Eurocrisis and the building of an EU public sphere Tom Redford

Today many things in our ordinary lives remind us that we live in the European Union. The passport and the euro notes make the EU visible to the citizens. However, the European political project has been -and still is- led by elites. The rejection of the Constitutional treaty in France and the Netherlands back in 2005 was a turning point in the traditional tacit consensus of the European integration process. Since 2006, the European Parliament and the European Commission have adopted resolutions and initiatives to encourage public engagement. The existing EU system is acknowledged to have a number of strengths, but also crucial weaknesses. The Commission has designated 2013 the European Year of Citizens in a bid to raise people's awareness of civil rights and European issues. But a European identity should not be a top-down construction.

In the wake of the financial crisis, citizens growingly feel that the EU must have a public dimension, due to the increasing impact of EU decisions on our lives. Today the political leaders agree that the EU must transform itself into a genuine economic and fiscal union, but they lack the will to drive the necessary changes. It is much easier to settle in the disgraceful “bargaining system”. From a social standpoint, the Europeanization of the Member States is still much disputed (Fligstein wrote in 2008: “What has struck me more about the creation of a European Society is the degree to which people in Europe are unaware of it”), but growing social interaction among Europeans is making the EU a common reference point. However, the political elites do not go far beyond short-term solutions in the framework of the eurocrisis, in the sense that political statements are intended to lay down a course of action that seems acceptable to the markets. 

In the EU political arena we lack passion as much as clarity. The problems of public debt and the financial crisis do not mean that the European Union is underperforming or even that the euro per se is to blame. Rather, the weaknesses of the euro are now showing up. The lack of political will to share debt and responsibilities between core and periphery is leading to painful austerity policies across the Eurozone. The most creditworthy European countries still believe that a monetary union can work only if every member is committed to responsible macroeconomic policies that avoid the accumulation of imbalances. That vision involves miniscule fiscal transfers to help buffer the asymmetric effects of common shocks. No supply-side measures at all.

Accountability in the EU political process

The idea of burden-sharing brings the question of holding EU institutions accountable. One of the main cries of those disaffected with the EU is its link to democratic accountability. Apparently most EU decisions are taken by consensus, but the Council decision process remains totally opaque. Probably the role of the Council in decision-making should be redefined, giving more power to the European Parliament. The tendency to regard summit meetings as the source of solutions is undermining confidence in the EU's ability to act. Currently there is a plan for a treaty revision underway, but not before the next EP elections. The question is whether after the elections there will be an institutional momentum, though some voices put into question the relevance of a treaty revision. Martin Schulz, current president of the European Parliament, has stated that he is against the revision of the treaties, because he fears that citizens cannot understand why, in the midst of the crisis, politicians should be arguing about matters such as legal articles. 

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The integration process is meant to make of the EU a global actor with capacity to act as one and to become economically and politically stronger, but the question is whether it can be made without the citizens. What are the concerns of people? To what extent do European elections matter? Should a massive turnout help the Parliament to gain self-confidence? Will it mean the end of the pursuit of national interest? To what extent can elections articulate a common vision of the EU beyond short-term politics?

The relevance of elections to the European Parliament 

After the financial crisis, questions of sovereignty have raised to the top of the agenda in the euro countries. The most powerful economic tools are placed in the supranational agenda, which doesn’t mean the European Parliament. Rather, it means a preponderance of the intergovernmental decisions, with the Commission leading the budget oversight and the price stability subject to the European Central Bank. It looks striking that the European Stability Mechanism was negotiated without the involvement of the European Parliament. Whereas it is true that the Eurozone has given major steps toward the fiscal union, a proper fiscal union which is not subject to scrutiny by parliamentarians would not be acceptable for the citizens. The Parliament has the commitment to co-legislate and make sure the coherence of EU Law. But in the last decisions in the economic governance the intergovernmental method has prevailed. Many of the EP’s proposals have not been incorporated into fiscal compact provisions, and this is the reason why, given the treaty constraints, perhaps the Parliament should take part in the EU summits. So far, legislation adopted in the European Parliament has mostly been adopted by the Council of the EU. This kind of bicameral process is not always working, for in economic and monetary affairs the Council tends to adopt German position. 

A study by VoteWatch Europe reveals that in policy areas linked to EU spending such as regional development and agriculture, the dividing lines have been along national lines rather than left versus right. Among the report's other findings is that there have been three major issues which have split the parliament and the council in the current (2009-14) term: the maternity directive, a financial transaction tax and ACTA. But major parties have agreed on Eurobonds (joint bonds issued at a low rate of interest to fight imbalances in the Eurozone), as a symbol of the belief of Europeans in a joint future. There has also been a broad agreement in the need of an EU rating agency (to break US monopoly and free from conflicts of interest). All in all, the truth is that the EP, as a forum for debate about the political direction of the EU, must have more relevance in the decision-making process. Political instruments like the fiscal compact alone will not bring economic growth and jobs.

Some institutional models explain the attitudes of citizens to the EU depend on the pro-EU bias of the parties in government, whereas geopolitical models assume that support depends on national interests. While a partisan model reduces the variation within the party families at EU-level (in fact, EU parliamentary groups have a cohesion no comparable to national parties) contradictions or internal problems may influence positions regarding the EU. At the same time, big political steps in the EU tend to work on consensus, even between the EPP and the ESP, the two most important groups, though these groups are engaging in a growing competition between the left and the right, which hopefully will contribute to engaging citizens in the debate. For this purpose, the electorates should be fully informed and aware of the decisions taken in the European Parliament. Otherwise there are weak incentives for people to get involved and cast a vote. A low turnout in the next EU elections in 2014 would express the distrust of people in the institutions and would reinforce the perception of democratic deficit.

Perception of electoral processes in other Member States

Elections to the European Parliament will be held in 2014, but in the next months all the eyes will be set in the elections in Italy and Germany. These elections are especially significant, but not just to Italians and Germans. At the same time, the campaigns and electoral outcomes would be clearly influenced by the impact of EU issues. Studies show evidence on the increasing impact of European policies on the formation of electoral preferences.  In the light of latest developments in the European Union, and particularly during the eurocrisis we have seen a clear emergence of public opinion on EU topics, revealing the need of citizens to get involved in European debates. The impact of national elections in other Member States (particularly in the euro area) is clearly more visible, not only in the front pages, but in the social media in a spontaneous process. The national elections are not any more a reflection of domestic problems, but a reflection of intertwined realities. In the context of social unrest and economic uncertainty, the EU has the opportunity to be a unifying catalyst. Until now, most national parties avoided the EU politics in their electoral competitions but this is no longer true. 

All the national leaders feel that there is a systemic responsibility and even the German Chancellor has appealed to voters in terms of “The European success is the German success”. In this sense, is remarkable that Merkel and Hollande agreed that EU taxes should be harmonised in the long run, paving the way for a new leadership. The Franco-German friendship (which has lasted for 5o years now) is a choice as much as a symbol of unity. The words of Merkel and Hollande suggest an engagement to Europeanization, though the question of accountability and legitimacy is much more complex. In the last years, Germany is emerging as a new decision-making power in the EU politics, and many point out that the Chancellor is shaping the political decisions beyond her electoral mandate. The big question is whether the decision-making is done for a common EU purpose.

Is there a European public sphere?

The public sphere has been widely studied and is considered a necessary condition for a genuine democracy. Originally the idea of the public sphere was based in the division between the private and the public realms. The eighteenth century was crucial for the development of the rational and critical debate, checking for the first time the absolute power of the State. The public sphere has an important role in articulating the civil society and its interests.  Habermas has studied the public sphere in relation to the economic changes, taking inspiration from Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Tocqueville and concluding that societies and states become involved in each other’s spheres. He sees a transformation from the liberal public space after the French Revolution to the current media-dominated public sphere. 

In the European context, Habermas emphasizes the role of political will to reach consensus through the “deliberative democracy”, so that the transnational sphere hosts simultaneous regional, national and EU-level debate, giving legitimacy to European policies. Though Risse argues that that the EU public sphere is a social construct created through discursive practice and common references, as I mentioned, there seems to be a trend to set the European perspective in national political discourses. In this sense, the model of transnational public sphere seems more adequate, for it stresses the synchronization of the public attention and awareness on a European topic. While admitting that the EU as it is today would have seemed utopian 50 years ago, citizens expect much more from European institutions. As for what lies ahead, there is a certain risk that the eurocrisis evolve into a political crisis. While the idea of a political union has entered the general discourse, there is a worrying perception that there are different European projects and that not all the Member States are heading towards a common destination. The multi-speed EU can be the real threat we face. I will tackle the issue of multi-speed Europe and the risk of fragmentation in my next post.