One of the curious outcomes of Brexit is that it is frequently depicted in the media as a direct body blow to what is called the ‘liberal world order’. In a Foreign Policy article, one commentator evoked an image of the world order crumbling under the impact of hordes of international Brexiteers. ‘I wonder if the West is sleep-walking towards “illiberal democracy”’, he wrote, ‘the ideology championed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, emulated by Poland’s Law and Justice, and implicitly endorsed by Trump and many of the Brexiteers’.
This is not an unusual charge. Indeed, EU advocates often imply that any challenge to the EU is comparable to the attacks on democratic institutions in the interwar era. They often conclude their melodramatic portraits of the illiberalism of the EU’s critics with the illiberal assertion that those who defy the authority of the EU are the enemy of liberal democracy. For example, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, recently said that Poland’s arguments with the EU showed that it had ‘different values and different strategic aims’ to those of liberal democracy.
This conflation of the values of the EU with the idea of liberal democracy is integral to the rhetorical and political strategy used by European unifiers since the 1970s. One of the key arguments EU supporters use to justify their existence is to assert that those who question the project of European political unification are the contemporary equivalents of the xenophobic and racist extremists who plunged Europe into the First and Second World Wars. This means that those who contest the authority of the EU are not considered legitimate debating partners; as far as Brussels is concerned, so-called Euroscepticism, like the fascism to which it is likened, represents a direct threat to peace and stability.
In a speech delivered in Berlin in 2010, Herman van Rompuy, then president of the European Council, argued that ‘Euroscepticism leads to war’. He then issued a rallying cry: ‘We have to fight the danger of the new Euroscepticism.’ Van Rompuy’s claim that Euroscepticism incites war rests on the belief that it encourages the revival of aggressive nationalism. But van Rompuy doesn’t stop at reasserting that nationalism is dangerous; he also claims that national sovereignty is a ‘lie’. Having dismissed national sovereignty, he can then portray the EU as the only institution that can save the continent from a descent into the aggressive nationalism that dominated the first half of the 20th century.
Since the 1970s, the systematic condemnation of Euroscepticism, nationalism, populism or any serious opposition to the EU has played a critical role in the realignment of politics within member states. At the risk of simplification, the self-conscious process of defining the EU as an institution opposed to nationalism drew the left towards the EU and turned sections of the right towards the nation state. In this transformed, polarised landscape, any substantial criticism of the EU was dismissed as a right-wing threat to the stability of Europe’s liberal order. That, until recently, Euroscepticism was confined to the margins of public life is testimony to the influence of the EU-wide, mainstream elite consensus against it.
Defining the EU as an institution opposed to nationalism drew the left towards the EU and turned sections of the right towards the nation state
Ten years ago, social anthropologist Maryon McDonald conducted interviews with EU officials in Brussels, and noted that there were serious limits to the kind of criticisms that could be raised with them. Any substantial critique of the EU risked being condemned as, by definition, an extreme right-wing position. She wrote:
‘Since the 1970s especially, it has become increasingly difficult in Europe to criticise the EU without appearing to be some lunatic right-wing fascist, racist or nationalist, the one often eliding with the other, or simply the parochial idiot of Little Britain. The serious side of this is that the EU has, quite literally, encouraged neo-nationalist racism in Europe. That has often seemed the only space available in which criticism of the EU has been possible. A new space of serious criticism is therefore badly needed.’ (1)
The hostile reaction of large sections of the British establishment to people who voted for Brexit shows just how pertinent McDonald’s observations were. The growing presence of right-wing nationalist movements throughout Europe today is, in part, the unintended consequence of the EU’s attempt to close down debate. By consistently condemning serious criticism of the EU as racist, the EU has enhanced the reputation and authority of far-right movements. Popular discontent with the EU, deprived of any mainstream outlets, has therefore often been channelled through the one, largely right-wing movement that does express anti-EU views. Populism owes its emergence, then, not to some nationalist impulse, but to the failure of the EU to permit serious debate on the future of Europe.
An uneasy relationship with democracy
Since the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the project of European unification has sought to depoliticise public debate. The legacy of two world wars had left the political classes of Western Europe apprehensive about the dynamics of mass politics. Such concerns led them to adopt institutional and constitutional arrangements that were designed to insulate them from the volatility of public opinion and the pressure of the masses. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller observed: ‘Insulation from popular pressures and, more broadly, a deep distrust of popular sovereignty, underlay not just the beginnings of European integration, but the political reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 in general.’ (2)
Motivated by the imperative of avoiding the upheavals of the interwar era, and by an intense sense of suspicion of mass behaviour, the European elites ‘fashioned a highly constrained form of democracy, deeply imprinted with a distrust of popular sovereignty – in fact, even a distrust of traditional parliamentary sovereignty’ (3). Postwar constitutional settlements sought to limit the role of parliament through assigning significant power to the judiciary and newly constructed constitutional courts. Bureaucratic institutions also gained significant influence, especially through the medium of the European unification.
The establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958, followed by the launching of the European Union in 1993, continued the tradition of depoliticising contentious issue and adopting a form of technocratic governance. Until the 1970s, the success of this approach was underwritten by the postwar boom, an unprecedented era of economic prosperity. The heightened geopolitical tension during the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s also helped strengthen the EEC’s claim that it was essential for the maintenance of security.
The ideologues of European unity have explicitly sought to depoliticise national sovereignty and devalue democracy. They argue that, in a modern globalised world, national parliaments and constituencies are ill suited to deal with the complex challenges of governance – many of which transcend borders and are global in character. From this perspective, pragmatic considerations lead to the replacement of the demos with the wise counsel of the technocrat. As Andrew Moravcsik, a professor in international relations, outlined:
‘The apparently “counter-majoritarian” tendency of the EU political institutions insulated from direct democratic contestation arises out of factors that themselves have normative integrity, notably efforts to compensate for the ignorance and non-participation of citizens, to make terrible commitments to rights enforcement, and to offset the power of special interests.’ (4)
From this standpoint, the existence of popular pressure serves to distort the running of the institutions of the EU.