Can the EU's democratic revival stave off its looming 'Apocalypse Now'?

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt welcomes the fillip to EU progress and reform promised by the European elections. But he warns that deep-seated doubts about the EU’s long-term viability continue to cloud the future.

Let’s start with the good news. It is that the European elections have given EU-level democracy an invigorating injection of enthusiasm and drama. The turnaround in voter participation after four decades of dwindling public interest is significant. It signals a face-off between europhile MEPs and anti-EU populists, so the European Parliament’s somnolent, jargon-ridden sessions may soon be transformed into riveting political theatre.

The bad news is that far from clarifying the EU’s future pathway the elections have muddied the waters even more. Voters have clipped the wings of the centre-right EPP and the centre-left Social Democrats, and perhaps opened the way to much-needed reforms, but have also opened a Pandora’s Box of party fragmentation and volatility. 

When the post-election dust has settled it will be time to look for the big picture of the European project. The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote about the world ending “not with a bang but a whimper”, and that may yet be the European Union’s eventual fate. Bizarre though Europeans’ strident nationalism seems to the outside world in this era of toughening global competition, these pressures could pull apart the relatively small countries huddled in the EU.

Populist politicians exploit people’s ignorance of EU countries’ interdependence and appeal to outdated notions…

It’s hard to grasp the idea of an apocalyptic end to the 70-year European project that so many of us have thought unstoppable, but it is the view of a majority of people questioned earlier this month in a 14-nation poll. In all but three of those countries, more than half of the interviewees thought the EU is likely to implode within 20 years. 

Responses to this survey by YouGov on behalf of a London-based think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted doubts about the EU’s long-term viability and also showed the depth of resentment against falling living standards brought about by a decade of austerity.

How much should this pessimism be ascribed to ten years of stagnant wages and belt-tightening, and how much to the EU’s undoubted shortcomings? The European Union has certainly failed to fix the slew of major problems that cloud the future, ranging across the board from migrant influxes to the tensions that threaten the eurozone. 

That doesn’t mean these could be resolved at a national level by individual member governments. Populist politicians exploit people’s ignorance of EU countries’ interdependence and appeal to outdated notions of sovereignty, national cultures and ancient rivalries. These blind voters to the realities of Europe’s shrinking economic weight.

This summer in Europe will be dominated by power-plays over who should win the EU’s top jobs for the next five years

The weekend’s election results offer a confusingly mixed picture of whether or not Europeans think there are home-grown solutions to serious economic and social problems. National politics clearly influenced populists’ successes in, say, France, Italy, Poland and, of course, the UK. Elsewhere though, the pendulum is swinging away from rabble-rousing nationalists in Spain, Greece, the Netherlands and, above all, in Germany.

This summer in Europe will be dominated by power-plays over who should win the EU’s top jobs for the next five years. Arguments will rage over which mechanisms should determine these choices, with the newly-elected parliamentarians at odds with those national leaders who will be urging their own favourites.

This is the face of the European Union that people least like. The risk is that behind-closed-doors squabbles could squander the public support that has just seen voter turnouts across Europe rise to 52% from 43% in 2014, when they were feared to be in free fall.

The priority for all involved in EU policymaking must be to capitalise on the excitement generated by these elections. Different parties’ proposals for addressing Europe’s ills must be unveiled while the media is still focused on the European Parliament, and the selection of the next EU leadership must reflect these platforms. If, on the other hand, the key EU players revert to the backroom haggling and the ‘Buggins’ turn’ politics of years past, then the European project will be edging its way towards ‘Apocalypse Now’!

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