“How many average Spaniards can name three Members of the European Parliament? Is there a bar in Spain where people know who Juncker is or a university cafe where they recognise Tusk…?” These are questions put forward by Javier Albisu, correspondent for the EFE news agency in Brussels, the EU capital. “The infinite debate about the kind of Europe we want doesn’t reach Tíjola, Irún, Tarancón or Peñíscola. Which, I think, indicates that Brussels is detached from the real world,” he underlines. These are random examples, but symptomatic of a real problem: the average European citizen regards themselves as many things other than European. In itself, that wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that this sense of detachment sees the whole European project in crisis.
“Europe’s drama is that a significant part of the population has forgotten that our model of society would be impossible without the EU,” explains Juan Moscoso del Prado, former Socialist MEP and one of the authors of the Lisbon Treaty. “We make up 7% of the world’s population and generate 25% of global income; Europe is the world’s leading economy. European social spending, equivalent to 30% of our total GDP, accounts for 50% of the world’s total social spending,” he states. “There are many problems, plenty of them, but nothing anywhere like this has ever existed before.” Because the benefits of Europe comprise all of this: a common market, a shared space in which to work and live, a coordinated economic approach, and even a single currency for many of its members. Being European has countless advantages inside our borders and beyond, starting with the rare period of peace the EU has brought. Despite all this, however, citizens “don’t care” about Europe.
This problem has flourished over recent years, with Eurosceptic parties gaining strength in EU institutions and the refugee crisis seeing the reestablishment of internal borders and customs controls, so bringing into question the Schengen Area, the base of the whole European project. Yet this issue goes way back. Eight years ago, the European Parliament commissioned a survey, the results of which already attracted attention: although the majority (69%) considered it positive for their country to be in Europe, 32% said that they didn’t feel close to Europe, and 40% expressed direct mistrust for EU institutions. The question begging to be asked, then, is what has gone wrong with the Europe we have built?
Identifying the problems
“A growing percentage of Europeans doubt the capacity of public policy to solve their problems,” says Moscoso, who considers the situation even more pressing when it comes to EU institutions. “Many have stopped looking towards the EU for solutions to economic and social instability, or even on questions such as terrorism. This is fruit of the financial crisis and the perception that the EU is the “bad guy” of globalisation, at least in the eyes of generations born in Europe who are unaware of and have not lived through the decades in which the EU transformed our societies,” he laments. However, a recent study showed the age breakdown of Euroscepticism to work in the opposite direction: young people have European sentiments that older generations have forgotten.
Rebeca Cordero, lecturer in Sociology at Universidad Europea, describes it as a clash between expectation and reality. “The hope was that we would inhabit a united EU, in economic equilibrium together, with growth, increasingly diluted nations states, and citizens content to be European and form part of the EU. But the reality has become detached, in part, from that longed-for ideal. Member States refuse to continue granting power to the EU and citizens don’t fully identify with the project as the EU doesn’t seem to listen to them,” she states. In her opinion, what remains is “a lot of literature, plenty of speeches, intentions, fine words, but questionable results in terms of what was promised.”
“The EU has been built from the top down, not the other way around,” Albisu claims. “Perhaps that was necessary historically, but we’re well into the 21st century now and Europe has to re-seduce its citizens, get closer to them, listen to them. In part, we’re all responsible for this emotional detachment: EU institutions, the political class, the press and citizens themselves,” he underlines. Cordero, meanwhile, lays more blame on Europe’s institutions that its citizens: “It seems that, from the original idea, all that’s left are common economic and political interests, always in the same direction; a situation in which countries move at different speeds, the refugee crisis has cast doubt on migration policy and terrorism has put the free movement of people into question.”
Economic crisis, migration and terrorism are three of the most recent threats, not only with regard to the EU, but in politics generally. And they are cause or consequence, depending on who you ask, of the disaffection felt in many countries, even at a domestic level. The most obvious manifestation is the continuous drop in voter turnout rates, even at times of huge political change. The recent French presidential elections serve as an example, with abstention hitting a record high of 24.8%. In the legislative elections just a few weeks later, that figure rocketed to 58%.
This is precisely the breeding ground in which populist parties have found a means to flourish: the large traditional parties have suffered severe ballot-box setbacks which other, not always well-intentioned political players have been able to exploit. In European elections, where turnout is even lower than in national elections, parties of little relevance in their national parliaments have gained an important share of power and visibility. This is true of UKIP in Britain, the Frente Nacional in France and the Dutch PVV, to cite some of the best known examples, though far from an exhaustive list.
Paradoxical as it may seem, it is at the heart of Europe’s institutions that these anti-European forces have found their greatest expression. So much so that Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy and Europe of Nations and Freedom, the two Eurosceptic groups within the European Parliament, have 86 MEPs out of a total 751: were they to merge, they would form the third largest group behind the European People’s Party and the Socialists & Democrats.
After the Brexit setback, an opportunity
“The key is to generate passion for the European Union, but passion is tough to reason out: love isn’t something you can theorise about, you enjoy it or you suffer from it,” says Albisu. “Unfortunately, the most effective way to arouse passions is by focussing them against a common enemy. As on so many occasions, we learn from our mistakes and perhaps Brexit will help people — all of us — to appreciate the importance of a European ecosystem that we now take for granted but which, in order to flourish, required 2,000 years’ worth of war across the continent,” he adds.
In the short term at least, the haemorrhage produced by the surprising UK referendum decision to leave Europe seems to be under control. The far right failed to take power in Austria, has not been necessary to form a government in Holland and did not achieve the French presidency. Furthermore, UKIP, the party that originally pushed for Brexit, has disappeared from the UK Parliament. Their mission, however, is already complete: Britain will leave the EU, although how and when are yet to be seen. According to Dídac Gutiérrez, former coordinator of European programmes at the London School of Economics European Institute and now Director of European Studies at the Viavoice opinion poll institute in Paris, the process will be neither hard nor soft, but undefined. “There’s a third option aside from hard and soft, and that’s the no deal. It’s very likely because of the complexity, timing and desire to be tough on the United Kingdom, that the negotiations won’t conclude in time. In this event, the UK will have to leave come what may, with all the instability that entails,” he predicts.
For an EU already in doubt, Brexit is a devastating blow. Yet, as Albisu highlighted, it may have positive consequences. “I don’t think there’ll be more exits, at least in the short term,” reflects Gutiérrez. The bad thing, he points out, is that Brexit is sure to go ahead despite the results of the recent UK elections: “May’s majority, though decreased, remains in tact; what’s more, polls suggest that the number of Bregretters — voters who regret having voted in favour of Brexit — is low.” It remains to be seen how the post-European UK will fit into the complex map now remaining, with some countries inside the common market, others outside it, some with a shared currency, others without…
The process will have consequences for Europe — perhaps not all bad — but also for the UK. “In a country with a plurinational vision, a constitutional issue such as membership of the European Union cannot be resolved “only” by one of the nations within that state. In this sense, if England wishes to impose Brexit on the whole United Kingdom, its own territorial makeup could well be affected.” It might not be outrageous to suppose that in losing the UK, Europe may end up gaining a European Scotland or — even more complicated — a European united Ireland.
What are the possible solutions?
“Not all the Europeans who distrust Europe do so for the same reasons,” argues Moscoso. “However, they all share certain concerns and, what’s more, these are the key drivers of populism. That’s what we need to work on, the shared ground, and there’s plenty of it,” he claims. “A lack of action in the face of real problems, the same problems we’ve always had — employment, the quality of social services, security, family stability — is the reason why a growing number of citizens vote for political groups that use lies to manipulate people’s frustrations and fears, and will solve nothing,” criticises Moscoso. “The Union’s values and principles — equality, human rights, non-discrimination, freedom of belief, culture, tolerance, the rule of law, the welfare state, the primacy of reason — provide the only possible formula with which to take on populism,” he asserts.
As we wait for events to unfold regarding Brexit, the most palpable consequence of anti-European populism, it is now time to reverse the trend. At the end of the day, the UK’s decision to leave is already the greatest crisis so far faced by the EU — including the failed European Constitution — and that’s saying a lot. At least 2017 has begun by repairing some of the setbacks from 2016 through the national elections held so far. “In this era of political disaffection it’s essential to look for quick, immediate results while at the same time studying how to open up the ever long and far-removed process of treaty reform,” reflects Moscoso. “Europe should respond with clear, visible politics and proposals that directly generate results.” Even more so at a time when the effects of the economic crisis are still being felt and Europe’s capitals are experiencing an upturn in terrorist attacks, particularly from islamist extremism.
Soul-searching, then, is the order of the day if we are to uncover reasons for what has happened and try to remedy the situation. In this respect, the lecturer Rebeca Cordero describes three main problems “which characterise Europe’s identity crisis.” The first is “a lack of democracy in the EU”; the second, “its economic policies, branded as neoliberal”; and the third, “its high levels of bureaucratisation.”
On the first issue, Cordero highlights the fact the Parliament is “the only elected body” of the EU’s whole institutional network, even though “its competences are still limited.” The problem is worsened, according to Albisu, by a lack of accountability: “Public opinion sees the work of MEPs as such a grey area that in European elections people vote for parties rather than candidates,” he states. In Moscoso’s view, the solution lies precisely in developing policies aimed at “transparency and accountability.”
The second problem identified, related to economic measures, has a lot to do with the context of economic crisis. In this regard, Cordero advocates for policies to have “a more social focus” than we have seen to date. “Citizens need to be heard and understood, but decisions taken by the EU are lacking in social perspective. If people are to feel really involved in the European project, then we should start by reassessing the impoverishment some countries in the Union have suffered compared to others, review the debt acquired through EU bailouts, and begin to govern for all the member states, not for the benefit of just a few,” she sums up.
Moscoso agrees with this analysis: “Europe and its cross-border institutions are viewed as indelibly linked to the origin of the crisis, to bad management and its consequences, and in no way to the pursuit of satisfactory solutions. The story that without Europe the crisis would have been much worse just isn’t convincing enough,” he complains. “Voter perception is that austerity measures imposed by Europe have been the main cause of cuts in social spending,” an admission that, in his view, has only one solution: “increase public investment.”
The third challenge, bureaucratisation, is the one that de facto would distance the average citizen from EU institutions. According to Albisu, “it’s due to the fact that decision making in the European Union is extremely long and complex, to a great extent because a balance must be found between the vastly differing sensibilities of 28 member states. Added to that, the European Parliament has limited power and citizens don’t understand how it’s made up and what it’s for.” The question is how to resolve this hugely intricate framework in an organisation with hundreds of millions of citizens.
The threat from outside
As things stand, it seems clear that Europe’s enemy lies within, even taking into account external factors that exacerbate the situation, such as bad management of the migration crisis or the escalation in terrorism. Or, for example, inaction in the face of disputes involving Russia, one of the most influential countries in the region: the EU did not intervene in any way when tanks entered Georgia, nor when they occupied Ukrainian sovereign territory, and even though certain EU member states have social and political groups created and maintained by the Kremlin, aimed at influencing their day to day.
However, Javier Morales, lecturer in International Relations at Universidad Europea, does not perceive this as a defeat. Quite the contrary: “Russia does not pose an existential threat to the rest of Europe, it is not aiming to destroy the EU or liberal democracy as a model,” he claims. In fact, he goes even further: “Russia is culturally and historically part of Europe, although there are evident differences in terms of interests and values,” he argues.
In Morales’ opinion, Georgia and Ukraine are each different cases, responding to very distinct factors: “In the first, the EU could not play a more significant role because it was not part of the problem. It was Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO that sparked tensions with Russia,” he explains. In the case of Ukraine, on other hand, the EU certainly did play a part. “Diplomatically, by encouraging the escalation of those protests into violent insurrection, creating false expectations that Ukraine might be able to join the EU if Yanukovich’s government was overthrown, Europe became one of the players responsible for the crisis,” says Morales. “When the revolution came, the EU recognised the new government without thinking about how Russia would retaliate afterwards and without having any plan on how to defend Ukraine from possible Russian intervention,” he argues.
In any case, Russia’s reappearance as a key player on the international stage just as the EU is at its weakest does not necessarily imply that the country is in a strong or powerful position. According to Morales, “military or other types of force — such as cyberattacks — are used in specific scenarios where Russia feels that it has vital interests and, what’s more, that other players — such as the EU or USA — have managed to impose their interests over and above its own.” In other words, these actions are not an indication of strength but of the opposite. “For example, in Ukraine, Russia was defeated as it could not prevent the majority of voters from choosing to distance the country from its influence,” he explains. “That’s why these aggressive actions, such as the annexation of Crimea or the intervention in eastern Ukraine, are really a sign of weakness, attempts to recover from Russia’s failure to stem the growing influence of the EU and NATO in its neighbourhood.”
For this reason, Russia continues working to maintain a political presence in the countries that separate it geographically from the EU, sometimes in a very direct manner. “This strategy only makes sense in the short term as a means of exerting pressure or as a show of force to convince the West that Russia can destabilise them if they fail to accept its demands,” observes Morales. At the same time, he sees a risk for Russia itself: “In the long term it’s counterproductive too, as it can generate the opposite effect, mobilising public opinion against this foreign interference, as happened in Ukraine.”
It is certainly true, however, that our neighbour in the East continues to wield an influence, even inside our borders. Some European countries, for example are deeply energy dependent on Russia, while others — such as Spain — are more economically exposed. As Morales explains, “We’ve been hit by the current sanctions, particularly the embargo on our agricultural exports and because we’re competing to attract Russian tourism. Clearly, the deterioration in our relationship is economically damaging for us.” All the same, a weakened Europe makes Russia seem stronger; even stronger, perhaps, than it really is.
The USA provides Europe a chance
Europe is submerged in a significant crisis of internal disaffection, yet at the same time is beginning to rid itself of the populist parties that have undermined it from within. It also has the means — political, economic and social — to redress the errors of the past. And the most immediate external threat, from Russia, is perhaps not such a big deal. Inside this storm, there may even be an opportunity for the EU to regain its position thanks to the USA’s current weakness.
As with Brexit, the EU might find that bad news can bring unexpected help. With Donald Trump’s victory in the USA, the West’s leading power has started to seem like a less reliable partner, giving EU institutions the chance to try take its place. “I don’t know if the French-German alliance has real power,” says Albisu, referring to the EU’s current mainstay duo. “But I do believe here’s a huge opportunity to fill the gap left by the USA at the point when Trump decides to become an isolationist and protectionist leader, turning his back on the world.”
If populism starts to subside, if Russia is not so fearsome and if the USA falters, Europe has a chance to rise from its ashes. “There’s never been a more European generation,” says Moscoso. “Our young people were born and brought up as Europeans, they’ve gone on Erasmus, and now they’re calling for European solutions to their problems. For too long, Europe has met their demands with silence” he concludes. The question is whether it still has time to react… And if it will know how to do so properly.