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June 14th, 2014

Populist parties have made common cause with technocrats in hollowing out national democracy in Europe


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Team

June 14th, 2014

Populist parties have made common cause with technocrats in hollowing out national democracy in Europe


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Eurosceptic parties performed strongly in last month’s European Parliament elections across a number of countries. Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti suggest there is an irony in the fact that these parties tended to encourage higher participation in European elections. They argue that populist parties have failed voters by simply opposing the EU rather than taking a stance on the political choices facing Europe.

The Brussels press corps were gathered in the main chamber of the European Parliament waiting for the results of the EU elections. An hour or so before the polls closed, the TV screens were synchronized to broadcast the news: the participation rate had not fallen; it had even risen by 0.1 per cent. Enthused officials told the waiting journalists that ‘Europe was back’: voters had shown their interest in the European project.

Nigel Farage in the European Parliament, Credit: © European Union 2013 - European Parliament (CC-BY-SA-NC-ND-3.0)
Nigel Farage in the European Parliament, Credit: © European Union 2013 – European Parliament (CC-BY-SA-NC-ND-3.0)

But soon it became clear that the participation rate had only held up because of the large support for anti-EU parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or the French Front National (FN). It was proof of how ‘out of touch’ Eurocrats are — only one of many ironies that have characterized this round of European parliamentary elections, making its outcome so hard to make sense of.

Another irony was that of all the parties that participated in the elections, the ones that spoke most of Europe and the EU were its presumptive enemies. In Britain, UKIP was the only one to speak about the shortcomings of European economic and monetary policy. In France, Marine Le Pen’s FN sharpened its anti-technocratic message by focusing on the ‘Brussels elite’ and how remote it has become from people’s concerns. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement was amongst the few to speak about the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ and of the challenge it poses for domestic politics.

This reminds us that, for all their opposition to the whole project of European integration, these parties are dependent upon it for their political identity. It would be hard to imagine what would become of UKIP if the UK actually did withdraw from the EU, as the party’s platform ostensibly demands.

Similarly, part of the grounds for the Front National’s success in France has been its current leader’s capacity to re-focus its party’s image on a strictly nationalist platform, based on the values of republicanism, laïcité and self-determination. Without her anti-Europeanism, it is not clear what would remain to distinguish this party’s position from the increasingly right-leaning UMP.

In Italy too, the ambivalent attitude towards Europe is the only thing which really seems to still distinguish Grillo’s platform from Matteo Renzi’s. Renzi has appropriated most of the other elements of Grillo’s program as part of his hegemonic attempt to capture the whole of the Italian political spectrum.

In contrast, mainstream parties and political leaders fought the elections primarily on domestic political grounds. In the UK, the mainstream media and political establishment took them as a measure of popular sentiment a year before a general election: the key questions were whether the Liberal Democrats would find that their time in coalition with the Conservatives had cost them much of their support, and whether Labour would succeed in coming out on top.

In France, attention was focused on how poorly the incumbent Socialist Party would do and on the internal battles of the UMP. Even Marine Le Pen’s eventual victory was interpreted through the lens of 2002, when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen succeeded in reaching the second round of the presidential elections.

In Germany, the campaign was absorbed into the dynamics of the country’s ‘grand coalition’. The German Social Democrats went as far as selling their ‘Spitzkandidat’ for the presidency of the European Commission, Martin Schultz, as a national asset that would carry German interests to Brussels. The slogan they adopted was ‘From Germany, For Europe’, one that was — as Wolfgang Streeck has remarked — quite at odds with Schultz’s pan-European campaign.

What we seem to have is, on the one hand, an ostensibly ‘pro-European’ establishment that actually doesn’t care about European elections very much, treating them instead as a means for playing out domestic political struggles. And on the other hand, a bloc of ostensibly ‘anti-European’ parties, which in reality has the most vested interests in the perpetuation of the European project. If these parties manage to form viable parliamentary groups, the EU might paradoxically become the most reliable source of funding for these apparently ‘anti-European’ parties.

Unity versus representation

Such ironies have not only marked the way the campaigns were conducted at the national level. You can see something comparable at the level of the European Parliament (EP) too.  For this institution, the elections were to be the moment when European voters would finally get to choose their own president of the European Commission. By having European parliamentary groups declare in advance who would be their leading candidate, the EP would become the place where the political identity of the Commission would be determined: it was to be a key moment in the democratization of Europe, with the EP as its principal conduit.

Though the logic is straightforward, the reality is quite different. Because of the way in which the results turned out, for the EP to successfully push one of its candidates onto the European Council, the different party groups must come to an agreement. More specifically, what the EP needs, in order to get its way in this institutional struggle is for the two mainstream party groups within it — the right-leaning European People’s Party (PPE) and the left-leaning European Socialist Party (PSE) — to agree to back a single candidate.

If these groups do not reach any agreement, the European Council is likely to exploit the divisions within the Parliament to push through its own candidate. Thus the EP faces a dilemma: either to brush aside the results of the elections and unite as a single body behind one candidate; or to remain divided along the lines given by the election and have the European Council take the initiative on nominating the next presidency of the Commission.

The irony is this: as a democratic chamber, the EP’s function is to represent the diverse opinions of Europe’s national populations; but as an institution seeking more power for itself in Brussels, it must unite across party lines. The stronger it wants to be as an EU institution, the less representative it becomes. For the time being, it seems that the EP has opted for the latter option — by backing the PPE’s chosen candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker — but in so doing it has made a mockery of its claim to represent Europe in its diversity of opinion and political leanings.

What political earthquake?

A final irony of these elections has been the ease with which the outcome has been managed by Europe’s political elites. Immediately after the results came out, they were described by the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, as a ‘political earthquake’. Most commentators saw in the success of anti-EU parties a grave warning for the EU and for national political elites in particular. In Italy, Grillo’s score of just over 20%, and his second place behind Renzi, was taken as a sign of failure — a remarkable fact suggesting that for Europe’s marginal and anti-establishment parties, anything short of first place was being seen as a poor score.

For all the talk of an earthquake, however, the aftershocks have been minimal. This is because the interpretation of the election results has been overwhelmingly in terms of a struggle between nation-states and the EU. By viewing the elections in this light, national governments have put themselves in pole position for pulling Europe out of its democratic malaise.

Immediately after the results were out, the European Council convened to discuss them. Arriving in Brussels, one national leader after another delivered a message for the cameras about having ‘heard’ their citizens’ complaints. David Cameron’s sound bite was perhaps the pithiest — ‘Brussels has become too big, too bossy, too interfering’ — but something similar came from all those attending. For Renzi, the challenge was to have ‘not more but better Europe’. The Dutch prime minster called for ‘fewer rules and less fuss’.

This focus on reforming the EU has the obvious advantage of getting national governments off the hook. The vote wasn’t about them, it was about Brussels, and all can agree that at the level of the EU something must be done. The irony here is that this message chimes perfectly with the outspoken Eurosceptic movements whose electoral success was considered such an earthquake.

Whether they argue from the perspective of the left or the right, these movements and parties are also committed to some degree of reform. The extent and scope is of course different: during the campaign, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders spoke openly about returning Europe to its member states, but immediately after the results came out, they began to talk about ‘slowing down’ the process of European integration. In Greece and in Spain, the rising left movements of Syriza and Podemos are even more measured in their criticism. Syriza, for instance, is critical of the policy mix chosen by EU and IMF officials rather than the existence of the EU itself; similarly Podemos is in favour of Spain exiting NATO but is much more guarded about EU membership.

For all these differences in degree, both ruling elites and their supposed populist foes converge in their assessment that what matters is recalibrating the relationship between the EU and its member states. Rather than challenging the authority of national elites, this reinforces the status quo.

The hollowing out of national politics

What the elections have revealed is not a growing gulf between the EU and nation-states. To make this kind of distinction is to miss most of the key dynamics that drive the EU in the first place. The activity of the EU has long been driven by national executives, the leaders of which meet together in the European Council.

Much of the detailed legislative work in Europe is conducted in ‘comitology’ committees, where national experts discuss together the implementation of EU directives. Both the European Commission and the European Court of Justice are important institutions but it is difficult to substantiate the claim that they have been accumulating new powers in recent years. The growing power of the Parliament, as we have seen, has come at the cost of its representativeness. Its influence comes from participating in very small meetings where Commission officials, national officials and MEPs hammer out legislative compromises.

What has really been happening is that policymaking within nation states has increasingly been coordinated at the European level. National civil servants today take it for granted that much of their work involves close cooperation with their peers across Europe. The same holds for state institutions like the judiciary, the police and border security forces. Governing parties across Europe have been at the centre of these developments. The EU does not stand apart from its member states, it is the way in which these member states rule over their own societies.

Far from challenging these developments, populist movements and parties across Europe are a reflection of them. By focusing on the ills of the EU, eurosceptic movements have failed to grasp how the EU today is not in any way separate from its member states. By presenting the struggle as one of nation-states versus the EU, they are grist to the mill for the more diluted reform efforts of governments across the EU.

Indeed, this has often had the effect of taking politics out of European debates altogether. The European campaign was dominated by the theme of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Europeans, with the establishment lining up against the insurgents. Very little was said about Eurobonds, Europe’s struggle with deflation, banking union and other crisis-related political choices. It is no surprise that governments would prefer to tackle these issues within the safer confines of European Council meetings.

By opposing the EU rather than by positioning themselves vis-à-vis the political choices facing Europe’s citizens, populist parties have made common cause with the technocrats in hollowing out national democracy in Europe. This is perhaps the final irony of the European elections, and the most serious of them all.

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Note: This article was originally published on Le Monde Diplomatique and gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Chris Bickerton – University of Cambridge
Chris Bickerton is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge.

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti – Free University of Brussels
Carlo Invernizzi Accetti is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Political Theory, Free University of Brussels, and a lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris.

About the author

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Posted In: Carlo Invernizzi Accetti | Chris Bickerton