The Irish have overwhelmingly rejected the Lisbon Treaty. Why isn’t the EU popular with Europeans? And what can the EU do about it? Perhaps popular discontent tells us something more profound about the nature of the Union.
The European Union held its breath on 13 June as the Irish voted on last year’s Treaty of Lisbon. Even though Brussels slowed to a standstill in May and June as officials feared doing or saying anything that might antagonise Irish voters, the vote still didn’t go their way. The Irish voted no in large numbers (see “Ireland votes no”) and the EU is now in institutional limbo. It seems fragile in this situation, unable or unwilling to defend itself – officials duck for cover and hope events will go their way.
This fear of popular disavowal follows more than a decade of growing hostility towards the EU. In 1992 the Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty, the French voted yes with only a tiny majority and the Swiss rejected membership of the European Economic Area, the preface to full EU membership. In 1994 Norwegians refused EU membership for the second time, and by a 5% margin; the Danes have also twice voted no on the question of the euro. In 2001 the Irish voted against the Nice Treaty and in 2005 the French and the Dutch voted against the draft constitution.
Yet more and more has been included in EU policymaking during this time – foreign policy, immigration, law and order all added to what was in 1957 merely a customs union. Crises seem to propel the EU forwards not backwards, giving European integration an aura of inevitability. This connection between crisis and forward movement is known in Brussels as the bicycle theory: just keep pedalling because if you don’t it might collapse.
Two recent books published on the EU help make sense of this curious combination of fragility and inevitability. Stephen Wall’s book, A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair (Oxford University Press, 2008) is a detailed account of Britain’s relations with the EU from the time of Margaret Thatcher onwards. Wall has a long career as a leading diplomat in Britain’s relations with Europe, and his book is fascinating for what it reveals of the balance between politics and bureaucracy in the process of European integration. Through his story we can begin to understand why the EU is so bold and so weak at the same time.
Anand Menon’s book, Europe: The State of the Union (Atlantic, London, 2008) is quite different. He is a professor of West European politics at the University of Birmingham and director of its European Research Institute, and he believes the EU’s weakness results from confusion over what it is and what it does. Menon defends the Union from its critics while undercutting enthusiasts who exaggerate what the EU really is, and his book is an incisive intervention in the debate. The solutions he proposes, however, are more likely to deepen the EU’s problems than resolve them.
Debates are marked by two opposing views. The federalists believe that the EU signals the birth of a pan-European federal state and that the old nation-states of Europe are relics of the past. The post-national Union is celebrated for its cultural diversity and success in overcoming the wars fuelled by 20th-century nationalism. Eurosceptics and republicans defend the centrality of the nation-state in all EU decisions. Member states are at the heart of the EU, not supranational institutions. European integration is a process of bargaining and negotiation, not a transfer of sovereignty. Culture and meaning remains national and the EU a composite creature of states.
In truth, the nation-state has never been as united and coherent as both sides make out. Concepts like the nation or the people only gained their cohesion from the depth of the cracks they were intended to paper over (1). It should not be surprising that European integration is neither the rescue nor the dissolution of the nation-state. It is a process driven by a transformation of the state. This transformation has modified the state’s sources of authority and its manner of exercising that authority, and has given rise to new forms of politics. It is only by exploring these new forms that we can properly make sense of the EU.
Wall’s detailed account of how policy is made in the EU is helpful, as he identifies in Britain’s relationship with the EU a striking fact: in spite of radical changes of government (a rightwing Conservative administration gave way to a Third Way social democracy of the New Labour Party), the main contours of British policy in Europe have not changed. Wall admits that some might see this as proof that civil servants, rather than British prime ministers, have been running the European show, making Britain’s relationship with Europe close to the Yes, Minister television comedy, in which a hapless minister is manipulated by his canny civil servant.
Wall denies that this explains the continuity in British policy and he is right that the process is more complex. However, his own account of policymaking in Europe does suggest that European integration has been driven by a bureaucratisation of politics. It is notable that the real celebrities in Wall’s book are not the leading national politicians, although they may be central figures. The real stars are the civil servants: Michael Butler, Robin Renwick, David Williamson and David Hannay are the heroes.
Wall’s narrative provides us with an insight into how national bureaucracies relate to their political leaders and how the balance between politics and bureaucracy has changed over time. In Britain, as in other European countries, relations with the EU were for a long time dominated by national foreign ministries, which were naturally pro-European since the relationship between member states and EU institutions was primarily overseen by foreign ministry officials.
During this time, the contrast between national and Brussels-based policymaking had some meaning; European integration remained a matter of foreign policy. However, in recent years, the situation has changed. Wall describes how in Britain the role of the Foreign Office has been curtailed as European integration has branched into different policy areas. Now each government department has a European arm. European integration has become a feature of domestic policymaking.
As a result, it no longer makes much sense to contrast, as Eurosceptics are prone to do, pristine national democracies with the sullied bureaucratic nature of Brussels-based policymaking. As Wall told me, the EU is the sea in which we have to swim. Politics in Europe today is not characterised by the contrast between national and European levels of decision-making but by the rise of a distinctive kind of politics – the politics of consensus (2). What does this look like? Participation takes the form of consultation more than representation; interest groups, NGOs and lobbyists are consulted by European officials, which allows officials to pick who they want to consult with. Direct representation is relegated to the status of one input alongside many others; given the relative weakness of the European parliament it is by no means the most influential. Policymaking takes the form of pooling of expertise in committees and working groups. There is little scope for public debates that bring together ordinary people and their political representatives.
Reason over passion
The origins of this kind of politics are national. They lie in the drift towards corporatism in the 1970s and the subsequent growth of policymaking via networks of officials and experts. This is what Menon describes as the assertion of reason over passion, what others have described as the shift from government to governance.
In building the EU, member states have reproduced at the European level what is familiar to them. In Brussels, national representatives sit on high-level committees (COREPER 1 and COREPER 2), and negotiate on texts prepared by an elaborate structure of lower-level working groups and committees of experts, the “comitology”. In those policy areas where the final say is shared between member states and the European parliament, the COREPER members negotiate with a small number of European parliamentarians on the final text. A few people are involved in a protracted, committee-centred process of translating private interests and expert opinion into policy.
It is no wonder that the EU is so fragile when it has to deal with ordinary voters. European integration is driven forward by states whose decision-making is no longer based upon processes of representation and public deliberation. Public involvement is understood not as the foundation of a state’s authority but as an inconvenience to be skilfully managed. Decision-making is governed by administrative procedure, not by popular will. This means that the EU’s relationship to the public is necessarily oppositional: the EU’s strength rests upon the public’s apathy; a more active and assertive public can only weaken the EU.
Union of disenchantment
Not everyone believes that this oppositional relationship with the public may prove fatal for the integration process or that it adequately explains the fragility of the EU. Menon’s view is that it should be considered a virtue, not a vice. This is also the view of leading figures within the EU, such as Robert Cooper, who believe the EU’s “unlovable” and humdrum character should be celebrated, not maligned. The same message comes from other academics, like the Italian political scientist Giandomenico Majone, who have dubbed the EU a “regulatory state”, meaning that its role isn’t political but just about regulating the single market.
Menon explains that a long-standing tension in modern democracy has been between passion and reason. For liberals, the people represent the passion, constitutions the reason. Constitutions tame the passions by curbing the power of the majority through law. In recent decades a major shift from passion to reason has grown and the balance has tipped in favour of delegating power to non-majority institutions.
According to Menon, these changes have been driven by both complexity and by a distrust of politicians. Technological and scientific developments have made expertise more central than ever to public policymaking, justifying the reliance on non-elected bodies of experts. The short-term calculations of politicians seeking re-election seem even more misplaced. As Menon puts it, “delegation, or the process by which tasks are entrusted to formally independent actors [represents] a means of trying to ensure efficient decision-making in highly specialist areas where the alternative would be, at a minimum, to impose substantial time costs on elected politicians” (3).
From this perspective, the transformation of the European state towards a greater emphasis on administration and the empowering of non-majority institutions is a good thing. It represents a rational and measured response to growing social complexity and to transnational interdependence.
Yet this argument leaves us with a puzzle. Why, if the EU is so evidently the right answer to a difficult problem, is it the object of so much criticism and popular discontent? The view from Brussels is that the EU’s institutions have not managed to sell themselves properly. Moreover, referendum campaigns do not lend themselves to making judgments about the complex issues of the EU’s institutional engineering. This was the diagnosis made by the European Commission and is the reasoning behind its communication drive to get its message across.
Such a diagnosis is self-serving: it implicitly suggests that the problem lies with European populations who are not intelligent enough to grasp the subtleties of the European treaties. Menon also believes misunderstanding is to blame but he aims his fire at national politicians: they recognise the practical necessity of closer European integration but refuse to admit to their own electorates that contemporary problems cannot be solved by national governments alone. Public opposition has grown in the gap between the rhetoric of national independence and the reality of cross-border cooperation.
These explanations all rest upon a vague notion of false consciousness: the people are confused and are not really acting in their interests; if they were to do so, they would accept European integration as the most rational response to a changing world. An enlightened communication strategy, or more honesty from national policymakers, should do the trick. The truth is that there is no such misunderstanding. The growing opposition to the EU is opposition to what the EU actually is, not to what people mistakenly believe it to be. It is opposition not to a mythical Brussels superstate but to the actual way in which governments in Europe take decisions.
Pragmatists like Menon and Cooper lag behind the times. They defend the idea of the EU, not as a federal state in need of democratisation, but as a rational response to contemporary public policy challenges. However, opposition to the EU suggests that it is precisely this “unlovable Union” that is the problem. The real content of the opposition to the EU, which began in the early 1990s, is disaffection with the vision of the EU as merely a matter of regulation and administration. It is a reaction against the politics of expertise and technocracy.
The rise of the politics of consensus has caused a new political cleavage: not left versus right but the political elite versus the people, the result of a real transformation of the state in Europe, not simply a product of misinformation. This is why in opposition to the EU we often find a curious unity between extremist parties on the left and on the right.
Understood in this way, we can better grasp the nature of mobilisation against the EU. When the French voted no in 2005, there was no clear, overarching message in the vote; it was an amalgam of different viewpoints from the left and the right. What was clear was the gulf that separated France’s political class from the rest of the population. What many people remember from the 2005 campaign was the absence of any understanding between Jacques Chirac and the young people invited to ask him questions in a televised discussion.
The no vote was driven by a sense that to vote yes would be to endorse politics that were about trusting experts rather than representing interests. Trust us, the elite said, we know what is in this monstrously complicated constitution even if you don’t. It would be wrong to say the no vote was not targeted at the EU, since the EU embodies this emphasis on decision-making through committee-based consultations between experts and civil servants.
East European backlash
A similar force lies behind the vertiginous rise of the new Left Party in Germany, whose political invective has often targeted the EU (4). Aware of the threat this party posed to the political mainstream, Joschka Fischer called Oskar Lafontaine, one of its leaders, the “new German Haider”, in response to Lafontaine’s protest at the impact of cheap eastern European labour on the wages of German workers. In eastern Europe, the populist backlash has been most pronounced.
In Hungary in 2006 there were riots as people protested against the brazen elitism of the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, responding to a leaked tape in which he could be heard admitting that his government had lied to get re-elected. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, populist uprisings against political elites have led either to political stalemate or to populist movements taking power. Anti-EU sentiment was very strong in the growing support for Serbia’s Radical Party.
In each of these cases, the division is between elites and their publics. Under such circumstances, an “unlovable” vision of the EU as a constellation of experts managing a complex world is part of the problem, not part of the solution. A measure of European unity was finally achieved in 2004 when eastern European states joined the Union. The result was not what was expected: we have created a new Union of disenchantment.
The public opposition is not the result of confusion or misunderstanding. It is related to the transformation of the European state documented in Wall’s book. The backlash against the EU is part of a wider reaction against a vision of politics which is technocratic and only asks of us that we trust our political elites and their ability to improve our lives. If we want to build a progressive response to the populist backlash, we need to go beyond the politics of consensus. We need to combat this rising wave of disenchantment with a positive and coherent call for political renewal and change.
Author: Christopher Bickerton