Last week (16/05/19) The Economist newspaper published an article titled: “The second-biggest democratic show on Earth”. Presumably The Economist (TE from here on) ranks the EU second only to India in the scale of its electorate but we don’t believe it belongs in the same division in terms of democracy. TE is reliably pro-EU, though not always uncritical, as our review shows, but it remains a consistent supporter although it’s own reservations should be enough to make it think again. In this edition they have an extensive briefing on the up-coming European Parliament (EP) elections, which promise to be quite lively. We pick out some highlights that we think deserve further comment.
“The effects a decade of crises has had on European politics make the coming European elections look oddly consequential.” This seems to imply that EP elections are not usually ‘consequential’, which would coincide with our view of the Parliament as a whole. However, we’ll see as we go through the article that consequential for the Parliament does not imply that the Parliament itself is consequential.
“Elections to the European Parliament, the EU’s legislature, will take place between May 23rd and 26th in the 27 countries committed to staying in the EU, as well as in one which is purportedly trying to leave.” The “purportedly” here may be revealing; is the author hinting that Brexit may not take place? And calling the EP the EU’s legislature is stretching a point, since it doesn’t initiate legislation.
Next some background information: “Over 5,000 candidates are standing for around 400 parties, the vast majority of them national ones … Once in the parliament, these parties sort themselves into broad ideological groups. The European People’s Party (EPP)…has long been the largest such grouping.”
“Once ensconced in Brussels—except for the 48 days a year when, in an absurd transhumance, they decamp to Strasbourg—the 751 MEPs discuss, amend and pass legislation proposed by the European Commission, the EU’s executive, and oversee its budget. In doing so, they have typically divided up along two axes; the universal left/right and the more parochial pro- and anti-Europe.” To avoid misunderstanding, the 48 days spent in Strasbourg are actually four days each month, at very high cost, both financial and human. We don’t know why TE regards pro- and anti- views as “parochial” but we do wish they wouldn’t follow the EU’s absurd lead of calling itself ‘Europe’; there is a lot more to Europe than the EU (for example, will the UK suddenly not be in Europe if Brexit goes through?).
It is significant that the EP cannot propose legislation, that is beyond its limited scope; this is among the reasons that we regard the EP as a distraction from the undemocratic reality that is the EU. The outcome of these elections will not make any difference to the structure, aim or outcome of EU progress towards a federal government. TE and other Remainers wish not to notice this democratic deficit, or at least they don’t regard it as a serious lack worth commenting on.
“The parliament also elects the commission’s president, a position with much more power than any in the parliament proper.” But this has never been a democratic process; the Spitzenkandidat from the largest group gets the job. The undemocratic nature of this process is acknowledged by some in the EU, though not by TE. “…the European Parliament elections are the second-largest democratic exercise in the world.” This too simply follows, sheep-like, EU propaganda, the purpose of which is to dull our senses into accepting being governed by an unaccountable, un-dismissable outfit. The EP elections are not a “democratic exercise” in any true sense of that term.
“Indeed, many [electors] hardly care about the elections’ actual results at all, seeing them more as a way of affirming likes and dislikes based squarely on their own national politics. In the previous elections, in 2014, eight countries saw turnouts of less than a third.” TE, and the EU, seem to regard this preference of electors as revealing just how stupid they (i.e. we) are. It doesn’t occur to them that there is danger in this echoed contempt; the EU denies the electorate true democracy and the electorate denies them any true legitimacy in return. This mutual contempt is possibly the most serious risk the EU faces but will not confront. National elections matter because national governments can be dismissed, something that is not true for EU governments.
“The shut-down factories seen when driving out from Athens, and the 30% of local youth without jobs, recall the crisis in the euro zone which pushed Greece to the brink of leaving.” So much for protection then. You’d think an economics weekly would be concerned about this, especially as it is not just in Greece that youth unemployment is at levels other developed democracies don’t have.
“The crises of the past decade have tested the union and found it wanting. They have also revealed its resilience. Whenever it came close to breaking up, its institutions and governments took painful and politically contentious decisions to hold it together. The European Central Bank, for example, prevented the euro’s collapse with a promise to do “whatever it takes” that horrified thrifty Germans—who nevertheless, because of the value they placed on the union’s survival, stuck with the strategy.” Thrifty Germans may have been horrified (and rightly so) but it was their government that “stuck with the strategy”; Germans at large weren’t given a direct say, it’s their savings that have been risked for “whatever it takes”, its government must beware. German politics is changing democratically, for now. So, is it really “resilience”, which implies that the EU has an answer, or simply escapology?
“Europeans are regaining some faith in the EU. In a survey of union-wide opinion taken last September, 62% of respondents said that membership was a good thing, the highest proportion since 1992. Only 11% said it was a bad thing, the lowest rate since the start of the financial crisis (see chart 1).” This requires a better explanation than TE offers; we don’t claim to understand it; perhaps the ‘alternative facts’ peddled by the EU are more persuasive than the facts on the ground.
“Which is not to say that the union is hunkydory. As well as being, in its way, the world’s second-largest democracy, the EU is also the world’s second-largest economy, but it has a range of dire problems on which action is needed: sluggish growth, carbon emissions, rising authoritarianism both in the rest of the world and within its own precincts, underperforming armies, a paucity of world-class technology companies and an inability to manage migration.” Real problems, not really understood. And a claim for democracy again, but note “in its way”, which seems to suggest that TE has a vague notion, which it doesn’t want to dwell on, that the claim is not quite kosher.
“A visitor from Mars…might see further integration as a prerequisite for sorting out such problems. But Europe…is a mosaic of nation states of wildly varying size and boasting different languages, cultures, histories and temperaments. Its [the EU’s, not Europe’s] aspiration to be as democratic as a whole as it is in its parts is profoundly hampered by the lack…of a “demos”—a people which feels itself a people. Few want a superstate with fully integrated fiscal and monetary policy, defence policy and rights of citizenship.” With this we agree, except that we don’t understand why TE (and others), which recognises that few “want a superstate”, should be so enthusiastic about the project. It probably has much to do with the disdain for the majority that goes with being ‘OK’ with the way things are and not really being much interested in what ‘democracy’ truly represents. This disdain, widely shared, is probably the fuel that drives progress towards the superstate, and in the end will burn it down (see The Martian Perspective).
The “decade of living dangerously seems to have reshaped European politics into something a bit more cohesive, if not coherent.” We think we know what TE means here, even if they won’t quite say it: “cohesive” implies sticking (or stuck) together; not happy but now too frightened to leave (Greece, Italy in particular). While “coherent” implies greater uniformity, which is the goal. After nearly seven decades that’s not impressive; how long until they reach Nirvana?
“It [the EU] is in the business of protection. “A Europe which protects”, a phrase you cannot avoid in the corridors of Brussels, is increasingly heard on the campaign trail, too. Policy differences now play out within a broadly shared conviction that Europe’s citizens need, and want, defending from outside threats ranging from economic dislocation to climate change to Russia to migration. Some politicians offer integration as protection; others prefer simple co-ordination.”
This is the crux of our argument with the EU; we would prefer ‘simple’ coordination to integration. The protection is not military, though it aspires to that (because that’s what nationhood – and ‘superstatehood’ – imply) without being willing to pay for it. The EU attempts to protect industries from international competition at the expense of consumers. It also acts to protect workers against corporations and markets, though this can mean locking out many unfortunates, including the young. It protects the privileged and ensconced against the upstarts. The ‘shakers’ (aka populists)want the EU to do more of what matters (to them) with less interference.
The notion of ‘protection’ has been in the EU’s vocabulary and propaganda for many years. Its use now probably reveals more about its failures in other areas than a determination to meet the needs of its citizens. Indeed the list is TE’s own as the expression is ill-defined in EU literature. For them it’s merely another slogan, without substance as far as we can tell; just another way to fool people. The EU itself appears to believe that ‘ever closer union’ will bring with it protection; or at least they imply that it will, without any evidence.
“The old-school incrementalists are likely to lose seats (see chart 2); the shakers expect to gain them. The fragmentation that has visited many of Europe’s national parliaments in recent years will thus come to its international one. And in doing so it will reflect new divisions in the electorate.” It would be helpful to learn more about the “new divisions in the electorate” but the fudged link between the supposed new divisions and the old, left/right, ones obscures this important topic (important at both national and international levels).
“A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, divides Europe’s voters into four groups…. People confident in both their national governments and the EU … those who think that their country is broken but that Europe works….Both will tend towards incrementalism. Those confident in their national government but not the EU … those who think both are broken…. Both those factions tend towards radical reform.” Once again the evidence to support this breakdown is missing; presumably we are meant to find the study to check the evidence but TE doesn’t say we will find any there either.
“All four factions exist in different proportions in different countries (see chart 3). …Tellingly, there is no country where the electorate…believe the nation is fine but Europe is broken.” Why? TE don’t tell us why this is telling. And they don’t tell us what proportion of those who were asked declined to answer; the four categories are only worth knowing about if a good majority of those questioned agreed to put themselves into one category.
Next we get a brief account of who might win the Commission presidency, whether through the Spitzenkandidat process or otherwise. And then more opinion, based on a presumption of the election outcome: “And then what? The new commission, which will come into being in November, looks likely, like the new parliament, to be a lively and possibly quite dysfunctional body. The 28 commissioners are appointed by the member states, and several of the populists who have won power since 2014 will want to put a torch under the EU by sending arsonists to Brussels.” Guessing what the future will bring is fun but much less useful than a discussion of possible outcomes and the evidence for and against each.
“There will be a running competition between establishment types and insurgents in the parliament, the council—which is made up of national governments—and perhaps the commission, too.” So what’s new?
It’s tempting to leave the final word to TE: “New crises are brewing. But these could yet be the making of the EU. …Europe [i.e. the EU] is struggling. But it has survived a very tough decade. Its voters have learned that economic battles are reliant on European debates, and that European co-operation is not in itself a bad thing. The club has developed a new sense of its own self-interest and learned in the process that it can move forward through crises still to come. Probably.”
But it’s even more tempting to point out that the EU has always had a strong sense of its own self-interest; and the rest is just wishful platitudes. For example, “these could yet be the making of the EU” could also be the breaking of it, which is at least as likely (a majority of its citizens believe it won’t last beyond the next 20 years. And “voters have learned that economic battles are reliant on European debates” must be journalistic shorthand for something, but what?
Our conclusion? TE describes lots of failures and sometimes mentions things that it doesn’t see as failures but as passing problems. Yet overall they seem to us to amount to a failure of every aim and value to which it aspires or claims, except ever closer union (uniformity in practice): i.e. relatively low average growth, high youth unemployment, un-shared prosperity, inadequate defence, subsidiarity ignored, very modest democracy, still straining for national advantage, and so on (see, among other posts where we cover these issues in more detail, Brexit, a Brief Summary and our Themes series).