Euro-federalists have long dreamed of a united Europe. The Second World War provided them with the rhetorical justification: without continental federalism, racist totalitarianism and war are inevitable. They wish to transform the old continent into the United States of Europe, and the fact that this is an exclusively elite, top-down project without any basis in Europe’s millennia-old history is irrelevant. Indeed while most of Europe’s political establishment and intelligentsia is federalist, no one dares to tell their electorates to forego their respective national symbols. Most importantly, no one even approaches the delicate topic of squaring national and supranationalist interests. These often collide, and are frequently mutually exclusive, but no euro-federalist politician has ever dared to tell their constituency that they would put “European” interests first. With the recent euroskeptic successes in the European Parliament elections, however, it would seem that voters are turning against the euro-federalists nevertheless.
The most recent example of these conflicting interests is the spat over Ukraine, where “Europe” has been asked to unite against Russia’s imperialism. While this may make perfect sense for Poles and Lithuanians, it is quite complicated to justify how Italians or Spaniards would benefit from severing ties with an important economic and strategic partner. Poles may care less about global stability than they do about protecting their cultural and economic interests in Ukraine, but the same does not hold true for countries that cooperate with Russia on such different issues as sanctioning Iran, or combating heroin trafficking and extremism flowing out from Afghanistan.
Yet the conflicts do not stop here. At the level of economic planning, the European Commission often benefits some countries to the detriment of others. When the Commission seeks to regulate as many areas of economic activity as possible, they are structurally benefiting highly regulatory northern European economies to the detriment of southern and eastern European economies, by exporting the North’s competitive disadvantage to the South. The same could be said of Europe’s normative approaches to foreign policy in general. By seeking to punish illiberal regimes and discriminate against uncivilized entities in trade and diplomacy, European institutions are again enforcing a northern pattern of societal regulatory universalism, one that ends up hurting southern member-states with preferential cultural and economic ties to former colonial territories—often ruled by less than democratically pristine regimes.
This is not to suggest a conspiracy theory in which eurocrats are in cahoots with northern business interests against the poor South. Such policies are decided upon in Brussels based on quantitative indicators and good intentions, and indeed such policies as the cohesion funds (which seek to subsidize the advancement of poorer nations towards the level of the EU’s best performers) or the loans disbursed during the financial crisis—together with the IMF—do structurally benefit the South more than the North. Nevertheless, the argument can be made that the North’s solidarity is being backed, at least in part, by favorable regulations emanating from Brussels, and that while there is no conspiracy, there is a grave lack of awareness of cultural differences in Europe as well as a serious disregard for national sovereignty.
This is where national identity comes into play. In the U.S. there are few significant cultural differences between the different states. Indeed statehood is now more of an administrative concept than anything else. In Europe, however, statehood and nationhood are the products of historical experience forging economic, cultural, social, and territorial coherence. It is true that nationalism opened the door for ultra-nationalism and totalitarianism in the past, but it also provided for dynamic cultural diversity and dialogue. To pretend that national identity is a thing of the past is not only erroneous, but anachronistic.
As with any project which is not organic but instead artificial, the EU has based its top-down federalism on economic prosperity. Some authoritarian elitist regimes around the world did the same but when prosperity was interrupted they were forced to face the rage of the populace. Of course unlike the Middle East during the Arab Spring, Europe’s “spring” does not have to turn violent because there is a democratic system in place. Brussels’s elites even believe that the liberal system is a stand-alone guarantee against regime change. However, Western elites should have learned something from their interactions with dissimilar cultures over the last few decades: want trumps ideal. From Africa to East Asia, many a regime draws its popular legitimacy from sustained economic growth. When that growth slows or dissipates, political dissent follows.
In the hallways of the EU institutions’ tall concrete and glass buildings, the fonctionnaires complain that the governments of the member-states shift the blame for economic woes to the EU, even as the institutions themselves try on occasion to blame the national governments. One of the consequences of seeking a more political role is that one takes on more responsibility: if the EU had remained just another technical organization, it could legitimately throw back political responsibility to the 28 capitals; instead the institutions have sought more and more political power.
In fact, the thin line between national and supranational jurisdiction gives rise to much confusion. The would-be UK referendum on EU membership is a prime example. Brussels bureaucrats accuse PM Cameron of being a populist for considering the referendum. According to them, the UK’s government, by ratifying the many European Treaties, has already expressed the will of the British people. If the EU were a mere international organization, they would be right: no one calls for referenda on joining NATO, the UN, the ILO, or the WTO. The problem is that the same people lambasting David Cameron are the very ones who pushed for a Europe-wide “constitutional treaty” that lost its name but kept its structure. Is it not democratically legitimate to consult the people directly if they are changing countries?
Confronted with accusations of a democratic deficit (anthem, flag, decision-making coming from unelected technocratic organs), the EU decided to create a parliament to specifically legitimize its decisions in the eyes of the public. Today more than ever before in its history, the European Parliament includes dissenting voices: one fourth of its members now oppose further political integration. As with the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the economy is to blame, as many euroskeptic parties campaigned on an anti-austerity platform.
While it was predictable that the neo-Marxian far left would make gains given its ideological opposition to both fiscal conservative austerity and liberal-minded EU policies of European free trade, the most interesting outcome of the elections was the rise of right-wing euroskepticism and the growth of some radically liberal euro-federalist parties.
The latter fared well in the Netherlands and Belgium, for instance. At the heart of the EU, for these countries more free markets mean the growth of information and capital flows running through their roads and ports. They are both also accustomed to federal systems; in the case of the Netherlands, a tradition of liberalism goes back centuries with such authors as Hugo Grotius being part of the Dutch national myth.
While support for federalism grew in Benelux, though, it was counter-balanced by a growth in euroskepticism, a political wave that struck other countries with particular force. In the UK, the openly federalist Liberal Democrats—whose leader Nick Clegg is an alumnus of the College of Europe—practically ceased to exist as a political force. Liberal mainstream media in Europe often accuse euroskeptics of being demagogic in their demonization of the EU, but the truth is that no centrist party has dared to address popular concern with mass immigration, rise in crime rates, or the paradoxical interventionist foreign policy in times of austerity.
Marine Le Pen in her interview with Der Spiegel did a good job of addressing these and other concerns head on, and did so with great lucidity and little populism. Whether she would be as sensible as a head of government is anyone’s guess, but what is certain is that the strategies of either demonizing sceptics of integration by painting them as extremists or ignoring them and simply wishing them away are clearly no longer working. France and Britain, despite their economic tribulations, are wealthy countries and for the winning party in an election to be an anti-establishment party signifies more than mere protest votes; it is evidence of some measure of grassroots support.
Yet for all the votes that euroskeptics obtained in France and the UK, they are still divided in the European Parliament (EP). The Parliament attempts to resemble a regular parliamentary system, but there is no senate chamber and the parliamentary groupings are not strict political parties. Instead the EP’s 751 members (MEPs) organize themselves in “political families” which have some semblance of ideological coherence. A political group can only be accepted if it comprises a minimum of 25 MEPs from 7 EU member-states, at which point the group’s official status is rewarded with extra funds for personnel and campaigning.
Because euroskeptics are ideologically divided, it is unlikely that they can actually influence legislation successfully in the future. There currently seem to be four main ideological foundations for this opposition of sorts: we can find neoliberals, libertarians, paleoconservatives, and neofascists. The neofascists are isolated and shunned by virtually everyone else and count very few MEPs. Marine Le Pen leads the paleoconservative faction whose members come mostly from southern countries but it is still uncertain whether they will be successful in establishing their own group. Nigel Farage of UKIP heads the somewhat libertarian “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” group, but he is also struggling to preserve EFD’s group status. The UK’s Conservatives are at the head of the northern and loosely neoliberal European Conservatives and Reformists group, and will manage to grow ECR’s ranks.
What is extraordinary is that these political trends have, in a mostly left of centre social democratic Europe, rarely seen the light of day in the individual national parliaments. This should make one wonder what the EP is doing so wrong as to shift the entire European political spectrum towards something more akin to America or Russia’s right. In Brussels, though, the prevailing narrative remains out of touch. The discussion taking place is not one of existential reflection but one of communication tactics, because if Europeans voted against Brussels, it must necessarily be because they were not sufficiently informed.
Miguel Nunes Silva has worked with the International Criminal Court and the European External Action Service, as well as written for such publications as Small Wars Journal and The National Interest. He is currently an analyst for the geostrategy consultancy Wikistrat and lectures at the Portuguese Atlantic Youth Association.