The Forces Behind the New Europe

The European Parliament that will be elected in 2019 will be different from the one it replaces. The two main political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will both lose seats. For the first time since the parliament began direct elections in 1979, those two groups will be unable to form a parliamentary majority together. They will have to enlist the support of the liberal democrats (ALDE) to control the legislature, perhaps with the support of Emmanuel Macron’s movement, but that grand coalition will leave significant representative gaps.

The two governing parties of Italy will be excluded from the new majority, as will the governing party in Poland and the largest party in Belgium. If the EPP severs its relationship with Viktor Orban, then Hungary’s governing party will not participate either. Depending on how the elections go, neither will the largest or second largest political party in France – Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national (or ‘national rally’). That is not to say that these groups will unite in some monolithic ‘populist’ opposition to the new majority in the European Parliament; they are too disparate to make such an outcome likely. Rather it is to point out that the new European Parliament will be like most national parliaments in Europe in the sense that the political composition of the assembly will be highly fragmented. Depending upon where voters live, it will also be unrepresentative.

This fragmentation – together with the lack of representation that such fragmentation entails – is important both as cause and as effect. The causal significance lies in the message it conveys to the European electorate: the old mainstream ideologies continue to dominate the positions of importance and the legislative agenda while new issues, ideas, or forms of political representation struggle to be heard. This is not a good message for the European Parliament to project at a time when participation rates in European elections continue to fall from one contest to the next. It is also not a good symbol when the older generation that was shaped by the Cold War experience of Europe as a peace project passes the torch to generations that have little or no memory of the conflict between liberalism, communism and fascism that shaped the ‘mainstream’.

Those newer generations think of Europe more as a bulwark against the forces of globalization and perhaps also as a new opportunity to build democracy beyond the nation state. For these younger voters – who are only ‘young’ by comparison with the supporters of the EPP, S&D, and ALDE – watching the mainstream ideological groups close ranks to protect their institutional privileges could be a deep source of frustration and disillusionment. We can speculate about whether this will really have an impact on popular attitudes; it is always possible that voters accustomed to grand coalitions in domestic politics will shrug off the symbolism created by this new majority in the European Parliament. That remains to be seen. But it is hard to imagine that younger generations will look at this new condominium between the EPP, S&D, and ALDE as a source of inspiration in Europe.

A lot will depend upon the forces that brought European politics to the current situation, sapping support from the mainstream political parties and reducing voter enthusiasm to cast their ballots in European contests. Here we have more solid analytical foundations. Social scientists have puzzled over the decline in support for the European project and the fragmentation of the European electorate for more than a quarter of a century, since the Danish people first vetoed the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Along the way, they have developed two different lines of argument to explain why European politics has evolved as it has, both nationally and across the European Union. One of these arguments is about the tension between European integration and national sovereignty; the other is about the growing disenchantment of the voters in different countries with their own national elites.

The argument made by scholars like Liesbeth Hooghe and Gary Marks is about European overreach. At some point national elites promised too much from the European project and invested too much political capital in expanding European competences to make good on these commitments. They pushed to liberalize the movement of people across national boundaries, they fixed their exchange rates to create a European currency, they widened European Union membership to a wide array of countries that were unfamiliar to those who lived in the ‘core’ countries of Western Europe, and they placed constraints on newer member states that their populations were neither able nor willing to accept. In this account, the ambitions of pro-European elites outran the natural scepticism of their national electorates.

This mismatch between what the European Union does and what European voters want has created an opportunity for opposition parties to mobilize voters against Europe. Paradoxically, such mobilization was most effective wherever there was elite consensus. Some eight-five percent of Danish politicians supported the Maastricht Treaty when it first went to referendum in June 1992; when the votes were counted, a majority of the Danish people were against. Over the decades to follow, this pattern found repetition well beyond the Danish electorate in countries as diverse as Ireland, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Increasingly, moreover, the same dynamics have played a prominent role in European elections. That is why parties sceptical of Europe have been disproportionately prominent in past; there is no reason for this election to be any different. If anything, frustration with excessive European ambitions is now more deeply embedded.

Another hypothesis found in the works of scholars like Stefano Bartolini and the late Peter Mair centres on the weakness of national institutions. In this theory, the expansion of Europe is not a cause of popular disaffection but a consequence. The inexorable mix of demographic change, technological innovation, and economic globalization forces politicians to adapt continuously both in terms of how they provide public goods and services and how they manage popular expectations. In many cases, such adaptation entails breaking long-standing commitments to create opportunities for education or advancement, or to remove uncertainty related to health care, employment, or retirement. National politicians looked to European institutions to avoid awkward domestic debates and to shift blame for unpopular policy decisions. In a similar way, they also looked to other ‘politically independent’ institutions like currency boards (or common currencies), fiscal councils or central banks.

These attempts to sidestep democratic processes did not offer long-term solutions. Even worse, one-time adjustments turned out to offer only a temporary fix. ‘Reform’ became an endless item on every policy agenda. This made it easy for opposition parties to mobilize against national governments, blaming them for hiding from their responsibilities and for breaking faith with the electorate. The point to note in this theory is that the European Union is not a protagonist and disaffection with Europe is only a symptom of a deeper frustration with national elites. In that sense, European elections tell us less about what the voters think about the European Union than what they want to communicate to their national politicians. Hence the solution is not to curb European overreach and to transform the EU into some more modest project; it is to repair the lack of confidence voters have with national politicians.

The difficulty lies in choosing between these hypotheses. The evidence in favour of focusing on the problem of national disaffection is nevertheless suggestive. Public opinion polling shows that disaffection with Europe per se is more easily reparable than the theory of overreach would suggest: European integration continues to deepen and yet popular affection for Europe has increased over the past three years – indeed, it is strongest among the younger generations. By the same token, poll after poll shows that voters in most European countries are more disenchanted with their national governments than they are with the European Union. Meanwhile, populists who fail to gain traction in mobilizing young people against European institutions are now turning their attention on other politically independent arrangements – first and foremost, central banks.

If this suggestion is correct, then we should worry less about the fragmentation of the European Parliament that is sure to result from the next round of elections. We should worry more about the weakness of national political institutions and about the frustration of voters with the way they are represented in national politics. Frustration with the European Union is symptomatic of a deeper problem with democratic governance. That frustration will not abate completely until the deeper problem is addressed.

This piece was originally published as ‘Leadership Required’ in the May/June 2019 issue of Eastwest.