This piece first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 9 June 2009.
The European Parliament is in the throes of an early midlife crisis. This year should be a cause for a double celebration — looking back at its remarkable 30-year history as the first multinational parliament in the world, and looking forward to increased authority under the Lisbon Treaty.
But instead of being flushed with the energy of youth, the new parliament is more likely to enter a period of dramatic self-doubt. Although many newspaper headlines focus on the strong performance of center-right parties in big countries like France, Germany, Italy and Poland, the 2009 vote is more likely to be remembered for strengthening the fringes than the mainstream. This is leading to the creation of a new phenomenon in European politics: the “self-hating parliament.”
A substantial minority of its seats will be filled by members who see their role as reducing rather than expanding the European Union’s power. This is a remarkable change for a body that fought tooth and nail to extend its competencies, budgets and legal authority every time a new EU treaty was negotiated.
The paradox of the European Parliament is that as its power and confidence have grown, the public’s interest in its activities has declined, with each election recording a lower turnout than the one before. However, the verdict of 2009 is even more brutal: Many of the parliament’s new members do not even believe that the body in which they will sit should be allowed to exist at all.
Take the colorful Geert Wilders, whose anti-Islamic-immigrant party shot up to second place in the Netherlands with 17% of the vote, after the Christian Democrats who won 19.9%. He ran on a manifesto that included a pledge to abolish the European Parliament. In the United Kingdom, the two biggest parties were the euroskeptic Conservative Party (committed to abolishing the Lisbon Treaty) and the euro-loathing U.K. Independence Party (committed to getting Britain out of the EU). And the xenophobic British National Party picked up two seats with its pledge to “end the blood-sucking scam” of the EU.
In Austria, the xenophobic Freedom Party got 13% of the vote with a call to remove the EU from Austria’s affairs, compared to the conservative People’s Party that took the lead with 29.7% of the votes. A party set up to protest against the abuses of the European Parliament managed to pick up 17.9% of the vote. Anti-European populists also picked up significant support in Hungary, Denmark, Slovakia and Finland.
The notion of a “self-hating parliament” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but its appearance tells us a lot about the dynamics of the EU as a political system. From the beginning European integration has been defined by two contradictory but mutually reinforcing trends: technocracy and populism.
On the one hand, the EU is the ultimate technocratic project. The so-called “Monnet approach” — named after the key architect of European integration, the French official Jean Monnet — is designed to generate a consensus among European diplomats for limited projects of practical cross-border cooperation. Each of these projects should lead to further integration of policy areas — from Europe’s single market to its foreign policy.
By building the EU in an incremental way, the technocrats have managed to lower political temperatures in national capitals, and find agreement among bureaucrats who are more interested in negotiating deals than grand-standing for the national media. The success of the technocrats was phenomenal. They created first a coal and steel community, then a customs union, then a single market and even a single currency.
But as the EU matured as a political project, it was the very success of the EU as a bureaucratic phenomenon that fuelled a populist backlash. This first started as a localized phenomenon, with Margaret Thatcher famously wielding her handbag in Britain in the 1980s. But as the elections of 2009 demonstrate, it has now become a pan-European force. The populists come from across the spectrum of left and right, but their common complaint is that the EU is an elite conspiracy, a project to build “Europe against the people.” In its place, they plan to mobilize the “people against Europe” — leading, in the words of one senior diplomat in the Netherlands, to the “democratic destruction of the EU.”
Technocracy and populism are mirror images of each other. One is managerial, the other charismatic. One seeks incremental change, the other is attracted by grandiose rhetoric. One is about problem-solving, the other about the politics of identity.
People in Brussels talk about them as opposites; but in fact they are mutually reinforcing, as we have seen in the saga of the Lisbon treaty. On the one hand, the more EU leaders try to remove European integration from national politics, the more brittle the EU’s legitimacy becomes, which in turn means that policy makers want to evade public opinion even more. On the other hand, the more technocratic the EU becomes, the stronger the calls for democracy and referendums, which in turn create a space for parties to emerge with populist policies.
Technocracy has been with the EU since the moment that Jean Monnet turned his mind to uniting Europe. Populism has now been sanctified as part of the EU’s structure through the introduction of referendums and elections to the European Parliament. The election of the new European Parliament will be a major shock to the Brussels system.
Its diplomats, journalists and think-tanks live in the world of technocracy and understand well how it works. But they have a poor grasp of populism or the politics of the EU’s member states. If they are going to avoid total gridlock, national and EU officials will need to deepen their understanding of the domestic politics of the 27 states of the EU, and spend time analyzing and engaging public opinion.
If the EU is going to escape its mid-life crisis and acquire the poise of an authority of mature middle-age, the next generation of EU technocrats will need to be populists as well.
Mr. Leonard is executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.