The European Council will meet by video conference next Thursday. When it does, the three main items on the agenda will be to approve the recommendations made by the Eurogroup on 9 April, to push forward the conversation about a European Recovery Fund, and to restart and restructure the talks about the upcoming multi-annual financial framework. In English, that means the conversation will be about money. Like any conversation about money it will be difficult. The opportunities for misunderstanding are everywhere. Now is a good time to sort out some of the issues.
During her first address to the Conservative Party as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in October 2016, Theresa May made it clear that: ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word “citizenship” means.’ Moreover, this was not an off-the-cuff remark. As she explained at the top of the speech, May was setting out her governing philosophy. And central to that philosophy is what she called ‘the spirit of citizenship’, which she defined in terms of ‘the bonds and obligations that make … society work,’ ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you,’ and ‘recognising the social contract’ in a way that puts ‘local’ people ahead of people from ‘overseas’. That sort of thinking is attractive, but dangerous — now more than ever.
The British ruling class once governed the world; now they struggle to govern the United Kingdom. The political parties are splintered, the people are divided, the institutions are in conflict, and the gap between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland continues to widen. Worse, the British government has once again failed to negotiate to secure a majority in parliament to exit the European Union or to come up with a convincing plan for how to leave without one. Now the British head to the polls in the hopes that the people will deliver a clear verdict on how they want to proceed. The results may prove decisive. The worry is the voters may return another hung parliament — leaving the British ruling class to sort out what to do next.
Europe needs a ‘new narrative’ if it is going to move forward rather than falling back into crisis. That narrative cannot be a collection of policy initiatives or institutional reforms. New policies are important; so are new institutional arrangements. But politics and institutions do not by themselves speak to a democratic electorate – and particularly not to an electorate that has focused its attention on legitimate grievances of its own. Only politicians with a clear vision of the future can wield influence with voters in such a context. If the politicians with the best ideas are too afraid to forge a vision, they should not be surprised when voters attach themselves to politicians who run off in the wrong direction. Europeans deserve better political leadership; so does Europe.
Europeans are heading to the polls now in one of the world’s largest and most complicated democratic experiments. Moreover, these European elections are probably the most consequential we have seen since Europeans started voting directly for members of the European Parliament in 1979. This is a good opportunity to think hard about how Europeans are represented, how they make their decisions about voting, and what kind of Europe is on offer. Three recent books suggest new and important lines of argument. Christina Schneider shows that much of the responsiveness of Europe to the voters actually takes place through the Council of the European Union; Jennifer Fitzgerald reveals how votes on the extremes are more likely to be local than national, even if they have an anti-European tinge to them; and Sergio Fabbrini argues that many of the tensions we see surrounding the European project could be resolved if we just changed the way we think about constitutional federalism. These arguments are challenging and sophisticated in ways that much of the commentary that surrounds the European elections tends not to be; they are also counterintuitive. Now that everyone is focused on Europe, it is a good time for some well-grounded, lateral thinking.
Extending the Brexit process would create difficulties for the rest of Europe that have not received sufficient attention. The EU might seek to resolve these difficulties in ways that create further problems for the UK.
The debate about whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union has taken place within a number of different rhetorical frames. Of these, ‘taking back control’ has been the most powerful. Anyone could understand what was at stake and take a position in the debate. As the debate about membership became a process of leaving, however, ‘taking back control’ became more confusing as a frame for the conversation. Over the past two years it has been hard to determine who is taking back control, how much control can be repatriated, and how much – under any circumstances – the British people will remain constrained and perhaps even powerless to shape their own destiny.