What rallying call could revive the EU's public support


Picture of Pieter de Wilde
Pieter de Wilde

Associate Professor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

It isn’t easy these days to be a pro-Europe politician. Trying to rally public support for the EU looks like a recipe for being thrown out of office come the next election. The anti-EU camp, by contrast, seems to have no problem at all in rallying its supporters. On the left, Greece’s Syriza rode to election victory on a plainly anti-European agenda. On the right, Marine Le Pen’s chances of winning France’s presidency in 2017 are rising. In Germany, Pegida, the Alternative für Deutschlandand the CSU now finally seem to have broken the political taboo on euroscepticism in the heartland of Europe.

The problem lies with the rallying call. There’s the classic call and then there are three alternatives. The pro-Europe argument has long rested on the three pillars of peace, prosperity and necessity. The classic federalist slogans are that “the EU has brought peace to Europe”, that “the internal market brings economic growth, a great diversity of products to consume, and high quality jobs” and that “without the EU, China, the U.S., Russia and India will dictate world politics”. All these familiar slogans are increasingly hollow, because the EU has not been able to guarantee peace as the break-up of Yugoslavia 20 years ago and now the Ukraine conflict testify. Many Europeans are today unemployed and the euro seems to many more part of the problem than of the solution.

“We have no choice other than policies of austerity because the treaties tell us to do so,” is a slogan that rallies few if anyone. The rallying calls of the 21st century must be new and must relate to the problems and topics that are on people’s minds: democracy that works better and addresses all the new forms of inequality. This means that any new rallying call must provide a clear answer to two questions: “Who decides what?” and “How do we Europeans divide up the economic cake?”

There could be three new rallying calls: the democratic call, the elitist call and the call to youth. The democratic call would in effect say: “we need to give citizens more power over their own lives. We cannot only do this at the national level, because we cannot allow German citizens to decide that all Greeks should be unemployed, nor can we let the Greeks decide to squander all the savings of Germans.” This is what many people who make up Europe’s elites say, but they don’t act upon it. But any rallying call that isn’t backed by action is bound to backfire. So pro-Europe politicians going down this road should campaign for EU-wide referendums on virtually everything. They must also be in favour of the direct election of a powerful President of the European Union. Thanks to the internet, citizen consultations could be organised almost instantaneously at European, national and local level, and might well attract record numbers of citizens, as long as it is clear from the outset that national leaders in power bind themselves to the outcome. There would be no need for treaty reform as democracy would triumph over the treaties. The election of Jean-Claude Juncker to become the European Commission’s President against the open opposition of David Cameron, and the more discreet reservations of Angela Merkel, both of whom had the legal power to deny him the position, has proved the point. Once the democracy genie is out of the bottle, the political realities will adapt, treaty or no treaty.

The elitists’ rallying call goes in exactly the opposite direction. “European citizens need to shut up. They have no idea how complicated it is to govern something as heterogeneous as the European Union, and to handle problems as tricky as international capital flows and climate change. Politics is a profession that should be left to the professionals”. The message from Europe’s elites boils down to saying “let’s only have elections every 10 years and then at European, national and local level simultaneously. This way, those elected can worry about solving societal problems in between elections, rather than having to worry about being re-elected all the time”. Some might even add that EU-level politicians should be better paid, for in European elections we want to stimulate the best of the best to compete for office. Others may argue against there being any other means of citizen involvement in politics, as all it accomplishes is watered-down compromises, short-term quasi-solutions and empty handouts. If citizens want to spend most of their time watching Champions League Football or Germany’s Next Top Model, that is fine. But then they should not claim to know anything about matters of state.

This elitism may well be what many European politicians think but never say. If you repeat often enough that “voters are always right”, then citizens will start to believe that. Tell citizens that the alternative to elite rule is that their neighbour decides everything between the first and second half of a Champion’s League match and you might get voted out of office, or you might find out that – when it comes to policymaking – citizens trust their neighbours even less than they do politicians.

The third rallying call is to Europe’s young. There is a growing imbalance between young and old, with the old getting more and more numerous in relation to the young. They are better mobilised than young people and they are richer, they have job security, higher incomes and have accumulated more capital. The battle cry for Europe’s young should be to challenge this increasing inequality. Pensions need to be drastically reduced and substantial taxes on property and savings should be levied. A retirement age of 70 isn’t but a bare necessity. Job security should not come with seniority. It should apply to everyone, or to no one. “Special” (read: lower) youth wages should also be abolished. Europe’s current welfare states only worked as long as there were more young people than old to pay for their pensions, and as long as each new generation could expect a better life than its predecessor. Both these conditions are gone. A truly revolutionary youth rallying call could be that the voting age be reduced to 16 across the EU – as in Austria – and that 40% of seats in the European as well as national parliaments can only be filled by people under the age of 40. Otherwise, they remain empty.

These suggested new rallying calls share three common characteristics. First, they are inflammatory and radical. There can be no mobilisation of the masses without annoying some people. For a long time, pro-Europe politicians have avoided doing so, but a fresh rallying call must articulate the idea that Europe will disempower some in order to mobilise others.

Second, they are neither pro-Europe nor eurosceptic. Bringing forward complex arguments about ways of reforming the constitutional design of the EU isn’t the way to enthuse people. Nor is arguing about whether the EU has been instrumental in achieving some policy goal; European-level politics should be considered a simple fact, just like those of the nation state and local governments.

Third, the new rallying calls leave out the stale old references to peace, prosperity and necessity and focus on today’s two main concerns: democracy and inequality.

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