This is a transcript of a keynote speech delivered on 28 November 2017 by Open Europe’s Head of Brussel office Pieter Cleppe on how the European Union can become popular again.
The European Union is possibly the greatest project of opening up trade in history. Its strategy has been to promote peace by opening markets: if goods don’t cross borders, armies will. So let’s make sure goods cross borders.
It was not just a success during the decades after World War II. The Eastern expansion and the prospect of accession helped to prevent civil wars like in Yugoslavia – despite obvious problems and thanks to NATO as well, of course. Central Europe is now growing at the fastest rate in nine years, Romania even with 8.6%.
Still, to what extent do young people still relate to all of this? There are a rumoured 1 million “Erasmus babies” so you could argue these have their lives to thank to the EU. There are many more born out of mixed marriages resulting from the opportunity to travel, work and live across-borders.
Young people – those aged 18 to 34 – stand more favorable toward the EU than people aged 50 and older, according to a Pew poll. Still, the percentage of the young having a favorable view of the EU only ranges between 55 and 62% in founding member states such as Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. So real passion seems to be lacking. The support is similar in Sweden and Spain but higher in Central and Eastern Europe.
Also, if the EU is such a great success, why did the UK decided to leave? Why does it seem the governments of Poland and Hungary to be on a constant clash with Brussels? Why have eurosceptic parties done well in virtually every single Western European country?
If you love your children, you should correct them when you see them going the wrong way. That’s also the case with the European Union.
Let’s have a closer look at the legitimacy crisis of the EU in Britain and in both the “new” and the “old” member states.
To learn what went wrong in Britain, it’s important to listen to the other side. Let me quote John Redwood, a veteran British eurosceptic member of Parliament. He has said:
“Over the years, what appeared to be a modest measure to form a common market has transformed itself into a mighty set of treaties and become, through endless amendment and new treaty provision, a very large and complex legal machine that is the true sovereign of our country.” This feeling of a project having developed in a different direction than it had been sold is quite widespread in Britain.
Regarding the tensions between Brussels and Central and Eastern Europe: the dispute really escalated when the EU imposed mandatory relocation of refugees. If a consultant were to recommend the EC how to become more unpopular over there, the advice would probably have been to do just that: force these countries to welcome asylum seekers. It’s already hard for national politicians to convince their population to be generous to them, so one can’t really blame the EU for struggling to do this.
Then why did the EU decide this? France warned Germany not to do it until 2 weeks before it was decided, but Germany insisted on mandatory relocation of refugees anyway and France went along. What followed was a Eurosceptic backlash, with the Hungarian government thankfully using the opportunity to hold a populist referendum on whether the EU should impose migrant quotas. A lot of capital that has been spent to anchor these countries in the West has been put at risk.
And for what? Telling people where to live is challenging anyway within the passport-free Schengen zone: Only 35 of the 160 Christian Syrians who were given asylum in Poland in 2015 were still in the country one year later. Most of the refugees relocated to Latvia have already left. It’s clearly a good idea to wish for asylum seekers not to be concentrated in one place, but in the borderless Schengen-area this seems like an uphill task. And naturally we should not give up Schengen. Luckily, the EU decided in September to move to a system on a non-mandatory basis but some damage has been done.
In Western Europe, the EU had already been facing anti-EU sentiment before the eurocrisis emerged in 2010. There was Denmark voting against the Maastricht Treaty and France almost rejecting it in the 1990s. In 2005, France and the Netherlands voted against the European Constitution. It was repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty to avoid referendums, according to Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former chairman of the European Convention, which drafted the Constitution. Ireland voted against both the Treaties of Nice, in 2001, and the Lisbon Treaty, in 2008. Twice it was asked to vote again. These Treaties all had in common that they amounted to transfers of power to the EU policy level, either in the form of scrapping vetoes or by creating ever more EU institutions. How can it not have had any effect on the EU’s legitimacy when popular votes against these projects were countered? This wasn’t helped by the fact that politics remains national and that national politicians have always been eager to blame the EU for everything it did and everything it did not do. When people don’t agree with something at the national level, they typically won’t accuse the national level of governance of lacking the legitimacy to take a certain measure. At the EU level, that often happens. People that don’t like a certain tax imposed by the Dutch government would simply say this is a bad policy. If there was a German-Dutch government and it imposed the exact same tax, many Dutch would say the problem isn’t just the policy but the legimacy of such a German-Dutch government. Whereas Dutch people typically wouldn’t find it unfair to have been outvoted by their national compatriots, many would find it unfair to have been outvoted by Germany. Yet, national governments have been trying to push more and more political decision making to the EU level. One cannot accuse the European Parliament of being unable to mend this so-called democratic deficit, because also there, the so-called Dutch demos would be outvoted.
That level of disconnect was reinforced by the eurocrisis, which boosted the popularity of all kinds of Eurosceptic populists.
How did the euro end up in crisis then, and how did this boost eurosceptics?
What happened with the creation of the common currency is that banks no longer had to obtain funding from their national central bank but could now in many cases obtain much cheaper funding from the ECB. That easy money wasn’t a blessing. It led to unsustainable public investment, most notoriously in Greece, but also to unsustainable private investment, for example in the Spanish and Irish real estate sectors. When the bubbles had busted, to save the euro, politicians decided to organize bailouts. That created a lot of animosity, propelling European politics to the frontpages of the newspapers and not in a positive way. Those having to pay for the bailouts weren’t happy and neither were those having to accept the conditions linked to the transfers, sometimes even in the form of so-called “Troikas” – teams of foreign officials sent to supervise national policy. No governing politician really ever promised this on the campaign trail, but it happened anyway.
The euro seems to drive a dynamic towards transfers and more centralization of power. But, dangerously, this then fuels a certain anger, translating into electoral success for Eurosceptic populists from both the left and the right. Some of them are not merely against the euro, but have used the eurocrisis to rail against the European Union itself. But even if the euro would endanger the EU, nobody has come up with a convincing plan to unwind the euro in an orderly manner. This is also why populists are dropping opposition to it as they get closer to power.
Now what do these Western European Eurosceptic voters, the Brexit voters and authoritarian populists in Poland and Hungary have in common? In my view, whether they are coming from the left and complain about having to follow certain economic or budgetary policies, or from the right, and don’t want the EU to organize transfers or determine asylum policy: the common thread is that they are all concerned about losing control.
So to provide solutions, and looking at how the EU can be made more popular again, we must take this concern serious.
But we must also look at what young people find important.