Is it too late to reform the European Union?Democracy July 15, 2019
The European Union was born out of an intense need for peace. While peace has been maintained, the principles and institutions of the European Union are being challenged by member states. Many feared that the recent European Union Parliament elections would see a surge of far-right Eurosceptic (if not Europhobic) parties. While it was not exactly the case, traditional parties are more challenged than ever. Those who believe in the European Union must show that they can bring comprehensive reform or they risk making the union obsolete.
The European Union has been evolving ever since its founding in 1993, often under the leadership of Germany and France. It continued to grow, with more members, more policies, more institutions, and a monetary union.
The European Union was based on principles of supra-nationalism, cooperation, and integration. This was an astonishing goal considering the violent history of the continent. Indeed, it was the first attempt in modern history to build an institution that would not be a fully-fledged supranational European state but nonetheless a structured union of cooperating member states. The European Union asserts power peacefully over its members through various governmental means; however, member states retain their sovereignty. We have not arrived at the end of the project, and maybe we never will, but the sole attempt and the road already traveled is worth some credit.
We are in a very different era now, however. Around the world, there is a crisis of confidence, a distrust in both democracy and parties at the center of the political spectrum. There is a growing divide between governments and their citizens, between political elites and the rest of society.
Since the financial crisis, European politics in particular have fragmented. The European Union and its principles seem more fragile than ever: the idea of a pan-Europeanism is on the decline, nationalism is on the rise, especially in Eastern Europe, and the wave of democratization that we saw after the Cold War has begun to roll back. While many citizens across the continent still support the European Union, there is a certain skepticism about the benefits of maintaining the institution. Others, meanwhile, think the system has become too complicated and is stealing away its members’ sovereignty.
The European Union elections in May 2019 are a reflection of this crisis of conscience and fragmentation of politics. In this election, for the first time in its history, the two big center-left and center-right parties that have traditionally ruled European Union institutions, the Christian-democrats (EPP) and the social democrats (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament - S&D), both suffered major elections losses. Indeed, the two parties lost 72 seats between the two of them.
With a turnout of almost 51 percent, the elections showed that people actually want to have a say in European Union politics. Some, it seems, voted to push back against illiberal far-right parties and movements who want to attack the European Union from within. Indeed, we have seen the rise of more liberal fringe parties, including left-wing, pro-Europe parties. The Liberals and the Greens, for example, have grown, winning 37 and 17 additional seats respectively at the expense of the center-left. As the election results show, genuine interest remains in the European Union but voters believe there is a need for reform.
Despite the surge of some liberal, pro-European Union parties, Euroscepticism is still very much present. Across the continent, populist, far right, anti-liberal parties continue to grow nationally. The Five Star Movement and the Northern League in Italy, the National Rally (RN) in France, and Law and Justice in Poland made gains. In France, the RN won the most votes in France’s election, narrowly beating President Macron’s party. Their success demonstrates that a substantial section of the population believe their country might be better off without supranational institutions which, according to them, undermine their well-being and the will of the majority. Eurosceptic parties promote an exclusionary national identity, defined in ethnic, cultural and religious terms. Their voters believe, for example, that the European Union is letting immigrants in who are changing their nation’s culture and identity.
In the European Parliament, these national parties are members of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF), which won an additional 22 seats, making it the 6th strongest European Union political group. While it’s far-right, Eurosceptic ideas will prevent them from finding other allies within the Parliament, it doesn’t not mean the European Union is safe. Indeed, instead of calling for an exit, far-right Eurosceptic parties have changed their strategy and want to sabotage the European Union from the inside.
Where do we go from here? Marine Le Pen just unveiled a new far-right group called the Identity and Democracy group (ID), which brings together the ENF and other Eurosceptic parties, and now holds 73 of 751 seats in the European Parliament. Whether the ID alliance will be successful is yet to be seen. Indeed, while its members use the same ethno-nationalist speech and have common enemies, they rarely agree on policy solutions.
At the moment, pro-European Union parties can be happy that far-right parties are unable to form truly powerful grand coalitions. But they should remain wary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, long seen as the de facto leader and grand defender of the European Union, is on her way out after years in power. While President Macron has presented himself as the champion of Europe’s integration, he may not necessarily have the same charisma as Merkel as evidenced by his particularly low approval ratings. With Merkel gone, will he be able to bring new life and new coalitions to the European Union? This is certainly what he is aiming for.
The European Union election results show that there is anger at the status-quo. Europeans, whether for or against the European Union, want change. If Europeists want to protect the principles of unity and cooperation that first made the union, it is time to reform a fracturing system.
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