Re­spond­ing to Europe’s po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In Europe, 2015 be­gan with the far-left Syriza party’s elec­tion vic­tory in Greece. It ended with an­other three elec­tions that at­tested to in­creas­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion. In Por­tu­gal, the So­cial­ist Party formed an al­liance with its for­mer arch­en­emy, the Com­mu­nists. In Poland, the na­tion­al­ist Law and Jus­tice (PiS) party won enough sup­port to gov­ern on its own. In Spain, the emer­gence of Pode­mos, an­other new left-wing party, has ended the tra­di­tional hege­mony of the Span­ish So­cial­ist Work­ers’ Party on the cen­tre left and the Par­tido Pop­u­lar on the cen­tre right. (In France, more­over, the far-right Na­tional Front, led by Marine Le Pen, showed its strength in the first round of De­cem­ber’s re­gional elec­tions, though it even­tu­ally failed to win any).

The mes­sage is im­pos­si­ble to miss: in­creas­ingly, vot­ers are deeply dis­sat­is­fied with main­stream par­ties and are will­ing to give a chance to those propos­ing rad­i­cal al­ter­na­tives. They are lend­ing sup­port to par­ties that, though very dif­fer­ent from one an­other, all blame the Euro­pean Union for the sorry state of their coun­tries’ economies and la­bor mar­kets.

To be sure, rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion is not lim­ited to Europe nowa­days. As I have ar­gued else­where, Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump owes his rise to many of the same fac­tors that are driv­ing Le Pen’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity. What is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic in the EU is the clash be­tween rad­i­cal pol­i­tics and main­stream gov­er­nance.

For 30 years, cen­tre-right or cen­tre-left par­ties with a broadly shared vi­sion of Europe have gov­erned most EU coun­tries. De­spite their pol­icy dis­agree­ments, they jointly em­bod­ied the ide­o­log­i­cal con­sen­sus – and formed the po­lit­i­cal coali­tion – that built the sin­gle mar­ket, the euro, and the en­larged EU.

But many vot­ers now feel that main­stream poli­cies have failed. Gov­ern­ments have proved un­able to pro­tect un­skilled and semi-skilled employees from the con­se­quences of glob­al­i­sa­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change. Mass ed­u­ca­tion, pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion, and so­cial-wel­fare ben­e­fits have not pre­vented in­creas­ing in­equal­ity. And the euro has failed to en­gi­neer pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity. Those (like me) who think that spe­cific pol­icy er­rors and in­sti­tu­tional flaws are more to blame than Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion it­self are be­ing drowned out.

Po­lit­i­cal re­align­ments are to be ex­pected in democ­ra­cies; in­deed, demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions are de­signed to make them pos­si­ble. Gen­er­ally, the con­sti­tu­tion does not change, or changes only slowly, whereas a new party or coali­tion re­de­fines the pol­icy agenda and re­forms the leg­is­la­tion. This com­bi­na­tion of rigid­ity and plas­tic­ity en­ables demo­cratic regimes to adapt to shifts in cit­i­zens’ pref­er­ences.

The same does not ap­ply to Europe. First, po­lit­i­cal change is not syn­chro­nised. At any given mo­ment, some coun­tries may have voted for rad­i­cal par­ties, while oth­ers have not (or sim­ply have not held elec­tions). This clash of le­git­i­macy is what the Greek gov­ern­ment ini­tially failed to understand last spring when it sought to ease aus­ter­ity mea­sures.

Sec­ond, un­like na­tional democ­ra­cies, the EU does not de­rive its le­git­i­macy from the process through which po­lit­i­cal choices are made, but mainly from the out­put it can de­liver. This is not to say that there is no demo­cratic process: the elected Euro­pean Par­lia­ment is a se­ri­ous leg­isla­tive body, and its vet­ting of Euro­pean com­mis­sion­ers is of­ten more thor­ough than per­son­nel se­lec­tion at the na­tional level. But it has no vis­i­bil­ity, be­cause ma­jor de­ci­sions are ne­go­ti­ated be­tween na­tional gov­ern­ments.

Third, the bound­ary be­tween con­sti­tu­tional and leg­isla­tive mat­ters is pe­cu­liar in the EU. All treaty pro­vi­sions have con­sti­tu­tional sta­tus; in­deed, they can be changed only by unan­i­mous agree­ment. Fur­ther­more, be­cause gov­ern­ments did not trust one an­other, they in­sisted on in­clud­ing in treaties what would nor­mally be­long in or­di­nary leg­is­la­tion. The many rules that gov­ern eco­nomic life in the EU are there­fore much more dif­fi­cult to amend than are sim­i­lar do­mes­tic pro­vi­sions.

What op­tions does this leave the EU for re­spond­ing to po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion and the con­comi­tant de­mands for more pol­icy lee­way at the na­tional level? Of course, the EU could sim­ply ig­nore th­ese changes, and hope that rad­i­cal­ism will wane once its bear­ers are con­fronted with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ing. But that would be fool­ish. Syriza was forced to ac­cept tough choices be­cause Greece de­pends on ex­ter­nal fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.

An­other pos­si­bil­ity would be to ex­ploit, on an ad hoc ba­sis, the ex­ist­ing flex­i­bil­ity in EU treaty pro­vi­sions. Prag­ma­tism can in­deed be help­ful, and the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion headed by Jean-Claude Juncker is will­ing to em­brace it. But it would be dan­ger­ous to turn the EU frame­work into a thicket of coun­try-spe­cific po­lit­i­cal bar­gains. Those for whom the rule of law and the en­force­ment of fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples are se­ri­ous mat­ters – not just Ger­many – would soon ob­ject.

The last so­lu­tion would be to make the EU more amenable to po­lit­i­cal change. This would re­quire ex­plic­itly chang­ing the bal­ance be­tween con­sti­tu­tional and leg­isla­tive mat­ters, so that prin­ci­ples are pre­served, but poli­cies can be re­spon­sive to pol­i­tics. More­over, the EU should be able to legislate on a wider ar­ray of poli­cies, in­clud­ing, for ex­am­ple, tax­a­tion. This would end its awk­ward im­po­tence on – and ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence to – in­equal­ity.

At the same time, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment should be given a higher pro­file, as in a truly fed­eral sys­tem, so that gov­ern­ments at the na­tional and Euro­pean level are per­ceived as equally le­git­i­mate.

This ap­proach con­fronts for­mi­da­ble ob­sta­cles. An at­tempt to write an EU con­sti­tu­tion was made in the early 2000s. It failed. Ger­many and other coun­tries where main­stream poli­cies still com­mand wide sup­port would ve­he­mently op­pose any per­ceived soft­en­ing of the com­mon rules and prin­ci­ples. It will be hard, to say the least, to agree on ad­di­tional com­pe­tences and a stronger Euro­pean Par­lia­ment at a time when so many in Europe, start­ing with the rad­i­cals, con­sider the EU the main cul­prit for their cur­rent woes. Yet ul­ti­mately, the con­struc­tion of a transna­tional democ­racy is the most vi­able re­sponse to po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion in Europe.

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