EU Skepticism in Tailwind Part II
4: A changed EU
One of the reasons why these different stories are true is that the EU is growing away from the old explanations for why the union does not have greater popular support. A few years ago, many people used to talk about the EU’s democratic deficit as the main reason for EU skepticism (cf. Eurosclerosis ). Decisions are made by institutions no one has an overview of instead of by the elected national authorities, the argument was. But the crisis Europe is in now is not the result of a collision between Brussels and its member states. Instead, we can talk about a collision between what voters in Northern Europe want and what voters in Southern Europe want.
Previously, there was an unwritten law that the EU institutions should take care of the rules for the internal market. It was primarily about technical matters – from common standards for the content of tomato puree to how much noise you can allow from a lawn mower. National authorities, on the other hand, should take care of health services, education, the labor market and political decisions in more sensitive areas.
When the crisis was a fact, many of the creditor countries in the north showed dissatisfaction with taking responsibility for other countries’ debts without there being mechanisms to control how the countries with large government debt spent their money. With the new rules introduced as a result of the euro crisis , such as the financial pact, the Eurocrats in Brussels have exceeded many limits of national independence. Their influence has gone far beyond food safety and technical guidelines. Now they have an influence on pensions, taxes, salaries and public positions in many of the hardest hit crisis countries. For many people in Southern Europe, the EU now resembles the way the International Monetary Fund has been perceived in Latin America: as a straitjacket with a structural adjustment program that prevents national politicians from breathing, it gives them little room for maneuver.
In several northern European countries, according to MILITARYNOUS, many perceive the situation as the EU having failed to have control and overview of the policies pursued further south on the continent. Those who have lent money feel like victims, just as those who have borrowed money think they are victims.
In a national political system, political parties would be able to air and bring out these different perspectives – and hopefully be able to reach a common agreement – to compromise. But it is exactly this that European political system is not able to offer. Instead of being a battleground for different ideas, the EU has been drawn into a vicious circle of anti-EU populismon the one hand, and technocratic agreements between member states that are afraid of their own citizens on the other. Many believe that the strong decline in confidence in the EU is linked to the economic downturn now, and that confidence will return if or when Europe again experiences upswings of growth and prosperity. But is it so certain that confidence in the EU will be strengthened even if the economy recovers? The old division of labor between the EU and the member states seems to sing in the last verse.
5: It’s about political representation
In the European Parliament elections in 2014, a record number of populist and EU-skeptical representatives were elected – from Denmark and Hungary to Germany and Greece via the striking success of the British Independence Party and the French National Front. Voters flocked to new and old rebel parties. In Spain, the new party PODEMOS (“We Can”) was launched, a Latin American-inspired party that has grown out of the “anti-capitalist left”. Their goal is to ensure that Spain is no longer “a German colony, ruled by the troika” – a three-leaf clover by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission.
Together, these have overseen the tightening policy in the crisis-stricken euro area countries . In Greece, Syriza stormed forward, becoming the largest party. In Poland, the Law and Order party received a voter boost, at the same time as a new, radical grouping was founded, the “New Right-wing Congress”. Why? As one commenter (Peter Kellner) has put it: “The success of the rebel parties is the political consequence of the economic trends Thomas Piketty has described in his book on increasing economic inequality” (see HHD 2014: 25 and 29).
Although there are large variations in Europe, there are two groups of voters in particular who vote in large numbers in most places (probably because they are EU skeptics, editor’s note): voters from former industrial areas, who now feel the pressure from immigration, and voters from the countryside who are dissatisfied with the liberal social values promoted by the traditional parties, both on the left and the right.
These are groups that have largely been overlooked by the large, established parties, which increasingly cater to world-famous city dwellers. The center-left parties now mainly have support from employees in the public sector and the cultural industry, while the center-right parties primarily appeal to the private sector, especially financiers and large business owners and managers.