Friday, July 4, 2014

Distrust of the E.U.: Prompting European Integration?

A Eurobarameter poll conducted by the European Commission between 10 May and 26 May, 2013 found that the number of Europeans who distrust the E.U. had doubled over the preceding six years to a record high of sixty percent from thirty-two percent.[1] The trust was lowest in the “bailed out” states of Greece and Cyprus. The people polled cited the five bailouts, record unemployment, and low economic growth as significant factors. In the state of Britain, 68% of the residents said they have little faith in the Union. Yet there is reason to be cautious in predicting the E.U.'s demise. In fact, closer European integration may actually result. 

First, in the history of the E.U. and the E.C. before it, a consistent pattern can be found in which periods of “crisis” actually prompt further European integration rather than ruin. Theoretically speaking, political pressure builds during a political, economic, or social crisis such that previously intractable political obstacles are overcome. Speaking at the European Parliament in 2012, for example, Angela Merkel spoke for the state government of Germany ironically in suggesting the transfer of additional governmental sovereignty to the E.U. at the expense of the state governments. “Much still has to be done to win back trust in the European Union as a whole,” she told the federal lawmakers. “We cannot stop halfway. We have to be creative: We have to find our own new solutions.”[1] By not stopping halfway, the Chancellor meant that even more integration than was currently the case would be needed to decrease the popular distrust of E.U. institutions. The difficulty is in the fact that state leaders must not only acquiesce, but also give the push for changes to the E.U.’s basic law at the expense of the states’ own power in the system. Additionally, such efforts, which constitute political leadership, run counter to the tremendous weight of the Euroskeptics’ “states’ rights” ideology (formerly known as nationalism). The history of the U.S. suggests that the ideology can quickly lead to bloodshed between the states at the expense of the Union.

Secondly, a high level of distrust could spur the E.U. legislative chambers to push through populist laws, including rules, regulations, and directives, and even changes to the basic or constitutional law, in an effort to improve the reputation of the E.U. among its citizenry. For example, a month or so after the poll, the E.U. Commission proposed to put a cap on fees that banks can charge on credit and debit cards. Standing up to the sordid banks is not a bad strategy for gaining popularity. In 2013 and the following year, efforts to have the president of the E.U.’s executive branch chosen by popular vote; each E.U. citizen would cast a vote for the chief executive.

The U.S. selects its federal chief executive by popular vote, modified slightly by each voter’s state population in what is known as the Electoral College. In having the people’s representatives in the European Parliament vote for the chief executive and the governors of the states then having their say through the European Council, the E.U. too takes into account the citizen vote and the state level in the selection. Although the E.U.’s version is closer to traditional federal thinking (e.g., Athusius in 1604), a movement in the direction of a direct popular vote would help assuage the impression that many E.U. citizens have that a democracy deficit exists at the federal level. To be sure, such a deficit is indeed in the traditional theory, wherein the states rather than their respective citizens are members of federal bodies.[2]

It was not until 1787 in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania that the U.S. confederation broke the classical model by making the citizens “dual citizens”—that is to say, citizens both of their respective member state and of the Union. The E.U. is based on this model, and thus evinces modern rather than classical federalism. So populist efforts to strengthen the role of E.U. citizens at the federal level are quite possible, and would both improve the people’s confidence in their Union and move it further away from the danger of dissolution due to the power still welded at the state level at the expense of the federal level.

In short, just of news of the euro’s demise was exaggerated during the bailouts, fears of the breakup of the Union were overblown in 2013. The history of European integration is a story of one step back, one step forward. Incremental change is not necessarily linear or even straight forward, and of course it does require leadership to triumph over the inevitable inertia of the status quo.

1. The EurActiv Institute, “Merkel Preaches Federalism to MEPs, Warns Britain against EU Exit,” 8 November 2012.
2. That theory came out of federations that were international alliances, such as the Spartian League and the Athenian alliance. In Althusius’s Politica (1604), the citizens belong only to guilds, which in turn are members of cities, which in turn are members of provinces, etc. Each of the corporate bodies is a federation, hence the system is isomorphic, with each level structured like all the others.