A More Political Europe

Tuesday 23 March 2010, by Loukas Tsoukalis

Thèmes : Europe

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Référence : Article publié dans Raison publique, n°7, octobre 2007, pp. 131-141.

The good old news

More than fifty years after it all began, regional integration in Europe has developed into a complex system with no precedent in history and no rival in other parts of the contemporary world: a peaceful revolution which has radically changed the economic and political order on the European continent.

Stripped down to its bare essentials, this European system is characterized by open borders, joint management (or shared sovereignty, if you prefer), democracy, as well as solidarity among its members.

First and foremost, European integration can be seen as a highly developed system for the joint management of interdependence through common institutions and rules. This interdependence started with trade and steadily extended into many other manifestations of cross-border interaction and exchange in a crowded continent with a long and turbulent history, relatively scarce natural resources, and a wide diversity of cultures, political traditions, and economic systems (Tsoukalis, 2005). Nowadays, the welfare of European citizens is intimately linked with this system of regional interdependence, and so more generally is their quality of life to the extent that it too depends on the freedom to travel, study, or work anywhere inside the Union, and to the extent that it depends on access to a wide variety of goods and services and greater security, among other things.

Many aspects of the everyday life of European citizens now depend on decisions taken beyond their national borders, albeit with the participation of their representatives. A key characteristic of European integration has been the attempt to combine liberalization of markets and the elimination of national barriers in general with the establishment of common rules and institutions —a new level of governance, in contemporary parlance. This is, after all, only proper for countries where individualism has been long tamed by considerations of the public good and where government is not necessarily a dirty word; it may also have something to do with Europe being old and crowded.

Interdependence is, of course, not a uniquely European phenomenon. It has increasingly characterized international relations during recent decades and it has rapidly accelerated during the more recent phase of globalization. Yet, in many cases, regional interdependence in Europe is (still?) significantly different from what we find at the global level in at least two important respects —intensity and governance —which are usually mutually reinforcing. The regional concentration of economic exchange is very high indeed in Europe, and this is intimately linked with a system of rules and regulations governing this exchange. This applies to almost all aspects of trade, although less so to financial markets where the regional tends to merge with the global.

There is now a European political system with clearly defined institutions and rules that deliver policies in a very wide range of policy areas. Yet, the institutional framework of the EU, though highly advanced —indeed unique —by international standards, still preserves a central role for participating nation-states and their representatives. Nation-states have not withered away —and they are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, they have been strengthened in many respects through the process of regional integration. The symbiotic character of regional integration and the nation-states participating in it may sound contradictory only to those who still approach sovereignty as something absolute that you have or you do not have —like virginity, I suppose.

Changing conditions

Yet, there is a problem that has been growing with time (Tsoukalis 2007). The EU produces a great deal of policy that affects in many ways the everyday life of citizens. But there is still precious little democratic politics to back it up. The gap between policy and politics has become wider, despite efforts to introduce more democracy to the European political system. Direct elections to the European Parliament, coupled with more co-decision, have so far largely failed to create a European public space. On the other hand, the gap between policy and politics has been growing wider also at the national level, but in the opposite direction: public debates usually taking place as if the national state had much more autonomy of action than it actually has.

European integration has been characterized by a continuous expansion in terms of membership and policy functions; and there has been a rapid acceleration of this trend in the more recent period. Membership of the club has almost doubled in a few years time, inevitably affecting whatever internal cohesion had been achieved earlier, while economic and monetary union (EMU) and the further deepening of integration in other policy areas have added to powers exercised beyond national borders. All this has happened without much political debate. It is true of both EMU and enlargement. European citizens seem to suffer from indigestion of things European, and this is coupled with a feeling of disempowerment.

European integration started basically as an economic affair, though with strong political undertones. Economics remains today the backbone of it all. For many years, integration helped to sustain a succession of virtuous circles, which helped strongly growing national economies while also bolstering the essentially permissive consensus of European citizens about further integration. Love of Europe has always had a strong pecuniary dimension – in other words, love for Europe goes through the pockets of its citizens - and it has depended on the ability of European and national institutions to deliver the goods.

It was fine as long as it lasted. The performance of several European economies, most notably the three biggest economies in the eurozone, has been anything but spectacular for several years. Slow growth, high unemployment and ageing populations are a recipe for disaster, not only for generous national welfare systems but also for the European project more generally. True, things have brightened up more recently: a lasting improvement in economic performance would surely help to alleviate the kind of mid-life crisis that Europe is apparently going through; will it last?

The latest phase of regional integration has coincided with major economic restructuring. It has to do with globalisation and, arguably, even more so with the new technological revolution. We know from history that economic restructuring adds to overall welfare, though it has never been a bloodless affair. It creates winners and losers within countries more than between countries, and it also adds significantly to the precariousness of economic life by accelerating the pace of change. Generally perceived as a vehicle of change and liberalisation, Europe has thus become a threat for those who consider themselves as losers or potential losers; hence, they turn to the old nation-state for protection. In a world where the economic forces of globalisation hit against resurgent nationalism, Europe risks being uncomfortably squeezed between the two. And it also risks losing for good significant sections of the population who turn against it.

It does not help either that national politicians have found it convenient to scapegoat the Union. For years, many of them have tried to appropriate for themselves any measures deemed popular, while passing the responsibility for difficult or unpopular decisions, involving short-term political costs, on to the EU and the European Commission in particular. There has also been much double-talk: some political leaders speaking ‘European’ in Brussels, while continuing to use the national idiom for domestic political debates. And there has been little attempt to translate from one to the other. This is particularly true of the so-called Lisbon process and economic reform. Public support for European integration has suffered as a result, and so has the credibility of the political class as a whole in several countries.

The continuous expansion in terms of membership and policy functions of regional integration, new economic conditions and unequal distributional effects have changed some of the fundamentals and stretched the limits of an elite-driven process. National elites have lost much of their legitimacy, while the permissive consensus on which the famous common European home was being built looks no longer solid enough. European citizens are not prepared to give their political leaders carte blanche on new initiatives.

The growing debate about borders is just one manifestation of this trend; strong disagreements about further liberalisation and the extension of the European single market is another. And the doubts or criticism are no longer confined to old-style Eurosceptics or Europhobes. They have spread much wider. Does Europe need a greater dose of democracy? If so, there are hardly any examples to follow. The uniqueness of European integration renders the task difficult but also extremely challenging.

What kind of politicisation?

The debate about further politicisation of European integration issues has been gathering momentum [1]. In a nutshell, the argument, I believe, may run as follows. European integration (and globalisation) is increasingly affecting and constraining national policies and social contracts. It is also having distributional effects.

There are choices to be made concerning Europe’s global role and the projection of common interests and values in a rapidly changing world where size matters. There are also choices to be made in the exercise of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power in international relations.

The same applies to the management of the internal market and economic regulation, be it about competition policy, financial stability and moral hazard, or the protection of the environment. These are not issues that can be dealt with exclusively by technocrats. And there are also choices to be made concerning macroeconomic management in the eurozone, notably the mix between fiscal and monetary policy. EMU does not only concern central bankers; it requires a more integrated euro area in both economic and political terms. Did we all understand the consequences when we decided to go for it?

Last but not least, there are choices to be made concerning the European dimension of social policy, when the old, implicit division of labour between European and national institutions is no longer politically tenable. With inequalities growing within countries and not so much between countries, the EU cannot be seen just as an agent of liberalisation, while national institutions take almost exclusive responsibility for welfare and redistribution. For Europe to be an effective agent of reform, it needs a stronger caring dimension.

These are choices that cannot be debated and dealt with exclusively at the national level. In other words, there is a mismatch between economic reality, broadly defined, which is becoming increasingly European and global, and the still predominantly intergovernmental nature of EU politics. This is another way to describe the gap between policy and politics; something needs to be done about it.

On the other hand, there are still many people who believe that further politicisation of the EU is neither desirable nor feasible (Moravcsik 2006; Majone 2005; and Bartolini 2006 with a more balanced argument). They belong to different sub-categories, including those – many are to be found in Brussels – who yearn for the good old days when the initiated ran the show and the others followed, those who argue that the issues dealt with by European institutions are not particularly salient among citizens and voters, and those who believe we are not ready for supranational democracy and thus any further move in that direction would act as a boomerang. See the declining rates of participation in European Parliament elections, they would add, or the manifest lack of public enthusiasm generated by the constitutional treaty. A few go even further arguing that a key characteristic of the EU is precisely that it is boring for most people, and it should remain so.

Of course, such arguments should not be easily dismissed. The EU is largely, although not exclusively, a regulatory state, and we know that most regulatory issues do not provoke active interest on behalf of ordinary citizens. This is true, but economic regulation is not distribution free either. And there is much more to European integration than technical issues of economic regulation. It is true also that there is no previous experience with democracy beyond the national level, and hence there are no simple recipes to follow. The European journey continues very much in uncharted waters and the destination remains, as always, unknown.

But let us not draw the wrong lessons from earlier misadventures. New voting procedures in the Council and the role of rotating presidencies, to mention two important changes introduced by the constitutional treaty, may be a step in the right direction of better delivery, but hardly the stuff that excites most people. Institutional changes for the most part, themselves the product of painful compromises and hence watered down in the process, were presented as a major political project, and they backfired – at best, they met with popular indifference. European citizens – far from being unique – are preoccupied with practical issues and problems that affect their everyday lives, including jobs and social welfare. Given the opportunity, they told us so.

Politicisation is not something ordered from above. There are European issues that have already become highly politicised. One example is the liberalisation of services personified by the well-known Polish plumber. Another is enlargement, and so is globalisation. All those issues offer plenty of opportunities to demagogues. Politicisation at the European level may indeed lend itself more to populist rhetoric. And this is a risk worth bearing in mind and trying to address with political initiatives and specific measures, instead of simply hoping it will go away on its own.

Perhaps, in the not too distant future, some bold politicians may begin to debate the big trade-offs between efficiency, stability and equity in different areas of economic policy, as well as the link between such trade-offs and the division of powers between European and national institutions. And there are, of course, more than just economic trade-offs in real life. It should not be beyond the capacity of politicians to translate the above into simple language and present in the form of basic political choices understood by ordinary European citizens. This is what has been missing so far, with national debates going on their own independent (and unreal) way, usually as if the EU did not exist and individual member states had much influence over global policy outcomes.

The Union needs a breath of fresh political air; and politics means fights and faces. European citizens need more information and choices. Choices do exist, although most politicians have so far failed to articulate them as choices that have both a European and a national dimension. This is where the big failure lies. Perhaps, because there is still no elected office at the European level attractive enough to bring forward the best available talent from the Left and Right of the political spectrum, more or less Green, new or old, and thus generate that kind of debate.

The indirect election of the President of the European Commission by the newly elected members of the Parliament could be a way of further politicising the EU. The ground would have to be prepared well in advance. It would surely make the EU less boring, and elections to the European Parliament as well. Such a development would also change the institutional balance within the EU, as well as the role of the European Commission. There are serious pros and cons (Hix 2006 and Bartolini 2006). And there is the risk that we are still not ready for it. As the time approaches, the issue may become hot.

The short- and medium-term

In the meantime, rescuing parts of the constitutional treaty will remain at the top of the European political agenda – unless, of course, unforeseen events take it over, as they often have the habit of doing. A ‘reform’ treaty, concentrating on key institutional provisions of its more ambitious but stillborn predecessor, now looks like a possible compromise between the majority of countries that have ratified the complete text (plus a few others who also claim to be friends of the so-called constitution) and the minority that consists of two very different groups: those who want to preserve the essentials and the others who would clearly prefer the whole thing dead and buried.

The prospect of a new, albeit short and with a very narrow mandate, intergovernmental conference, followed by 27 national ratifications, is not without risks. Some referenda will be difficult to avoid, people are in a rebellious (and anti-establishment) mood in several countries, while political leaders are not always ready to take ownership of texts they have solemnly agreed to in European Council meetings.

Is it worth it? The answer, I believe, is ‘yes’. Sure, a common European foreign policy will not simply jump out of the head of the new High Representative, while nobody really knows what kind of a modus vivendi will develop between two Presidents and one High Representative in a rather narrow policy space. The ‘double majority’ rule, applied with considerable delay and coupled with less unanimity and more co-decision, will not turn the EU-27 (or more) into a model of democratic efficiency and transparency. And the same applies to new policy areas: they will require painstaking negotiations before a broad legal framework begins to translate into specific measures.

All this is true. But it is equally true that even a downsized version of the constitutional treaty, without the symbols and other paraphernalia that so much seem to bother national sovereignty diehards, would fit better a deeper and wider Europe in a rapidly changing global environment. Much political capital has been invested in this exercise, and the cost of failure would be high.

From a democratic point of view though, we find ourselves in an almost ‘no win’ situation. Trying to secure ratification of a shorter and less ambitious (albeit hardly readable) text, which still preserves the essentials, through the parliamentary route risks being seen as an undemocratic fiddle bypassing once again European citizens. On the other hand, trying the direct democracy route, which has become identified in several European countries with EU treaty revisions, would be a guarantee for failure under the present system: there will always be at least one referendum lost for reasons that may have very little to do with the text in question.

The combination of unanimity and national referenda leads unavoidably to deadlock. Will yet another treaty revision finally manage to scrape through, perhaps for the last time? Popular referenda on some big European issues could arguably make sense in the future, but only on the condition that they are pan-European referenda decided on the basis of European (and not national) majorities. Apparently, we are not all ready for them yet.

The EU, and its predecessors, has done remarkably well so far following the step-by-step approach to integration – the experts talk about ‘spill-over’- while resorting to creative ambiguity with respect to the big, teleological questions, such as borders and the finalité politique. Such questions are likely to be raised with increasing frequency in the future, and the ensuing debate will not only involve the cognoscenti. The challenges facing Europe force upon it difficult choices, while the number of participants is testing the limits of existing structures and the gap between maximalists and minimalists remains wide. Some hard realists now argue that globalisation and enlargement have rendered such questions irrelevant. It may be prove to be just wishful thinking on their part. The jury is still out.


Bartolini, Stefano (2006), ‘Faut-il “politiser” l’Union européenne? Perspectives et risques’, www.notre-europe.asso.fr

Hix, Simon (2006), ‘Pourquoi l’UE a-t-elle besoin d’une politique (gauche-droite) ? C’est la condition sine qua non d’une réforme et d’une responsabilité politiques’ www.notre-europe.asso.fr

Majone, Giandomenico (2005), Dilemmas of European Integration (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Moravcsik, Andrew (2006), ‘What can we learn from the collapse of the European constitutional project?’, Politische Vierteljahresschrift 47:2.

Tsoukalis, Loukas (2005), What Kind of Europe? (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Tsoukalis, Loukas (2007), Global, Social and Political Europe (ELIAMEP, OPO7.04)



by Loukas Tsoukalis

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[1] See, for example, the debate carried on the website of Notre Europe (www.notre-europe.asso.fr), initially between Stefano Bartolini and Simon Hix (Politiser l’UE: remède ou poison?) and subsequently in response to a paper by Andrew Moravcsik (2006). See also European Governance Papers (EUROGOV) in www.connex-network.org/eurogov

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