Europe’s citizens stand restive at a crossroads. After the May parliamentary election, democracy in the EU can take a leap forward—or the populists can reprise a dark history.
Peaceful protests are legitimate, and politicians have a duty to listen and respond to them. The recent social revolts in Europe, however, have deep roots. They are the consequence of the EU’s inability to offer a credible response to the challenges of globalisation, the rise of multinationals, new technologies and uncontrolled migration flows—not to mention the mismanagement of the financial crisis, from which even a decade later many European countries have not yet recovered.
We should therefore not be surprised to see nationalist parties forming, exploiting popular fears over an uncertain future, or that many are up in arms against the unjust distribution of wealth, as with the gilets jaunes in France. These forces see the European Parliament election as an opportunity to overturn the decades-long domination of the parliament by the ostensibly pro-European parties. At present, anti-European parties appear to be on the rise and no one can rule out the possibility of them gaining a blocking majority, or at least enough of a majority to hinder any attempts to ameliorate EU governance.
On their knees
The traditional European forces appear to be on their knees. Political leaders seem incapable of conveying the meaning of being pro-European. For years, governments have discussed reforming the economic and monetary union, and establishing a European defence force and a European foreign policy, but no actual reforms have been enacted. On the contrary, France and Germany have pledged that Germany will be allowed to join the UN Security Council, an idea that will further divide Europeans. The Italian government has rightly relaunched the idea of a single seat for the EU—situating this self-styled populist, sovereignist government as actually more pro-European than the Franco-German axis.
While the European parties have nominated their Spitzenkanditaten, in political debate the sovereignists and nationalists are holding sway. Formulating meaningful proposals to reform an ailing union seems to be of no interest to anyone. Is this what Europeanism now amounts to?
If this is the case, the pro-European parties are in for a crushing electoral defeat in May. It is time to acknowledge that one historical cycle has finally come to an end. The international order created by the United States in the post-war period has entered an irreversible crisis. All Donald Trump has done as president is lift the lid on a cauldron of upheaval which was already simmering.
The USSR broke up in 1991. China has become the world’s second biggest economic power and will soon be competitive on the military front too. The Russia of today operates as a nuclear superpower and capitalises on every opportunity to extend its influence in mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. Weakened by internal nationalism, the European Union—a very appetising target—will be dismembered and dominated from the outside. European voters are concerned because they perceive these threats, while politicians merely seem resigned.
Envisaging a future for the EU and its citizens is possible if we can abandon erroneous beliefs. The most persistent of these is that inadequate means can achieve desired ends, such as greater social justice.
For years the inequalities generated by globalisation have been all too evident. It suffices to mention the 2003 UN report Inequality Matters, the 2016 study by Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality, and Oxfam’s recent confirmation of the negative trend: in 2018, 1 per cent of the population owned 45.6 per cent of the planet’s wealth. Yet faced with this global, and European, scenario, political forces and experts only propose national remedies, such as a more progressive tax system to cover government spending on social services.
And the reality is somewhat different. Each national government does its best to attract capital by granting tax benefits to wealthy individuals and multinational companies. Fiscal competition among countries applies on a global scale: taxation on individuals fell from typically 62 per cent in 1970 to 38 per cent in 2013, and taxes on profits have dropped in a similar way. The defence of national fiscal sovereignty has turned into a cruel deception for citizens.
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If this trend is not reversed, without adequate public resources social policies will be seriously at risk. The European social model is based on national institutions, co-ordinated by European legislation and a European Commission which upholds our quality of life, with agencies that constantly monitor the environment, the medicines we take, our health and safety at work, the production and use of chemicals, food safety and our fundamental rights.
Project of civilisastion
The European social model is an integral part of a continent of peace constructed after the second world war. It is a new project of civilisation, forged by nations which resolved never again to resort to war to regulate their relationships. The European Union is a state of law. This precious legacy is based on ideals and values which the European parties must incorporate into their idea of progress.
Making progress in Europe means consolidating and advancing democracy on every level, national and European. Existing institutions must be reformed to allow European citizens of every nation to help plan a peaceful future for the next generation. A Europe capable of acting to promote a new model of peaceful co-operation throughout the world represents the alternative to an international order dominated by great powers engaged in hostile and aggressive muscle-flexing.
The progressive parties must exploit the election campaign to convince citizens that the European Union can and will equip itself with the powers needed to face and solve their problems. The commission has published a sort of handbook for reforming the union, entitled A Union that Delivers, which shows how the Lisbon treaty paves the way for the creation of groups of states which intend to work towards effective reforms—in foreign and security policy, taxation, the completion of the internal market and the energy market, environmental protection for sustainable development and social policies. Although the consent of the European Council is required to activate the procedures suggested, responsibility for leading the reform process could finally pass from the hands of a factious, inconclusive council into those of a parliament elected by the ‘sovereign European people’ and a commission led by a Spitzenkandidat designated by a parliamentary majority.
In their electoral programmes the progressive parties can therefore indicate the realistic goal of building a European democratic government, in the knowledge that the Lisbon treaty offers a transitional procedure, with the adoption of qualified majority voting, which will oblige national governments to negotiate compromise solutions. At a certain point, if the transition is successful, the treaty will need to be reformed and converted into a democratic European constitution. For the time being, the election campaign can and should be used to overcome the climate of mistrust towards European institutions, which the nationalists dismiss as an elitist bureaucracy.
European political unity will not simply drop out of the sky nor come about as a result of intergovernmental summits. It will be the outcome of a political struggle in which European citizens of every nation must play an active part with their representatives in the European Parliament. If the parliament ends up in the hands of the authoritarian and anti-European parties, democracy on a national level will suffer. Progressive European parties must reach out to, and engage with, citizens to kindle a sense of pride in belonging to the union, to engender a common sentiment of European ‘patriotism’.
European democracy and national democracy share a common destiny: together they will prosper, or together they will perish.
Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. In 1987 he founded in Ventotene the Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).