A crisis of belief

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A crisis of belief

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A new generation does not share the old idealism about Europe

Tunisian refugees arrive in Italy on 7th March—but what kind of welcome will they find, with the EU in crisis from immigration and debt?

Is the EU mortally wounded? Can it survive the twin crises in the eurozone and the Schengen free travel area? Most speculation turns on an assumption that the threats to the EU are of recent date—the result of the banking and sovereign debt crisis and immigration pressures following the uprisings in north Africa. But the truth is that a deeper threat to the future of the EU antedates these events.

A nationalist reaction has been gathering in Europe for at least two decades—a predictable reaction to the process of integration. But it has been much aggravated by the failure of the EU to anticipate the problem and begin to deal with its root cause.

That root cause is simple. The process of integration has reached the point where it ceases to touch merely interests and begins to touch identities. In that sense the root cause is moral, a crisis of belief. Are Europeans willing to shed national identities? They have discovered that integration is not a cost-free process. It threatens their sense of empowerment as the citizens of nation states. They have come to feel that integration is not something they are doing, but rather something that is happening to them. This is not bleak nationalism, but a concern for self-government.

The debt and Schengen crises have merely sharpened a disenchantment that was already present. But, in doing so, they have drawn attention to the failure of the EU to prepare for this crisis of identity by securing its ties with public opinion.

What has contributed to the crisis of identity in Europe? The change of scale following expansion of EU membership to the east; massive immigration into the original member states; the abolition of national currencies in the eurozone; a centralising of power, with an increasing amount of domestic legislation, such as health and safety, issuing from Brussels rather than national parliaments; and, finally, the advent of a younger generation that takes the achievements of integration for granted, while losing the idealism about it that had sustained the postwar generation.

In the face of these developments, early EU rhetoric about “sharing sovereignty” has come under closer inspection. Sharing sovereignty is now increasingly perceived as “losing sovereignty.” Some recent polls suggest that 50 per cent of Europeans doubt whether the EU is “a good thing” [see Peter Kellner, p32].

Symptoms of this change can be traced back at least as far as the French referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Its close outcome (it was approved by just over 51 per cent of voters) suggested that even the French—who had dominated the European Community while Germany was semi-tainted and Britain excluded—were beginning to distinguish between the claims of Europe and of France. That result ushered in a period when European politicians became wary of consulting the people about further integration. It shaped a political pattern on the continent, with the centre-right and centre-left tacitly agreeing to keep EU initiatives off the agenda of partisan conflict. (Britain, where one of the two major parties was seething with Euroscepticism, was an exception.) Is it surprising that in the Netherlands, a nation previously so enthusiastic about integration, voters began to feel they were not being consulted about fundamental political issues?

When in 2003, the Convention on Europe’s future, headed by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, put forward a constitution for ratification by member states, the grounds for the wariness of political classes over European issues became clear. The constitution was decisively rejected in referendums in both France and the Netherlands. Even its successor, the “pared-down” Lisbon Treaty, was defeated by a popular vote in 2008 by the Irish—only to be passed after enormous pressure was brought to bear.

Cynicism about “manipulation” of the second Irish referendum the following year has only added to the perception that a dangerous gap has opened up between the process of integration and public opinion in Europe. Of course, there are variations between member states. In Belgium and Italy a desire to escape from their own states sustains euro-enthusiasm, while in Spain, joining Europe remains part of rehabilitation from Franco’s dictatorship. That desire to recover lost ground also makes the EU attractive in new eastern member states, although this is offset by worries about again losing their sovereignty.

Yet overall, the EU has lost its hold over public opinion. And for this, its central institutions bear a responsibility.

From the outset, in promoting integration, they have failed to understand how difficult it was to create the nation states of Europe—overcoming prejudices of tribe and caste, dialect and region. Creating the social solidarity and willingness to make sacrifices for other citizens, which alone offer a stable basis for political union is, inescapably, a very slow process. American national identity took a century to form. When Robert E Lee was invited by the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln to assume command of the federal armies, after 24 hours of deliberation he declined, replying that he was a Virginian before he was an American. And, after a far longer period of time, consider how imperfect European state formation remains. Separatist movements in Catalonia, northern Italy and Scotland testify to that. Should we be surprised that Germans are resistant to the idea of rescuing Greece from its debts?


The Achilles heel of the EU is a failure of representation. The EU has not involved the political classes of member states in the way needed, if it is to connect with ordinary citizens and evoke their consent. Its origins are part of the problem. For the founding fathers of the EU, often federalists at heart, did not suppose that the goal was within their immediate reach. So they proceeded with technical measures such as the Coal and Steel Community to promote integration. The method of relying on economic means to promote a political goal became a habit. The culmination was the project for a single currency, which some of its champions saw as a relatively unproblematic back door into federalism.

To be fair, there was a wish to give the process of integration greater democratic legitimacy. Yet the means adopted have proved to be a terrible mistake. Direct election of a European parliament was premature. Unlike the original, indirect, model it bypassed national political classes and parliaments. Yet national political classes remain the focus of representation in member states, and hence they are the source of an all-too-fragile sense of citizens’ empowerment. Direct election of MEPs has not changed that. The European parliament has developed no hold over opinion, no ability to mobilise and shape consent. However, direct election has had another result. It has given national political classes an excuse to distance themselves from the European project. As a consequence, that project is now widely viewed as an elitist adventure, with MEPs seen, even if unfairly, as clients of the European commission.

Does adding to the powers of the European parliament (through the Lisbon Treaty) increase the role of democracy in Europe? Sadly, the answer is no.

In fact, opting prematurely for a directly elected European parliament has created a grave threat to representative government in Europe. It has created the risk that the European parliament and national parliaments may gradually discredit each other. For on one side we have growing power, without real authority, while on the other side we have authority, with steadily decreasing power.

This is not a recipe for a vigorous, self-governing Europe, but for bureaucratic governance. If the sovereign debt and banking crisis leads, as many predict, to fiscal centralisation, a major step towards that outcome will have been taken. The “back door” will have led to centralised power under a mere veneer of federalism.

For my part, if Europe is ever to approach a federal outcome—and I think that will require generations—I would prefer to enter through the front door.

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