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.
Seasoned observers of Italian politics will tell you that there is a fairly consistent pattern to political crisis. The pattern starts with infighting among the governing coalition; it accelerates suddenly when one of the coalition partners ‘pulls the plug’ on the government; and then things slow down again as the various stakeholders realize how much is at stake for them personally if they let things fall apart. Parliamentary seats are prestigious, the salaries are high, and the pensions are generous provided the members just stay in post long enough to qualify. More important, real crisis comprises a lot of work with very uncertain pay-offs to be gained from an often-fickle electorate. Meanwhile, bad things can happen to the country’s economy, particularly vis-à-vis the banks and bond markets. In such a context, it is only reasonable to expect that cooler heads will prevail. Given the possible threat that an Italian meltdown would pose for the future of the euro (and hence also the European Union), we should all hope these observers are right. Nevertheless, there are four good reasons to believe that this time is different.
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.
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 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.