The Brussels “kicking post”: Polarised debate on the EU

ECFR Council Member Caroline de Gruyter sounds off on the state of debate in Europe and the importance of nuanced arguments

“Good afternoon. We would like to invite you to a televised debate on the European elections. We’ve already found someone who is against the European Union. Are you willing to lock horns with him?”

“Why me?”

“Because you are pro-EU, right?”

Such exchanges happen all too often nowadays. Whether they’re focused on the European elections, Brexit, the European Union’s budget, or any other European issue, event organisers often like to put a “Europhile” and a “Europhobe” on stage, then lean back and watch them talk past each other – or, even better, try to tear each other to pieces. Very entertaining.

With an important European election next May, we should ask ourselves why political debates in and about Europe have come to this. The approach does not contribute much to our knowledge about the continent in general, the European elections, Brexit, or any other issue at hand. On the contrary: actual content is hardly discussed. Facts serve as weapons in a duel whose outcome will be determined not by the best arguments but by the technique of two combatants with microphones. In this way, we reduce the debate on Europe – which, as part of our political reality, should concern everyone – into a mere game. It may be exciting to watch, but it makes a mockery of European democracy.

For debates on national politics, we use different criteria to select guests. When we discuss the Dutch budget or elections on television, no one thinks of inviting someone who is in favour of the Netherlands and someone who is against it. Likewise, does public discourse on German policy on Brexit or Russia proceed through discussions between a pro-German and an anti-German? Of course not. And for good reason: the Netherlands exists, as does Germany. A nation state is a widely-accepted legitimate level of governance: it has a constitution, executive power, a judiciary, and a parliament. If problems arise within the nation state – which happens continuously (as Winston Churchill famously said, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”) – we usually don’t react by questioning its existence. Instead, we immediately start debating these problems, hoping this leads to a change in policy. This is how it should be in a vibrant democracy. During such debates, even great critics of French or Italian politics – who are numerous – do not question the existence of France or Italy. What would they achieve by doing that, except shifting the discussion away from important issues?

There are a lot of possibilities between “for” and “against” the EU, all of which provide opportunities for change

The same logic should apply to the EU. It is as legitimate a layer of governance as the nation state, with a judiciary and a parliament, even though European citizens may not always be as invested in EU politics as they are in their own nation states.

Nowadays, Europeans have up to five levels of governance to deal with: local, regional, national, European, and global. The highest level of this pyramid – seen at the United Nations or big diplomatic conferences on issues such as climate change – has hardly any of the characteristics of legitimate governance. Democratic accountability at this level is weak. There is no powerful parliament to give citizens a strong voice. Governments take most decisions at the global level among themselves, and with input from non-governmental organisations, companies, and others. For this reason, the G20 and the UN cannot impose much on anyone. When it comes to the global level where there is no democratic control and no perception of direct impact, nobody cares much.

However, the other four levels do have legitimacy, each in its own way. Their competences are laid down in constitutions and laws. Politicians are largely held accountable for their actions. Parliaments or other bodies represent citizens. From this perspective, the institutional setup of the EU looks, perhaps surprisingly, very similar to the levels below it. All the more reason to treat it as a normal level of governance, where substantial policy discussions can legitimately take place.

Indeed, people sometimes call the EU a “dream” or an “ideal”, as if the bloc was something that could easily blow away. Perhaps it is better to stop using these words. They make the EU look vulnerable. Why not just accept that the EU is there, just like the other levels of governance? And, yes – many things go wrong at this level of governance, just as many things go wrong in a country, a province, or a village. This is unfortunate, but it is important to recognise that it is normal. It should also be considered normal to try to correct the EU’s wrongs.

Thus, it is important to have continual debates about Europe, and what it should or should not do. Sometimes, the EU has to do more, sometimes it has to do less, and sometimes it has to do things differently. This depends on the context and on international developments. Responsibility for policy tasks regularly shifts between the provincial and national levels too. Sometimes, it is better to decentralise or to do just the opposite. There are rules and procedures at every level to arrange such shifts. The EU has them too. They are anchored in its treaties. But when these shifts are discussed in public – on television, in parliament, and elsewhere – all participants must know who does what in Europe. Otherwise they cannot argue for or against moving tasks and responsibilities to a higher or lower level.

Politicians can enhance the debate on Europe by taking on more responsibility for what they do, or should do, in Brussels. Too often, they duck responsibility and accuse “unelected officials in Brussels” of taking decisions – as if it was not the lot of all civil servants to be appointed – while, in reality, it is national governments who decide policy. Former British chancellor George Osborne, for instance, frankly admitted this week that his government had made mistakes: “when it came to Europe every politician, left and right, used Brussels as the kind of kicking post.” Instead of blaming the migration crisis on the EU, for instance, politicians should point out that they are the EU in this case – and that any difficulties stemmed from disagreement between governments. Brussels is just trying to help them to overcome disputes. And why do we say the new Italian budget is “violating Brussels’ rules” instead of saying that it is “violating Italy’s own commitments”? After all, national governments established these rules.

The outcome of the next European elections may reflect the challenges to rational political debate in some member states. The best thing would be for citizens to realise that there are a lot of possibilities between “for” and “against” the EU, all of which provide opportunities for change. Give these citizens a seat at the table. Let them talk. Only then will citizens feel that the EU is not just “them”, but “us”. On the road to a better Europe, there is a lot of hard work ahead. And, as in any democracy, it begins with healthy and responsible debate.

Caroline de Gruyter is a Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and an author and journalist based in Oslo. She is a European Affairs correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and a regular contributor to Carnegie Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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