how can politicians make the case for more government without losing the debate to those harping on what appears to be going wrong. It is always easier to sell doom and alarmism than facts. But facts do not make the same headlines as fears of decline.
In Europe over the past sixty years there has been a widespread assumption that the development of the European Union was a political, economic, and indeed an almost moral mission for all Europeans to pursue. After all, the Europeans were conducting the greatest experiment in pooled sovereignty in the history of the world—and that experiment would lead to a new form of democracy and contribute to the elimination of the roots of war among nations.
In fact, that mission is still a valid pursuit. But it is no longer overshadowed by the ashes of World War II or shaped by the euphoria of the end of Europe’s Cold War divisions. The shock of the last few years of economic turbulence and the uncertainty that went with it has propelled fear and uncertainty about how far the European experiment can or should go. That has unleashed a revival of nationalist sentiment in the effort to seek more connection with and influence on governance. One can see that not only in these elections on Sunday, but also in the continuing debate over independence in Scotland in the UK or Catalonia in Spain.
Those political leaders who will be representing the commitment to the European experiment—and debating the louder voices of the skeptics—are going to be challenged to overcome the backlash with stronger arguments. They have to address the concerns of those who still need a better answer to know “what is in Europe for me?”
In the U.S. over many decades we have experienced moments of feeling like America is on the decline. Usually these moments have been articulated by those who preach brimstone and then offer themselves as the way out of the fire. It is perhaps a cycle in which Europe may now find itself. But “declinism” has another side—one that promises that disaster is looming but deliverance is still available…if you vote the right way.
The member states of the EU are all vibrant democracies. They are also subject to the same sirens of doom and gloom as their transatlantic counterparts. The unfolding of this next chapter in Europe’s great experiment is about to set up a debate worth following—and some Americans may find it familiar.
For more on declinism, see Josef Joffe’s The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies, which I reviewed for the AICGS Bookshelf.