The EU-rope Confusion and the Politics of Consensus

EU-populism (illustration credits: Sunnerberg Constantin)

EU-populism (illustration credits Constantin Sunnerberg)

‘Eu­rope’ and the ‘Eu­ro­pean Union’ have be­come per­haps the most con­fused ter­mi­no­log­i­cal cou­ple in Eu­ro­pean pol­i­tics. Eu­rope refers ei­ther sim­ply to the con­ti­nent or to the tra­di­tion of the Eu­ro­pean civ­i­liza­tion, a cer­tain set of val­ues, a com­mon his­tory. The EU is, on the other hand, a set of in­sti­tu­tions that can bring us closer to those val­ues. Of course, they can also fail in doing so.

Eu­ro­peans united in happy con­fu­sion?

The EU-rope con­fu­sion can be a sign of hope or op­ti­mism. How­ever, there are also ob­vi­ous un­de­mo­c­ra­tic in­ter­ests to ob­fus­cate the dif­fer­ence. While the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion is perfectly content to push things through with­out taking pub­lic opin­ion into consideration, the na­tional gov­ern­ments are happy to be able to shift re­spon­si­bil­ity onto Brus­sels for un­pop­u­lar poli­cies, which were often de­signed and agreed upon in the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil with their di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion. Brus­sels has be­come a syn­onym for all the closed doors be­hind which Eu­rope’s na­tional politi­cians seek refuge from the oh-so-volatile pub­lic opin­ion, opt­ing in­stead for the com­pany of ‘sen­si­ble’ tech­nocrats and ex­perts.

Much has been said about the de­mo­c­ra­tic deficit of the EU in­sti­tu­tions. One of the forms of this deficit is a deficit of cri­tique. I don’t claim that Brus­sels is not crit­i­cized enough. But bash­ing Brus­sels has be­come even more abun­dant than its un­con­di­tional prais­ing. Both phe­nom­ena are quite use­less for democ­racy as they re­main a plain di­chotomy, evad­ing the crit­i­cal de­tail. Pos­ing the ques­tion ‘Are you for or against Eu­rope?’ is a form of EU-pop­ulism. The ques­tion that should be asked is ‘What should be im­proved in the cur­rent con­fig­u­ra­tion of the EU in­sti­tu­tions in order to come a step closer to Eu­rope as an ideal?’

Po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus among all par­ties

The vir­tual non-ex­is­tence of the pan-Eu­ro­pean pub­lic sphere is not only ex­ploited by na­tion­al­ist and EU-pop­ulists, it also leads to con­sen­sual pol­i­tics. Con­sen­sus is, for me, the exact op­po­site of democ­racy. Who­ever saw the re­cent de­bates among the four can­di­dates for the pres­i­dency of the EU com­mis­sion will prob­a­bly agree with me. Apart from voic­ing some minor, per­sonal dis­agree­ments, the de­bates dis­played a po­lit­i­cally and de­mo­c­ra­t­i­cally trou­bling con­sen­sus. It was as en­ter­tain­ing as it was shock­ing to see Mar­tin Schulz and Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt – the one so­cial de­mo­c­rat the other lib­eral – de­bat­ing on who is the real so­cial­ist. When Ver­hof­s­tadt says we must “use Eu­rope as an en­gine for growth” his dis­tri­b­u­tions of means and ends is clear. For him, it is Eu­rope for eco­nomic growth and not the other way around. The so­cial-de­moc­rats’ can­di­date Schulz did not protest.

The EU-rope con­fu­sion is a pow­er­ful rhetor­i­cal tool to dis­able un­pleas­ant EU-cri­tique. The ques­tion to what ex­tent the EU in its cur­rent form rep­re­sents the ideal of Eu­rope is de­bat­able and must be de­bated. In­stead, al­most every EU-crit­i­cal voice, whether from the right or left side of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum is quickly, all too quickly ban­ished from the pub­lic sphere and dis­cred­ited as Eu­roscep­ti­cism. Con­sen­sus politi­cians say ‘Eu­roscep­tic’ when they mean na­tion­al­ist, prim­i­tive, crazy.​ And they won’t speak to the “Eu­roscep­tics” be­cause they don’t share his ‘fun­da­men­tal world-view’ (Jean-Claude Juncker, Eu­ro­pean Peo­ple’s Party) or her ‘un­der­stand­ing of democ­racy’ (Ska Keller, Eu­ro­pean Green Party). Cer­tain politi­cians, whose split per­son­al­ity al­lows them to think them­selves de­moc­rats and, at the same time, avoid ‘un­easy’ po­lit­i­cal de­bates about fun­da­men­tal pre­sup­po­si­tions, are way closer to crazi­ness than most ‘Eu­roscep­tics’. I pre­fer a par­lia­ment of ‘cra­zies’ to a par­lia­ment of uni­for­mity that pro­vides politi­cians like Juncker with a sta­ble and de­cent, i.e. apo­lit­i­cal work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. A par­lia­ment is some­thing else.

EU pop­ulists pur­posely ig­nore EU scep­tics

There is a myth­i­cal fear that giv­ing Eu­roscep­tics’ ar­gu­ments a stage will open some flood gates and then god knows what will hap­pen. After all, the peo­ple from the street oh so li­able to ide­o­log­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion might all vote for them and we must there­fore pro­tect them from what they must not hear. Cul­ti­vat­ing this fear is but an­other form of EU-pop­ulism.

Be­sides, ig­nor­ing the ‘Eu­roscep­tics’ and their cri­tique is a di­rect play into their hands. Yes, I might have a prob­lem speaking to some­body who ar­gu­es for le­gal­iz­ing mur­der or rape. But how much of ‘Eu­roscep­ticism’ can be as eas­ily dis­cred­ited? I be­lieve it would do Eu­ro­pean pol­i­tics only good, if our politi­cians would re­fute or at least ad­dress in de­tail the scep­ti­cism of those who crit­i­cize the EU. If we can­not bring for­ward a strong ar­gu­ment against their claims, then we should care less that there is some­thing wrong with their val­ues; we should instead be wor­ried that there might be some­thing wrong with ours.

The cri­sis we have now is pri­mar­ily a cri­sis of democ­racy. But any cri­sis is also a mo­ment of op­por­tu­nity. In an­cient Greek, the term ‘cri­sis’ de­scribed the de­ci­sive mo­ment in which a pa­tient would ei­ther live or die. I be­lieve that the Eu­ro­pean Union has a unique chance to be­come the best model of de­mo­c­ra­tic al­ter­na­tive to the grow­ing power of pri­vate in­ter­est on the one hand and of to­tal­i­tar­ian state economies on the other. I also be­lieve that Eu­ro­peans have the best chance if we stick to­gether. But Eu­ro­pean in­te­gra­tion must go be­yond the ex­pan­sion of gov­er­nance sys­tems and the con­sol­i­da­tion of eco­nomic struc­tures. We also need a de­mo­c­ra­tic po­lit­i­cal in­te­gra­tion. When will Brus­sels be­come the cap­i­tal of a pan-Eu­ro­pean de­mo­c­ra­tic com­mu­nity with the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment as a major in­sti­tu­tion? Well, later is too late.

There is much to do be­fore we can whole­heart­edly call this Union ‘Eu­ro­pean’. But it has to be called Eu­ro­pean al­ready. Fake it ’til you make it. ■


cafebabel logo squareOriginally published in CafeBabel