In our ‘Europe2025’ series, Christian Schweiger argues the EU will only survive long-term if it builds its future agenda on broad public support through open dialogue and innovative consultation.
Throughout the past decade the European Union has been swept by a growing tide of Euroscepticism, which emerged in the wake of the triple banking, economic and sovereign-debt crisis in the eurozone and the subsequent migration crisis. The effects of both linger on inside the EU in multiple ways.
Not only did the eurozone crisis deepen the economic and social divide between the richer core group of countries, led by Germany, and the periphery in south-eastern and central-eastern Europe. In response to these cries, Germany’s dominant role in determining the EU’s political agenda further alienated the group of ‘sovereigntist’ member states which remain sceptical towards the deepening of political integration.
In the case of the United Kingdom, longstanding English Euroscepticism hardened under conditions which were perceived as threatening the foundations of the British state and its model of liberal financial capitalism. The German ambition to include ultimately the whole of the single market in the strengthened regulatory framework of the eurozone was considered by Eurosceptics there to be an outright attack on the competitive advantage of the UK economy. This was reflected in the demands of the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, in 2015 to renegotiate EU membership, aiming to secure a permanent UK opt-out from deeper political integration in the EU and from enhanced political regulation in the eurozone.
The main concern of the British government was that the emerging eurozone banking union could eventually be expanded towards the financial sector in the City. The British public on the other hand was more concerned about the impact of labour migration from the central-eastern member states of the EU. The Leave campaign, spearheaded by Boris Johnson, exploited these concerns by offering the British electorate the option to ‘take back control’ of its domestic affairs by exiting the EU. The 2016 EU membership referendum was therefore dominated by concerns about freedom of movement inside the EU but to a certain extent also by the rise in migration from outside Europe in the wake of the migration crisis in the summer of 2015.
Migration has also been a major factor in the trend towards democratic ‘illiberalism’—a new form of populist autocracy—in central-eastern Europe. The central-eastern member states have predominantly been passive policy-takers since their accession in the first decade of the 2000s. The EU applied strict conditionality to these countries during their accession. This reinforced their self-perception as second-class Europeans and contributed to the more recent return to a new form of self-confident nationalism.
In particular, the Visegrád countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia—firmly rejected appeals to manage the lingering migration crisis through solidarity. They hence have remained firm opponents of the attempts by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to introduce binding refugee quotas across the EU. This illustrates the new central-eastern self-confidence, which has driven a deep wedge between Germany and its formerly close European allies.
The internal divisions of the EU are accompanied by an ever more apparent legitimacy problem.
In formal terms, the EU’s legal acquis and the primacy of union law is fully legitimised through the mechanisms of its multi-level governance system. The basis for its formal legitimacy is the electoral mandate citizens in each member state grant their governments to negotiate supranational policies and laws on their behalf. The European Council, where representatives from member-state governments determine the legal framework, the political agenda and the overall strategic direction of the union, hence remains the prime institution of collective decision-making.
Constitutional experts, such as Joseph Weiler, have however emphasised that the EU has failed to match its formal legitimacy with a deeper form of social legitimacy, where European citizens would develop value-based loyalties towards union institutions and policies. This has become even more obvious since the public controversies accompanying ratification of the Maastricht treaty which emerged in many member states in the early 1990s.
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The debates surrounding Maastricht demonstrated that the ‘permissive consensus’ of passive public support for governmental decision-making in EU negotiations, which had supported the European-integration process during its first four decades, was beginning to break up. The result has not only been demands for increasing public scrutiny over EU institutions and decision-making procedures. National governments have also come under growing pressure to justify their European diplomacy, as voters turn towards Eurosceptic parties which in many cases question the fundamental purpose of the EU and advocate a return towards national solutions.
Under such circumstances, it has become ever harder to make a positive case for the deepening of political co-operation in the EU. Unfortunately, national governments have also frequently tried to gain political capital from the growing Euroscepticism in their countries by making the EU a scapegoat for domestic problems. Six decades on from the ratification of the Treaty of Rome, solidarity within the union is consequently hard to find, as member states are retreating towards their perceived national interests. Indeed, it resembles more a fragmented political, economic and social disunion.
Creating social legitimacy for the EU is a momentous task in an age where European societies face swift and persistent change. Its long-term viability will nevertheless remain in jeopardy if its future economic and political architecture is not based on the support of the people it is supposed to represent. As the third largest member state is set to exit the union later this year, business as usual or continuing to muddle through based on the status quo is no longer an option. The EU should take the challenge of ‘Brexit’ as an opportunity to rebuild the foundations of the European project.
A crucial starting point would be to establish a broader and more inclusive leadership agenda, aimed at bridging the multiple divisions among member states which emerged over the past decade. This would require political elites to start engaging in a collective dialogue, which takes place on an equal footing and concentrates on bridging the diversity of values, as well as determining a consensus on the long-term strategic aims of the EU’s political, economic and social agenda.
A comprehensive transnational dialogue must however not remain stuck in the backrooms of intergovernmental negotiations. It needs to be transparent and open towards public engagement, on many levels and through various channels. The dormant European Citizens’ Initiative shows that any attempt to gain value-based public support for EU institutions and policies through a half-hearted, one-size-fits-all approach is bound to fail.
In the third decade of the 21st century, EU leaders need to show they have the collective resolve to reconnect with their citizens through a range of innovative methods of pan-European communication, such as online consultations, townhall meetings and the live broadcasting of European Council discussions. It is time for the EU to let new light shine through old windows.
Christian Schweiger is visiting professor of comparative European governance systems in the Institute for Political Science at Chemnitz University of Technology. Recent publications include Exploring the EU's Legitimacy Crisis: The Dark Heart of Europe (Edward Elgar 2016) and Central and Eastern Europe in the EU: Challenges and Perspectives under Crisis Conditions (with Anna Visvizi, Edward Elgar 2018).