Euroscepticism, Future of the EU

Differential integration as the way to accommodate Euroskeptical majorities?(In Dutch)

A contribution by our colleagues Hans Vollaard and Caspar van den Berg  in the Opinion section of the Volkskrant:

Deze bijdrage is als opiniestuk verschenen in de Volkskrant, 28-01-2012.

Het overleven van de EU

De regeringen van de EU-lidstaten proberen samen de problemen met de Euro aan te pakken. Zij willen nu in een verdrag vastleggen dat alle lidstaten hun financiële huishouden goed op orde hebben. In Zweden, Finland, Tsjechië, Ierland en vooral het Verenigd Koninkrijk kan dat verdrag op protest rekenen. Ondertussen wensen in Nederland SP en PVV dat kiezers via een referendum zich tegen het verdrag zouden kunnen uitspreken. Het tekent de spanning tussen het Europese niveau waarop problemen worden aangepakt en het nationaal niveau waar de steun vandaan moet komen. De Europese Unie moet die spanning het hoofd bieden, wil ze overleven.

De regeringen van Griekenland en Italië hebben in 2011 allebei moeten plaatsmaken voor een bestuur geleid door technocraten. Mede op aandringen van de Duitse bondskanselier Merkel en de Franse president Sarkozy is dat technocratenbestuur vooral bedoeld om nationale blokkades tegen de Europese aanpak van de Euro-crisis te doorbreken. Wil de EU overleven, dan moet de Euro overleven, aldus Merkel. Dat zou kunnen. De vraag is echter of deze aanpak van de Euro-crisis op de langere termijn niet evenzeer de toekomst van de EU op het spel zet.

Een nationale regering wordt blijkbaar buitenspel gezet als zij niet meewerkt op Europees niveau. Daar valt in het geval van Berlusconi misschien nog wat voor te zeggen. Toch is er een probleem wanneer deze ‘buitenspelregel’ het structureel moeilijker maakt om nationale referenda over Europese vraagstukken te houden en eurosceptische partijen in de regering op te nemen. Als referenda en eurosceptici de Europese aanpak van Europese problemen verstoren, wordt hen de pas afgesneden. De Duitse oud-minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Joschka Fischer dreigde afgelopen week de Ieren nog met de gevolgen van een referendum over het nieuwe Euro-verdrag. Ook in Nederland is de Europese afkeer van referenda en eurosceptische partijen te zien. Van een referendum over de opvolger van de Europese Grondwet is het niet gekomen. En juist op het Europa-dossier kent de eurosceptische PVV geen afspraken met Ruttes minderheidskabinet.

Zonder referenda en eurosceptische regeringspartijen zijn er nog maar weinig mogelijkheden in de EU voor direct verzet tegen (verdere) Europese integratie. In de Europese Raad van regeringsleiders en staatshoofden, de Raad van Ministers, laat staan de Europese Commissie en de Europese Centrale Bank, is daar nu al nauwelijks ruimte voor. En zo lang ze geen meerderheid hebben, zijn eurosceptici zo permanent tot de oppositie in het nationale en het Europese Parlement veroordeeld.

Als eurosceptische partijen en kiezers weinig oppositie binnen de EU kunnen voeren, dan lokt dat oppositie tegen de EU uit. Groeiende euroscepsis zou dan alsnog het einde van de EU betekenen, ook al zou de Euro vooreerst zijn gered. Als de EU wenst te overleven, dan moet zij de spanning tussen een Europese aanpak van problemen en nationale steunverwerving dus beter vorm geven.

Een voorlopige oplossing is nu om lidstaten met een eurosceptische meerderheid niet aan alle vormen van Europese integratie mee te doen. Het Verenigd Koninkrijk en Denemarken kennen bijvoorbeeld diverse uitzonderingsposities. Ze doen bijvoorbeeld niet met de Euro mee. Daarnaast moet het Europees Parlement dringend een platform worden waarin eurosceptici met euro-realisten en euro-federalisten echt zichtbaar in debat gaan. Europese instellingen moeten namelijk meer ruimte bieden voor eurosceptische tegenkrachten om de steun van eurosceptische kiezers en partijen voor het gehele Europese project niet volledig kwijtraken.

Europe in the news

Europa in the newspapers

In case you’ve missed it, the Guardian has a small survey on How European are you? It’s less fun (for non-Brits) than it sounds but once you get to the results you are rewarded with a celar demonstration of how different the Guardian readership is from the rest of the British populace.

But this small survey led me to the EUROPA initiative: under this heading the Guardian and five other newspaper from across the big EU member states collect their EU-related material. According to the official presentation:

“The European Union is grappling with its deepest crisis in 60 years, a malaise that goes beyond the euro debacle and the enormous tide of debt swamping the continent… At this critical juncture, six leading newspapers from the largest EU countries have come together in a joint project to build up a more nuanced picture of the EU and explore what Europe does well and what not so well.”

Apart from the end-of-the-world rhetoric – great initiative! The birth of a common European public sphere? Probably not, but a nice project anyways.

Academic research on the EU

Problematizing the ideal European self

In accordance with the twin demands of the aforementioned realist and liberal logics, a liberal cosmopolitan government calls on EU citizens to be at once ideal ‘sedentary citizen’ and ideal ‘mobile human capital’ or ‘entrepreneur’. Such ambiguity is, it is claimed, suggestive of the possibility of problematizing the ideal European liberal ‘self’ against which an ‘other’ such as the Roma is constituted, as the possible starting point for strategies of resistance.

This is from the peer-reviewed Journal of Common Market Studies, self-styled as the  ‘leading journal in the field‘. A free subscription to this blog for the first to translate the above to English.

Central and Eastern Europe

Bulgaria, the country that people never bother checking their facts about

Update: In a new blog post, Georgi Ganev has provided a series of graphs illustrating the fact that Bulgaria is as close as it has ever been in fulfilling the criteria for Eurozone membership. As he points out for your amusement, the Eurozone does not fulfill them itself at the moment. The text is in Bulgarian, but the graphs are in English and speak for themselves!

Last night’s (16 January) main news at 20.00 on Dutch channel 1 (nos.nl) contained such a blatant misrepresentation of the facts that I cannot let it pass without making a new category for this blog: Bulgaria, they never checked the facts. I find that this happens more often than it should in different fora, from professional conferences to various Dutch news items, Bulgaria gets added to a group of countries based on people’s feeling where it belongs, with minimal research or reference to the facts. Even though I am often very critical of many aspects of governance in Bulgaria – most Bulgarians are – I find it useful to criticize the country for problems that it does have, instead of ones which it does not. Last night’s news item was a case in point. The journalist reported from Bucharest (not in Bulgaria, by the way) about problems with riots in Romania linked to reforms in the health care system and the crisis with public debt in Romania. Hungary was added as a country where things are getting worse wth debt and mortgages and then there was Bulgaria too, mentioned twice at the beginning and the end. At the end of the report, the journalist literally said that Bulgaria was for the moment free of protest and stable but with this crisis it was only a matter of time, because it has a huge external debt the IMF would be coming and making people’s lives harder and they would protest. In other words, it must be bad there. Now the facts: it takes about a minute to dig up most recent economic data on Bulgaria (here and here for example, via the World bank and Eurostat) and discover that it has been praised by the European Commission for being among the three countries in the EU with the lowest government debt to GDP ratio in 2011, as CNN reports:

The lowest government debt to GDP ratios were recorded in Estonia (6.6%), Bulgaria (16.2%) and Luxembourg (18.4%), according to the Eurostat report.

The IMF has of course been supporting Bulgaria for many years after the fall of communism and there have been so many reforms to deal with problems of the economy inherited from the last decade of communism ( for examples and comments on the most recent economic trends, see updates from prominent Bulgarian economist Georgi Ganev), that both the IMF and its budget advice seemed for a while a feature of the political landscape. Not, as it happens, at this very moment.  Standard and Poor’s rating for Bulgaria includes an outlook which is stable, which says something in these times.

The problem with such reporting as what we heard from the NOS last night is not only that it is crap journalism (compare with CNN above), but that it does confirm people’s prejudices instead of helping us understand what governments are really doing in Europe to cope with crisis and debt. Not that life for people in Bulgaria is less hard because the country has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios in Europe. It might be that the budget is in good shape but quality of life and social spending are too low. Bulgarians are (in)famous for their pessimism (see here an interesting take on why a better economy brings no happiness).  But why this is and what the implications are is for another debate, among people who have checked the basic facts first.

Future of the EU

The year has barely started, and yet another ‘critical and defining moment’ in EU history is already upon us

While I have been thinking about an appropriate and a bit more optimistic way to start our blog in 2012 (and we grapple with the workload of getting back to work), the relations between Hungary and the EU have reached a new low and provoke me to add something to the debate on whether Hungary is getting more and more undemocratic or is just finally getting rid of communism…Reports from yesterday tell us that European Commissioner Olli Rehn has been criticising Hungary’s ‘unorthodox’ fiscal measures and the fact that the government has taken no action to curb its excessive budget deficit, while the Commission is examining if the new Hungarian constitution, coming into force in January, is so out of kilter with democratic principles that there is ground to take legal action. This is of course, article 7 (TEU), adopted in Amsterdam and modified in Nice,  the big gun, nuclear option for the EU member states, to use if they consider a member state to have become undemocratic.  The explanation of the procedure for using the article and the prevention mechanism added at Nice can be read here (with thanks to Edward Hugh for the link!). Edward Hugh’s comment that the Hungarian government and the EU, represented by the European Commission are heading for a showdown and are leading us towards another critical and defining moment in EU history inspired the title of this post. There are many aspects to why , were the Commission to recommend suspension of Hungary under article 7 TEU or the member states to take further steps along this road, this would represent a critical juncture in the history of the EU. The Orban government, as their representatives never tire of reminding us, was elected with a huge majority. The measures and policies that they have implemented so far may be called  populist by commentators but they may bring a sense of  grievances well addressed in parts of the Hungarian electorate. The slide of the forint in the face of unsustainable economic policies in a globalized environment, exacerbated by temper tantrums against the IMF is another story, but if we leave the Hungarian economy out of it (can we really?), it is for the Hungarians to protest if they find their government does not do what it promised(we can find out here how protests are shaping in the last months). If they do not and the EU suspends Hungary, the big question will be, would this be a victory for democracy in Europe or not? The most obvious conflict here is between the procedural side of democracy and the principles and norms that make democracy work beyond its  hardware of laws. Giving the opposition some voice and keeping the executive removed from judicial appointments may not be formal requirements to be considered a democracy, but the EU’s approach to a similar situation in Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar testifies that it takes seriously the preservation of division and balance between the branches of power. At the same time however, the EU’s own authority in democratic matters has been undermined from all sides, mostly by its own leaders and their reaction to the financial crisis, for example, to former Greek PM’s proposal to hold a referendum on the Greek reforms and rescue package… and when it comes to norms, the EU has been only successful in the past when it has been able to rely upon the implicit moral authority of a community of democratic states with impeccable democratic credentials. Otherwise criticism of the Orban government becomes a meaningless war of words in which those being criticized can claim that all criticism is instigated by their political opponents, the well connected Hungarian socialists. We have to hope that the analysis the Commission is conducting will come up with exceptionally well grounded legal arguments, whichever way it goes, to get us out of this PR war between rival political frames interpreting the actions of the Hungarian government…The EU’s moral authority just does not cut it at the moment.