After many ‘ostrich years’ the European head is out of the sand: there really is a problem with the legitimacy – or rather, the perception of legitimacy – of the European construct. It is not a mere ‘bee in the bonnet’ of some irritating academics disconnected from reality. Eurobarometer indications are at their lowest and the results of a highly respected Pew Center survey, too, show a remarkable fall in support for Europe among its citizens. Political differences on how to tackle the Euro crisis are, worryingly, both reflective and constitutive of what one may call a solidarity deficit.
Even if the EU manages to make substantive and substantial strides in the construction of the much vaunted Banking Union after the German domestic elections in the autumn, it is not expected that any of the above will change significantly.
It used to be denied, in both political and academic circles, that Europe still suffered from a democracy deficit. The usual trope that was trotted out to defend the democratic credentials of the Union was the historic increase in the powers of the European Parliament, which even before the Lisbon Treaty could credibly be called a veritable co-legislator with the Council. But even the most devout Europhiles in the Amen Corner of the Union cannot wish away another historical trend establishing an ironic parallel with the increase in EP powers: the more powers the European Parliament, supposedly the Vox Populi, has gained, the greater popular indifference toward it seems to have developed. The decline is in voter support, not for Europe but for the European Parliament itself, as measured in voter turn-out to EP elections. The turn-out rate has declined persistently from election to election ever since the first direct elections in 1979, and reached historical lows in practically all Member States as well as for the Union as a whole at the last elections in 2009.
The failure of the European Parliament to dispel the image – real or illusory – of a gravy train with weak control over the use of resources for personal gain and a system in which lobbyists roam freely, unfairly and unaccountably impacting the legislative process, aggravates the picture. It does not explain it.
The classic historical explanation of voter indifference to a chamber without powers naturally has no longer any purchase and has disappeared. The alternative explanation usually dished out by hard-working if anguished MEPs, who are both humiliated and flummoxed by this historical trend, is to say in a million different ways that ‘we have to explain Europe better’ to European citizens. This was the initial line which the Commission also took after the debacle of the Constitution. It is a morally repugnant argument, a crass resurrection in all but name of Marxist false consciousness. Maybe we should change the stupid People who do not understand – as Brecht famously and viciously quipped?
But in fact the people are wiser than their elected representatives in the European Parliament and elsewhere. For they intuit the truth: with all its increased powers it still makes no difference to Europe, and in Europe, whether and how the people vote for the European Parliament. Read the rest of this entry…