Possibly one of the most engaging podcasts of 2017 for me was a show called “Talking Politics”, a Cambridge University show hosted by a historian called David Runciman. While Professor Runciman covers a number of fascinating topics on the show, his most memorable is a recording of a lecture he gave based on his latest book “How Democracy Ends”. The talk itself excellent and the link is available here. The key takeaway of David’s talk is that democracy as we know it is extremely young and liable to fail, but its cause for failing is unlikely to look familiar to anything we have seen before. In this regard, the comparisons between modern times with the 1930s (See Macron’s recent OECD speech), are at best lazy and at worst dangerous. The risk is not the collapse of democracy we have seen before, but rather the challenges to democracy which we have not even realised are undermining democracy. All of which begs the question: if there are signs that democracy is failing, then are we even looking in the right place? Which in turn brings me to the future of the European Union.
Today politicians, pundits and the press comment tirelessly on Trump, Orban, Erdogan, Putin and a range of other global “strongmen”, whose actions are closely scrutinised under the micros-scope of historical comparative analysis. In this regard, I believe that we are falling into Runciman’s trap of focusing on the wrong challenges to Democracy. I want to offer a different perspective. The greatest threats to democracy today are not coming from Trump, Brexit, Putin or Xi Jinping. Rather the greatest threat to the Democracy today is that political discourse, institutions and policies are focused on the wrong issues. Nowhere is this trend more apparent to me than in the European Union.
For the EU to survive, thrive and evolve, it needs to stop focusing on how to bully members like Poland and Hungary, impoverish members such as Italy and Greece, punish close allies like the UK and ignore crucial strategic partners like Turkey. An EU that retains its membership by fear of the economic consequences that leaving will entail (see Greece in 2014 and current threats in the Brexit negotiation today), rather than by promising and providing an exciting vision of a better future, is doomed to failure. Democracy in Europe will not end because countries vote to leave the EU or because citizens across the union hold different social values on immigration, human rights and economic opportunities. Rather, democracy will end because the cost of leaving the EU becomes so great that accepting technocratic governments in perpetuity becomes the default position for a public, whose increasing frustration with the inability to affect real change in their country leads to anger, then despair and finally total disengagement with the political process.
The EU needs to reflect on its history, the pillars that made it successful, the flexibility it showed as it grew and the positivism it gave to its citizens. The EU was built by people who believed the nation state could be swept away by a new identity, a “European identity”, which would create a sense of continent wide solidarity between citizens. We see this very approach today in the existence of the Schengen zone, the ERASMUS program, the joint funding of agencies like ESA, Frontex, and new EU national symbols such as a flag, an anthem and a series of diplomatic embassies abroad. But while the idea of a United States of Europe may have been the dream of the bureaucrats who built the EU’s institutions, it has never been the desire of the population of Europe. It is because of this disconnect and the lack of clear accountability between the EU institutions and EU citizens on this issue, that the future survival of the EU is at stake.
In less than ten years, a project that took over seventy years to construct is about to lose its second largest net budget contributor (The UK), it has converted the most pro-EU country into a nation whose governing coalition are explicitly anti-Europe (Italy), it has allowed an autocrat to take control of a key central European economy on an anti-EU ticket (Hungary), meanwhile facilitating the rise of anti-EU parties to become the second and third largest political parties in Europe’s core (France and Germany).
When residents of EU countries are asked if they would like to leave the EU, the majority are solidly against such an idea. But every day political parties and political movements against Europe are getting stronger and stronger and that certainty is fading. The problem is not, as many EU supporters believe, that Russia and/or fox news are spreading fake news and corrupting local politics (though I am sure they’d love to if they could). The problem is that there the EU is unable to articulate a future vision that resonates with the wishes of the EU’s own citizens and provides them with an exciting future to work towards.
If the best future outcome is a United States of Europe, then make the case. Explain the need for a European response to global issues, the merits of fiscal solidarity alongside monetary solidarity and the case for continued subsidies for poorer members, to reduce the pressure of internal migration on richer members. But the EU does not make the case.
If the future is to be a two-speed Europe, with a membership for countries like Turkey, the UK, Norway, Ukraine and potentially even more peripheral members such as Morocco, Israel or Russia, then make the case. Maintain a eurozone core, allow divergence from certain core competencies in the outer core and allow parties to decide which projects and programs they wish to contribute to and engage with. But again the EU does not make this case.
Many Europhiles think these comments are unfair. The issue, they would argue, is not that the EU does not have a clear vision but rather that the national governments of Europe are too afraid of their electorates to promote a United Vision of Europe. There is certainty truth in this. In referendums on an EU treaty, France and the Netherlands voted “No” in 2005, Ireland voted “No” to Lisbon in 2007, The Netherlands voted “No” to allowing greater visa access to Ukraine in 2015 and the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. All of which brings us back to the question of why is the EU so unpopular today and how can it change it?
I believe that the EU’s existential crisis is a direct result of the systems disconnection from democracy. It is not enough to simply suggest that electing MEPs shows that the EU is a democratic insitution. The EU now controls vital national issues such as migration, citizens’ rights, agriculture, trading relations with other nations, foreign affairs and a slew of other issues. These areas affect EU nationals every day and yet the mechanisms to change these policies are completely beyond the scope of any one nation. To change migration for example, a citizen of France would need every EU national to vote for MEPs in their countries who wanted to change migration, they would then need to get every EU national to vote for national governments who sit on the Council of Europe so they also vote to change migration. They would then need to lobby the EU commission and if a treaty change is needed, they may need a referendum in certain countries. At almost all stages, a lack of unanimity can end the whole process, see the near collapse of thee free trade deal with Canada over less than 100,000 angry Belgian farmers (500mn people almost ignored because of 100,000).
This complete lack of responsiveness to change is at the heart of why the UK is leaving, Italy could potential leave and many other Eurosceptic parties across Europe believe that their own exist from the EU is a matter of time. While the EU focuses on trade deals abroad, beating up US tech companies, punishing the UK for the EU’s own inflexibility and begging Turkey and Libya to avoid more mass migration into Europe, the EU is failing to tackle the real issues. The lack of a vision for the future and the lack of democratic accountability within the EU are the single largest issues facing the Unions survival and they are being ignored. The consequences of the EU’s continued failure on these issues will be dire: The failure of democracy within the EU itself.