This article appears on the FEPS website and draws heavily on the analyses by the FEPS Correspondents in India and South Africa on the recent elections in those countries and looks for common themes and insights for the European elections.
It would be interesting to see the statistics for deforestation at election time, as a plethora of columns floods the press offering analyses of various outcomes and the reasons behind them. 2014 must be a particularly egregious year for conservationists as elections take place in the India, South Africa and the EU, representing the interests of almost 1.8 billion people. It seems strange to assert that there are common themes given the vastness and diversity of the combined electorates. Yet this has been the case and each election offers lessons that should greatly concern those of us who care about democracy.
Along the banks of the Ganges, the Orange River and the Danube, citizens have grown disenchanted with the behaviour of those in power. Either through poor communication or outright misgovernment, political elites have alienated the people they purport to represent. Citizens have sometimes turned to populist, nationalist and communalist forces to seek redress for their needs. Others simply don’t engage with the system and a growing generation divide is reflected in the patterns of political participation. It seems the political systems of the so-called developed and developing worlds are not so different after all.
There is a common theme in much of the commentary, wherein the broader public is seen as alienated from the entrenched, plutocratic elites. FEPS correspondents in India and South Africa have regularly commented over the past year on the ills of corruption, graft and cronyism among the original liberation movements in those countries. In January of this year, Klaus Voll commented on the India Against Corruption Movement, which had begun as early as 2011. As more and more evidence emerged of corruption at the heart of the Congress Party, it seemed that its proud history would be undone in the eyes of the many who have been left behind and let down.
South Africa has had its own travails and the jeering of senior ANC politicians during Nelson Mandela’s funeral – as outlined by Arnold Wehmhoerner – underlined the widespread disaffection among the public. Zuma’s brazen use of taxpayers’ money for works on his personal estate and his general misuse of state resources led many to believe that the ANC might have a day of reckoning at the polls.
This week, the peoples of Europe will also go to the polls for the European Parliament elections. The context is different, but the fears of manifestations of democratic malaise are not so alien from those in India and South Africa. The protracted financial crisis and Great Recession has shone a spotlight on practices and power dynamics that may not have previously been so obvious amid the relative prosperity of Europe. However, the massive spike in unemployment – particularly among the young – as well as the perceived pressure on states and taxpayers to take on the debts of irresponsible financiers has led to a feeling among citizens that their representatives are serving needs other than those of the electorate.
The three polities have faced grave concerns about the growth of reactionary forces as people lash out at long-standing elites. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party has swept to power in a landslide victory under the leadership of Narendra Modi. According to Klaus Voll, many expect from Modi a style of governance which is “quasi-presidential” with even some “authoritarian tendencies”. Modi is a nationalist and has had a questionable history when it comes to interfaith relations. He was governor during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat and received much of his political education in the extremist paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Of course, he avoided controversial topics during his campaign but there remains a fear that he will foster illiberal and majoritarian democratic practices. He appealed to a desire among certain constituencies for a strongman-style leader and had particularly high support among the youth, indicating some electoral sustainability for the BJP.
In spite of predictions of a rout, the ANC still secured 62% of the vote and Zuma has solidified his position as State President. Some had pointed to Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters party as a potential populist challenger to take advantage of the widespread unrest that currently exists in the mining sector in particular. Malema has advocated radical aims like the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of land without compensation and appealed to a particularly disenfranchised sector of the population (40% of EFF supporters are unemployed and 44% are aged 18-24). However, their overall vote was just 6%. On the face of it, South Africa’s elections had an impressive turnout of 73.4% but this neglects the obligation to register to vote. There has been a sizeable increase in non-registration, particularly among the “born frees”. Taking the non-registered into account, according to Wehmhoerner, the ANC only has the support of 36.4% of the eligible voting population. Thus, while many cannot bring themselves to vote against South Africa’s liberation movement, they merely stay at home as apathy reigns.
While in India and South Africa, the focus has been on the rejection or continuing support of individual parties that have dominated their respective societies for decades, in Europe there is a fear of rejection of the democratic consensus. Parties of the centre-left and centre-right are said to have converged to such an extent that they are indistinguishable. The model of consensual decision-making at EU level is seen as the basis for technocracy and elitist governance in which alternatives are given little consideration. In the absence of a Cold War bipolar order, the points of reference for opposition movements are not so clear and many have looked to nationalism and populist rhetoric for an answer. Recent polls indicate that MEPs without group affiliations could grow from 33 to over 95, while the populist right wing Europe of Freedom and Democracy is also set to increase it’s representation by 25%. Many of these, mostly Eurosceptic, representatives seek to undermine the basis on which the legislative process works and advocate particularistic, nationalist interests.
The sad reality is that a long-standing democracy is not guaranteed to be a healthy one. The disaffection seen in each of these three polities indicates that apathy, disenchantment and reactionary politics are all products of political stagnation. Stagnation, in turn, can come from the long-term dominance of particular parties and movements, or from the perceived convergence of previously independent and oppositional political forces. De facto one-party rule and technocratic governance are not so different. Both work under the assumption that there are no valid alternatives to the dominant orthodoxy. To citizens this is a charter for disempowerment and discourages participation until a moment of crisis. Without renewal and reflection in the processes of governance, the alternative will be disenchantment and upheaval.
This piece is a foreword I wrote to the third issue of the FEPS magazine Queries. I was guest editor of the “Focus” section of the magazine for the issue.
The world changes and it has ever been thus. With change comes panic and fear of social, cultural and political degeneration as different interests and perspectives seek the last word in its interpretation. There is a palpable sense of distress at the ongoing financial crisis and its consequences. But even before the crash, there had been a growing sense of disenchantment with the institutions of governance at national, European and international level. This edition of Queries seeks to address some of the aspects of this “democratic malaise”.
The common narrative is that the onslaught of globalisation heralded an era of post-industrial economies. The nature of political engagement changed and newly organised forces of post-materialist politics challenged mainstream mass party dominance. This coincided with an increase in identity politics as cultural identifiers gained greater political currency in everyday democratic discourse. Thus, since the 1970s there has been a significant increase in nationalist voting tendencies (both regionalist and populist radical right) and in mobilisation around specific ethnic and religious interests.
To explain this, many sociologists and political scientists refer to a division between “modernisation winners and losers”, wherein the former are cosmopolitan, confidant beneficiaries of globalisation while the latter have been largely sidelined by the workings of the service economy and liberal social norms. Some progressives approach this from a perspective of well meaning “modernisation winners” who want to free so-called “losers” from the shackles of anti-modernity.
Unfortunately, this is often tinged with a tone of bien pensant condescension, which underlies the elitist assumption of having all the answers if only people would listen. Furthermore, assessments of the ‘forces of reaction’ are often based on past experience rather than their current, more challenging, manifestations. This volume of Queries examines the shifting methods and perspectives of right wing populists and others who challenge liberal democracy, raising serious questions about our collective response.
CHANGING MANIFESTATIONS OF DEMOCRATIC MALAISE
Much of the current commentary on right wing populists describes a very narrow demographic of angry, uneducated men who refuse to accept the realities of modernity and changing social norms. Yet even extremists like Jobbik in Hungary confound stereotypes. Research by the FEPS Young Academics Network has shown Jobbik supporters to be young, university educated and IT literate. The party has been very successful in using 21st century tools to mobilise around their hateful and xenophobic agenda.
While a significant proportion of the far right uphold a traditionalist worldview when it comes to gender and LGBT issues, others actually place themselves as protectors of socially liberal values. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen have been very adept at utilising quasi-feminist discourse as a weapon for Islamophobic public commentary. Thus, they pose as the real defenders of women’s rights while those on the left acquiesce in the oppression of women amid the oppressive communalism that came with multiculturalism.
And what of Islamic politics in Europe? As an oppositional force, Islamism has also changed in its thinking and approach. Islamists’ narrative has significantly changed from the theocratic idea that democracy is wrong because “God told us” to a more political one that democracy is inherently unjust. Changing narratives and ongoing marginalisation have helped such versions of anti-modernist emancipation to gain a foothold.
A EUROPE THAT EATS ITS YOUNG
Most assume that higher levels of education can protect our societies from the onslaught the worst effects of democratic malaise. Yet throughout Europe, the most politically disaffected demographic has been educated young people. Their level of trust in the ability of politics to improve their lives has plummeted. As youth unemployment rocketed amid the financial crisis, the pathetic dithering of many of our governments and institutions has done little to restore faith. It would be a mistake, however, to link this malaise solely to the financial crisis. Much depends on the pre-existing health of liberal democratic institutions and civic engagement.
The rise of the extremist Golden Dawn in Greece must be analysed in the historical context of long-term polarisation in Greek politics. By comparison, discontent in other Troika “programme countries” such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland has not been expressed in as violent a manner while “AAA” Austria, Finland and the Netherlands have significant populist radical right parties. This should remind us of the deep folly of short-term thinking when addressing more deep-rooted problems.
THE PROBLEMS OF INSTITUTIONS
In the USA and Europe, suspicion of politics has been accompanied by a parallel suspicion of the apparatus of the state. The “revolving door” phenomenon wherein high-level officials secure cushy private sector positions after their tenure in public office exacerbates this. For Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, this creates the feeling that politicians make decisions based on the whims of private masters and not the public’s best interest.
At European level, the culture of technocracy and the reductionist vision of EU politics as between those who are “for or against Europe” have been detrimental to democracy. The neoliberal surge has benefited from this trend as democracy is uprooted and the European social consensus is gradually broken. Economics has become depoliticised and politics has been reduced to discourse around cultural identity, disproportionally benefitting reactionary nationalists.
This presents particular problems for progressives, who seek to improve the lives of citizens through the use of an economically active state. As long as people are so distrustful of the state and the people who represent its institutions, the left faces an acute challenge. One sees similar trends in attitudes towards other large institutions. Surveys show that the most traditional pillar of the public sphere, the newspaper, is the least trusted among the mass media. So it seems the deficit of trust is shared by the Third and Fourth Estates.
REINVIGORATING POLITICAL LIFE
It would be unjust, however, to imply that there have been no efforts to ameliorate the situation. The institution of the Ombudsman represents a significant pragmatic effort to bring transparency and accountability to the workings of our institutions. The problem is that too often responses have been “fanciful and ambiguous”. There is a dire need for a connection in people’s minds between democratic politics in Europe and the decisions that affect their lives.
This issue of Queries recounts a story of an Athenian women’s exhortations to decision makers in Brussels: “Tell them not to forget that we are human beings, not statistics!” No one should ever have to say this in a civilised society, let alone the birthplace of democracy! The sad reality is that the institutions of European democracy have come to be seen as links in the chains that bind our destinies to the interests of unidentified political and financial elites. We now face the grand task of making them the building blocks for a more equitable and empowered existence, where those with power seek democratic legitimacy at every turn.
It’s a source of great annoyance to see a talent misused. If we’re honest about it, John Waters has at talent for writing. He has a magnificent vocabulary and he’s not afraid to use it. He writes in an easy, flowing manner with a technical and structural ability that is often missing from journalistic writing. It’s such a pity that the main beneficiaries of this talent are sophism, pretence, and anti-modernity. He takes post-colonial, parochial and sneering attitudes and dresses them up as high-minded social commentary.
In today’s Irish Times John wrote of his disappointment in Lucinda Creighton’s inability to save us all from ourselves. In a democracy, he’s perfectly entitled to express his feelings on our elected representatives. However, it is the manner in which he uses this analysis to denigrate democracy itself that is of particular concern in this post. By Waters’ latest analysis, Ireland is a “Republic of Fiscal Rectitude and Very Little Else”. We exist under a “delusion of independence” where “if tomorrow morning everyone in Ireland stopped talking about politics altogether, and our politicians took to their beds for good, nothing fundamental would change for better or worse. Political reality would continue much as it has, to the beat of entirely different drums … In truth, there’s hardly any governing left to be done – it all happens from outside … off the “splash” of the global economy, dependent on the ebbs and flows of the tide. He uses the metaphor of prostitution as a critique of Ireland’s low corporate tax rate wherein we live off the creativity and entrepreneurship of others.
It’s a classic naysayer’s charter and his economic critique does not sit well with his positions on other issues. However, when juxtaposed with the messianic hope of a young and articulate TD coming to the rescue, it becomes clear that John is the epitome of the politics of the helpless. That he describes our electoral process as “no more than self-flattery” when the decisions are made “Europe” or elsewhere shows that he wants to bring everyone down to his level of helplessness. There is something inherently adolescent and backward about this perspective: the sneering tone of a ‘hurler on the ditch’, as others try to make their way in the world. If anything, this is the attitude that discourages others from trying new things and taking risks on innovation and creativity. It privileges the derivative and the safe over the dynamic and young. It privileges the anti-modern over the modern.
The funny thing about it is that there’s no guarantee he actually believes it at all. Waters was all in a tizzy over the proposed abolition of the Seanad. Surely he must be aware of the power of politics to change the balance of power on religious-moral issues, given his tendency to decry Ireland’s rather limited liberalisation on such matters as patronage of schools, reproductive rights and equal marriage legislation. His dominant focus has been those very issues that are decided by voters at national level (and indeed the basis of Lucinda’s exit from Fine Gael) yet he still thinks a change of government or an abandonment of political discourse will affect nothing.
It’s evident he doesn’t know what he wants from politics or society and this explains the contradictions inherent in his worldview. In his present incarnation, his critiques of political life and societal direction are grounded in an abject fear of modernity combined with nostalgia for a youth much different to that which he lived. Perhaps this explains his admiration for Lucinda. Is she the young person he wishes he had been? Of course, this endless search for a messianic figure in politics leaves the searcher all the more helpless and it benefits vested interests (and usually conservative interests, in an added irony for John). However, to assert that, if Lucinda couldn’t do it, the collective action of elected representatives can achieve nothing is simply another act of adolescent petulance because he didn’t get his way. It encourages others to be helpless too and to hurl on the ditch while the pitch is played by the same small town heroes.
It’s become a sort of cliché in comments sections of websites like The Journal to say that Ireland needs a “new political party”. Yet there is often a lack of specificity as to what kind of new party would improve political life, when there is already a multiplicity of registered parties in the state. However, this recurring theme obviously reflects widespread disillusionment with the political system. It is a trend evident in many parts of Europe and should not be ignored. As such, it is worth reflecting on where openings exist for a new party in Ireland. Previous research for the Foundation for European Progressive Studies has identified several potential openings on the right of the spectrum: 1) parties espousing traditionalist conservative Catholic values; 2) a Eurosceptic party like UKIP or the 5-Star Movement in Italy; and 3) the “Populist Radical Right” (term borrowed from the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde) akin to the French Front National or the Sweden Democrats. It has also been suggested that there is space for a grouping to the left of the Labour Party for those who cannot stomach Sinn Féin or the Trotskyist left but that is beyond the scope of this article.
While the Reform Alliance possibly reflect the first trend, the National Independent Party (NIP), reported upon in the Irish Times this week, have their eye on the second and (to a lesser extent) third openings. They know what they don’t want, decrying the Euro, multiculturalism, immigration, austerity and lax banking regulation. Their Ireland South candidate for this year’s European elections says that they are neither right nor left nor centre “we are directly forward…we are liberterian [sic].” In fact, they are ideologically incoherent and self-contradictory. To oppose austerity is to favour the protection of the welfare state and to oppose lax banking regulation is to interfere with the markets, neither of which is especially libertarian. Still, the use of this language reflects the derivative nature of their narrative which is borrowed largely from UKIP.
True to type, NIP offer simple answers to complex questions and negate the constitutional impediments to such simplicity. The political system will be saved from localism and parish-pump by reducing the number of TDs and increasing the size of constituencies. Their job creation strategy is based on leaving the Euro. Their social policy is an appeal to paranoid discourse about cultural dilution and the perils of immigration. Interestingly, their assertions come without any empirical evidence to substantiate their claims. The rest is rather vague, with aspirations towards a “free and mutual society”.
Should we be worried?
Depending on your worldview, many will be concerned about the impact of a party like NIP on the political system. Realistically, it will only have as much of an impact as we allow it. If other politicians begin to engage with this discourse on immigration and Europe, the salience of such issues will increase and the lowest common denominator becomes more normalised. Even this is a small victory for the xenophobic right.
There are also opportunities created by the media. Effective media performers with a touch of novelty attract viewers, listeners and readers so there is inherent media self-interest in reporting on them. At the same time, the populist and Eurosceptic right enjoys a narrative of a media elite out to get them, even when their coverage is proportionate, thus establishing a remarkable vicious circle of discursive acrobatics. In 2009, Declan Ganley came within respectable distance of getting elected on a Eurosceptic vote in Ireland North West with no little help from the media circus created around him. Still, he maintained a persistent narrative of an Establishment out to get him.
In real terms, however, the NIP has little electoral potential. The PR-STV electoral system mitigates the successful sudden growth of new parties, in part due to the localism it engenders. For a party to grow, each candidate must do enough long term groundwork to get elected in their own constituency or ward and this must happen across multiple constituencies and wards. In a continental European PR-list system, a charismatic leader can bring other candidates over the line but Ireland’s candidate-based voting counters this. For example, Ganley’s appeal did little for Caroline Simons’ vote. Once again, calls for a new party negate the organisational capacity it takes to run a party effectively.
At this early stage, the relative success or failure of the National Independent Party and its ilk will be determined by how the rest of us react to it. An overreaction creates martyrs and heroes while friendly engagement nurtures media darlings. Then their medium-term future depends on their own capacity to organise and institutionalise their party structures, which currently seem to be lacking. The safest option is to nip it in the bud now and calmly leave them out in the cold before anything gets nasty.
None of this alters the on-going sense of disillusionment with politics in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. That is a huge matter that needs to be addressed by both citizens and politicians. Yet simply saying that things are wrong will not make them right and in politics, simple answers are about as useful as ignoring the question.
* I’ve deliberately avoided providing a link to the NIP website.
Letter to the Editor of the Irish Times printed on 18th December 2013
Sir, – Paul Gillespie’s article (“Much regional variation in performance of European populist right parties”, World View, December 15th) undermines certain received truths surrounding the populist right and the present crisis. He cites the EU Democracy Observatory conference, which “heard how economic voting has punished incumbent governments held responsible for the crisis and rewarded opposition parties”, but uses the examples of Finland and the Netherlands to show how voters of the populist right are motivated by fear of potential economic decline rather than the actual effects of the existing crisis. This is an evidence-based nuance often overlooked in media commentary.
However, research by the Brussels-based Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the Italian Centro per la Riforma dello Stato and Italianieuropei runs contrary to Mr Gillespie’s contention that right-wing populists “need to be engaged by established parties, stimulating greater debate and voter choice”.
The historical experience has been that right-wing populists, in fact, undermine public debate and weaken liberal democratic practice. He describes the French Front National as exceptional but its rise can be traced to mainstream engagement since the 1980s. This has simultaneously increased the salience of Eurosceptic and xenophobic issues in the French public sphere in a trend also evident in Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Flames of hatred in Athens rise from “opportunity structures” allowed to smoulder by the mainstream parties since the Junta. In the UK, Conservative Party attempts to “engage” with the UKIP narrative on immigration are dragging the whole political system through the gutter. The wiser approach would be for mainstream parties to engage honestly with their citizens, and the fears they hold, rather than with the harbingers of undemocratic chaos who would play on such fears. – Yours, etc,
Foundation for European
In November 2013 I was one of the editors of a book entitled The Changing Faces of Populism: Systemic Challengers in Europe and the US published by Lexington Books. This was a collection of case studies that sought to provide a snapshot of the situation throughout Europe. As part of this book I wrote a chapter on populism in the Republic of Ireland. The introduction below, while the full piece can be read here.
In November 2010, University College Dublin economist Morgan Kelly wrote an article in the Irish Times entitled ‘If you think the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home’. He dealt with the human cost for those families struggling to deal with overpriced mortgages and the economic cost for the State, which, he said, was in danger of heading for bankruptcy. Within three weeks of this article being released, the government had agreed to a bailout mechanism with the ECB, the IMF, the European Commission (hereafter Troika) and three individual member states. His final remarks, raised fears of the emergence within five years of a “hard right, anti Europe, anti-Traveller party that will, inconceivable as it now seems, leave us nostalgic for the, usually, harmless buffoonery” of the traditional, established parties. In a country that has never had a strong hard right tradition, such a prospect raised serious concerns not only for Irish political culture but also for similar potential developments elsewhere in Europe.
By his own prediction, it is still too early to say whether his fears could reflect reality. Given the absence of enduring far right parties in Irish history since independence, there is sometimes a tendency to compare Ireland to “the Finnish exception”.  However, the growth of the True Finns in that country has shown the danger of unwarranted complacency. As the Republic of Ireland struggles through persistent economic recession and political disenchantment, it is worth assessing the potential for a new populist onslaught in Irish politics.
In the interest of comparative utility, this paper will look at potential areas of encroachment for parties of the Populist Radical Right, and other political tendencies with significant counterparts in Europe and North America. It will therefore be necessary to examine whether there are factors in Irish constitutional design and political practice that encourage the growth of populist movements or that mitigate and absorb such tendencies. In a society that has undergone considerable social flux in the past quarter century, the analysis will examine if circumstances have changed enough to provide new opportunities for political actors of this kind. This will involve an examination of nationalist discourse among the major political parties and the relationship between voters and their liberal democratic institutions.
The paper finds that, thus far, there are two types of actors worthy of scrutiny in the coming years. The first are the “hostage takers” who mainly participate indirectly in the electoral system but who mobilise around referenda and hold politicians to ransom on specific issues. Secondly, there are “gatekeepers” who attract the votes of the Populist Radical Right but who have not behaved like them thus far.
Address to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs Tuesday, 16 July 2013. The piece posted below is my preliminary statement. The full transcript of the questions and answers session is available on the Oireachtas website.
I would like to thank you for the invitation to speak here today. I come in my professional capacity to represent the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, a think tank based in Brussels. I also happen to be a citizen of this Republic. Therefore, I take this opportunity very seriously and I hope to offer a perspective that will be useful to you in your work.
I will begin by addressing the “money matters” of economic, budgetary and fiscal coordination outlined in your invitation. I will then look at the political angle, bearing in mind how Ireland fits into the overall narrative. I will save commentary on the situation in the UK for the discussion afterwards.
Economic, budgetary and fiscal coordination
The invitation made direct reference to the European Semester process, a cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination in existence since 2010. The objective of this is to ensure sound finances, foster growth and prevent macroeconomic imbalances. This all sounds fine in terms of multi-layered policy coordination.
However, even this immediately raises issues about legitimacy and accountability. I can only imagine the discomfort you all felt as parliamentarians when you found out that the German Bundestag had begun scrutinising the 2013 Budget before it became available to you. Despite the fact that the Oireachtas has similar access to the budgets of other member states, the perception persisted that a big player had coercive oversight in Irish affairs.
The maintenance of political legitimacy lies to a large degree in perception and it requires the modes of accountability to be crystal clear. Therefore, it is evident that any proposals for further budgetary coordination must take account of citizens’ views as well as the desired legislative outcome.
Many proposals for budgetary integration cite the potential for central authorities to veto certain national legislation, most likely linked to the rule that national deficits ought not exceed 3% of GDP. This would be enforced through the stick of financial sanctions and default mechanisms, and the carrot of debt mutualisation.
As such, when it comes to the use of such mechanisms as Eurobonds, national governments and parliaments need to decide: How much control are they actually willing to cede in order to attain a level of efficiency that has been so absent during the present crisis? The economic structures of our Union are intrinsically bound with sensitive political questions regarding the most legitimate level of coordination. As one would expect, there are radically different perspectives on where the lines should be drawn.
Decision-making on economic, budgetary and fiscal coordination requires the appropriate institutional mechanisms. At present, the ECB is very limited in its capacity to help the situation due to its focus on monetary stability. Monetary targets focus on inflation but the ECB needs real targets, with a focus on economic and social outcomes such as tackling unemployment. A more active ECB with the ability to issue bonds to cover for state debt would be a considerable help. Added to this, it could guarantee debt issued by private banks for specific categories of investment like graduate start-ups or retraining.
Stability is vitally important but it should be accompanied by a more ambitious strategy for full employment and an increase in demand. To achieve this, the ECB and EU require significant structural and institutional changes. In particular, it is time to make the ECB politically accountable, thereby removing its independent status.
The European Investment Bank is another facility whose lending scope could be widened. It has great potential to increase employment and aggregate demand through project bonds and targeted investment.
Many of the proposals for stronger political union require a larger EU budget. Inevitably this will bring conflict and further problems of coordination. It also raises questions about who is accountable, as it would possibly entail the creation of a sort of supranational finance ministry. The corresponding loss of fiscal control at national level might be a bridge too far in many of the member states. However, it is a debate that must be addressed, whatever the outcome.
Implications for Ireland
Before I move on, I would like to briefly address Ireland’s interaction with the Fiscal Compact Treaty. Given the government’s constrained position at the time, I understand why they supported a Yes vote in referendum, as to do otherwise would undermine their political position during negotiations in Brussels. Thus, a No vote would be specifically bad for Ireland in the short to medium term. But research conducted by FEPS at the time indicated that it could be damaging for us all in the long run
The central flaw to the treaty is that it narrowly constrains the capacity for national governments to use fiscal policy as a countercyclical mechanism during times of crisis. When we need to boost public investment, we don’t have the necessary tools. Such limits exist more broadly too. A small, open economy like Ireland can only do so much alone, but the limits placed by the treaty reduce the extent to which activities elsewhere in the Eurozone can help us too. The only justifications for the treaty are short term and political in nature.
Many suggestions for integrationist initiatives emanate from Brussels. The most noticeable proposal in media terms is the introduction of direct elections for the Commission President. This is a federalist dream, based in part on the example of the US. There is no question that the secrecy with which the President is chosen must end.
However, in a continent dominated by parliamentary systems, why not adhere to parliamentary principles in choosing such a position? This is the much more realistic alternative originally proposed by the PES in 2009. Now the main European parties have agreed to select top candidates and campaign with them in next year’s European Parliament elections. This will have a direct bearing on the outcome, thus adding democratic legitimacy and making the Commission directly accountable to the Parliament.
One occasionally hears proposals for transnational party lists, potentially picked in Brussels. Again this ignores the political context in individual states, including countries like Ireland who do not use list systems. At a fundamental level, transnational lists would have the effect of increasing the influence Brussels-based party officials at the expense of the legitimating factor of close proximity to the electors and internal party democracy.
Ultimately, many proposals from Brussels are often far removed from the realities of daily life elsewhere in Europe. Their aim is to deepen political integration, but the focus is mostly on political practitioners rather than the public at large. Furthermore, such proposals require very significant treaty changes for measures that are largely cosmetic.
Treaty change is a difficult subject in this country. Therefore, I always argue in Brussels that, if such changes are unavoidable, we have to make them count. Measures to enhance living standards across the Union are bound to have a more legitimating outcome than remote institutional daydreams. Some of the suggestions I made earlier would indeed require new treaties, especially those requiring institutional transformation, the removal of the deficit rules at EU level, or the focus on job creation included in an Employment and Stability Pact.
It is hugely important that the politicisation of Europe is evident at member state level. Across the EU, “Europe” is presented as a monolithic entity. One is either pro- or anti-EU, for or against further integration. It is not always readily apparent that there are diverse conceptions of what EU integration actually means. In the European Council, big questions are sidelined to accommodate the many national interests at play. Member states privilege narrow, short-term advantage over long-term planning. In all the noise we don’t get to ask what kind of European Union we want.
Legitimacy depends on being given a choice. Populist and extremist voices have grown louder as the politics of grand coalition and consensus have given way to charges of cosy elitism. This has a good deal to do with a more general legitimation crisis facing democratic institutions. There is a tacit acceptance of dysfunction, while citizens become ever more alienated. Within the member states, governments disguise dysfunction in vocabulary that is misleadingly “ethical”, exemplified by the presentation of austerity measures and welfare cuts as “hard choices”, while alternative perspectives are omitted from debate.
These are all political choices. Often national governments tend to disguise their political choices as impositions from the EU when it suits them, and this has damaged the credibility of the Union to a certain extent. The evolution of European political parties, to which most national parties are affiliated, has been one of the more significant efforts at offering genuinely European political choices.
How far should integration go?
The subsidiarity principle has been relatively successful as a legislative value. The idea that all legislation should be decided at its most appropriate level serves well the principle of a multi-layered democracy. Sadly, we live in a time where there is widespread cynicism towards every level of governance.
The gap between the inherently ethical nature of public decision-making and the utilitarian nature of present-day political debate has pushed a wedge between citizen and institution. The limited terms of political discourse bring with it the rejection of alternative paradigms and unconventional thought. Taken to the European level, the constraints imposed on fiscal policy by patently ideological positions in the treaties have put into law the idea that there are no alternatives. Is it any wonder that there is suspicion of further integration?
Personally, I am in favour of further integration, but only if it is on the appropriate political and economic terms. Citizens need to see their public institutions as symbols of power held in common – as guardians of the public good. There is a responsibility to offer a normative public vision, not an irrational bureaucracy, prone to unaccountable interference. This means adhering to the community method, giving an appropriate role to the European Parliament, and linking it to the national parliaments in a constructive relationship.
In conclusion, the FEPS perspective is that democratic legitimacy and accountability can be enhanced in a number of ways. In economic, budgetary and fiscal matters, our researchers advocate a politically accountable ECB and the use of the EIB as a means of stimulating investment in the real economy. Furthermore, the legislative scope of the EU should be expanded to include a focus of job creation.
Further political integration must be linked to the idea of improving citizens’ living standards. Otherwise it will be seen as a source of resentment. Therefore, the legislative framework of the EU needs a clear link to preferred social outcomes and union-wide solidarity.
I hope the presentation has been useful to you and I look forward to our discussion.