The new buzzword in Brussels: ‘crisis’

The EU is beset with problems, but it is so cut off from the electorate that it lacks the popular legitimacy to solve them.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics World

During a recent visit to Brussels, I was struck by the uninhibited use of the word ‘crisis’ by people who closely watch or inhabit the institutions of the European Union. Crisis-talk in Brussels is hardly new. What’s different today is the palpable sense of failure and confusion communicated, even by the most fervent advocates of the EU.

It is easy to dismiss this reaction as merely a symptom of the bitter conflict and rivalry unleashed by the crisis of the Eurozone, with Greece, Ireland and Portugal having to be bailed out with huge injections of cash to keep their governments solvent. However, the current problems confronting the integrity of the EU are not confined to the domain of economics; the organisation is also threatened by a political and cultural crisis.

With the Greek economy in a state of disintegration, European leaders know that there is no alternative but to restructure Greece’s debt. They may use the euphemism of ‘re-profiling debt’ to avoid acknowledging the scale of the problem, but the spectre of insolvent nations haunts Europe. Just a few weeks after pouring billions of euros into bailing out Portugal, it is evident that the medicine is not working and that the Eurozone is in big trouble.

Inevitably, there is talk of reorganising Europe’s monetary union as more and more people have lost faith in the existing bailout strategy. Opposition to this strategy has led to the growth of euroscepticism throughout the more prosperous regions of Europe. A recent opinion poll in Germany showed that 30 per cent of the respondents wanted an ‘independent Germany’, without the euro. That is why last week, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, stated that people in countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain should not have more holidays, work less or retire earlier than Germans. One Portugese journalist described this gesture as ‘feeding the populist monster that is growing in the Europe of the euro’. But this monster is not about to disappear.

For example, in last month’s elections in Finland, the True Finns, a nationalist party opposed to the economic rescue packages designed to save the Eurozone came from nowhere to win almost 20 per cent of the popular vote and become the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. The success of the True Finns indicates that Europe’s economic woes have mutated into a political crisis. The Euro-enthusiast political class stands exposed and it is facing an electoral challenge from a variety of eurosceptic and populist movements.

Arguably the current refugee crisis represents – at least in the short run – an even greater threat to European unity than the financial travails of EU member states. The ‘Arab spring’ in North Africa and the Middle East was not supposed to turn into a political nightmare for the EU. At the outset, the leaders of the EU boasted that these revolts provided Brussels with an opportunity to demonstrate its diplomatic muscle. Sadly, the EU is blessed with an unusually inept foreign-affairs representative, Baroness Caroline Ashton. Since her appointment 18 months ago, this former British Labour politician has been a subject of scorn and criticism by fellow diplomats. Her inability to develop a strategy to deal with the consequences of the Arab revolt has turned the EU’s foreign policy into something of a diplomatic farce. Tragically, the principal legacy of this amateurish experiment in foreign diplomacy is a major European refugee crisis.

With tens of thousands of North African and Libyan refugees arriving on the shores of southern Europe, the question of who takes responsibility for their welfare has turned into a fundamental dispute about the meaning of national sovereignty. In the wake of what Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi described as a ‘human tsunami’, his government, along with those of other states, demanded that the Schengen border-free travel agreement be suspended. This request represented a serious blow to the self-image of the EU, which had made freedom of movement throughout the union a symbol of its project. However, a far greater challenge to this symbol of EU values came from an unexpected quarter, the small state of Denmark. Earlier this month, the Danish government took unilateral action and announced that it would introduce permanent border controls.

Of all the threats facing the EU, the Danish challenge to the Schengen agreement is potentially the most damaging. Predictably, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission responded with a warning against the Danish taking such dangerous ‘unilateral steps’. What concerns Barroso and his colleagues is that if one tiny country feels confident enough to defy Schengen, then other countries will also feel empowered to pursue their national interests more robustly. It is important to note that concern about open borders is an issue of concern throughout Western Europe. Rightly or wrongly, the idea that open borders are responsible for crime, the importation of drugs, human trafficking, unemployment and cultural conflict has gained widespread traction. Sadly, in such circumstances the European Idea is often seen as the cause of many of the uncertainties facing the people of the continent.

The response from Brussels seems to be to spend ever-greater amounts on public relations. Earlier this month it was reported that the European Commission is to spend £225million on its numerous propaganda crusades. It will devote about £84million to explain European policy and for ‘better connecting with citizens’. According to a memo, the aim of these public relations initiatives is ‘boosting awareness of the Union’s existence and legitimacy, polishing its image and highlighting its role’.

It is understandable that the EU requires the services of hundreds of spin doctors to create ‘awareness’ of its ‘legitimacy’. For what the current divisions in Europe signify is that the institutions of the EU possess very little legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

In the past, people feared that European unity would be undermined by Franco-German rivalries. Alternatively, analysts pointed to the threat posed by either America or the Soviet Bloc. Paradoxically, Europe proved surprisingly effective in managing the historical conflicts that created so much instability in this continent in the past. Even the challenge of German re-unification and the absorption of Eastern Europe into the EU proceeded surprisingly smoothly.

One of the reasons why it has been so effective is because it did not have to enjoy the legitimacy of public opinion. The distinctive feature of the EU’s political process is that it is self-consciously based on the principle of insulated decision-making. From the standpoint of the European political elites, one of the virtues of the EU’s institutions is that these bodies insulate decision-makers from the kind of public pressure and forms of accountability that politicians experience in their national parliaments. Consequently, the EU is able to adopt policies that would often prove contentious and difficult to justify in a more open, national parliamentary setting. In effect, politicians can continually hide behind the EU’s invisible decision-making process and claim that such and such a policy ‘wasn’t my idea’, before adding that ‘unfortunately we have no choice but to go along with this Europe-wide directive’.

Insulated decision-making may work as an administrative convenience, but it also inevitably diminishes the capacity of European politicians to motivate and inspire their electorate. The EU depends on public relations to minimise the effect of its legitimacy deficit. This reliance on an army of spin doctors is unlikely to inspire affection and loyalty.

In previous periods, the EU could carry on with its behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. Today, however, decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people cannot be insulated from the anger and hostility of the public. The significance of the Danes’ defiance of an EU treaty is that at least one government has realised that hiding behind insulated decision-making is no longer an easy option.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. A version of this article was originally published in the Australian on 21 May.

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Topics World


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