Paul Gillespie: Times of crisis are times of opportunity – for citizens and elites

“The time when the old cannot yet die and the new cannot yet emerge are the times of monsters” – like the existing EU system

Karl Kraus, the brilliant and iconoclastic Viennese journalist, used the front page of his paper Die Fackel in 1920 to print the names of those who had signed a petition against further Bohemian immigration into Austria. They were all Czech or Slovak, their parents having come to Vienna in the previous generations.

Jean-Claude Juncker used a similar naming technique at the European Parliament this week when he called on EU member states to accept his proposed quota system for Syrian and other refugees. Citing Irish, Huguenot, Italian and many more examples he said: "Europe is a continent where almost everyone has been a refugee. We Europeans should know and should never forget why giving refuge . . . is so important".

This is a crisis, one of the most profound to have affected the continent in recent times. Along with the euro zone crisis it reminds us that European integration has been forged in large part by confronting and overcoming such traumas. They challenge existing arrangements of political power and decision-making with new tasks requiring greater scope for collective action at the transnational level.

To be successful they should chime in with popular wishes and preferences, which are now more actively expressed than before on EU policy-making because it has a greater impact on living standards.


The euro zone crisis has seen power taken by the member states compared with the European Commission in what many critics see as a widening democratic deficit or even the development of a post-democratic political order. As political scientist Colin Crouch says, you can always vote but you have no choice.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas says political elites have seized technocratic power in a kind of executive federalism without proper lines of accountability. He calls for a much greater level of transnational democracy as an alternative.

Public opinion

Juncker’s initiative seeks to wrest power back to the commission by invoking European values and citizenship norms. His argument that these values express the preferences of most Europeans echoes voices of leadership from other leaders such as

Angela Merkel

. It also seems to resonate strongly with changing public opinion throughout the continent as the human scale of the crisis is better understood.

If we are to understand how change happens at times like these, it helps to analyse how greater integration of systemic policy and rules relate to the social and political setting in which they are embedded. Systemic and social integration need to fit together if they are to be legitimate. If this is not so, political systems can fall apart during crises for lack of popular support unless compensatory action is taken by political leaderships.

Arguably the EU is facing such a problem with these twin crises.

Common citizenship

The late Irish political scientist

Peter Mair

said the greatest problem facing the EU was the lack of a real opposition, after representative democracy was hollowed out at national level and EU power made technocratic through neo- or ordo-liberal policy rules.

That process has made the governing system more integrated, but has not brought common citizenship along with it, especially for those who most need a social floor at European as well as national level.

Recent research by German sociologists who surveyed public attitudes and preferences in Germany, Spain, Poland and Turkey shows that two-thirds of people in those states accept equal transnational citizenship rights. They accept that these are needed to match closer executive policy making. Jürgen Gerhards and Holgar Lengfeld argue in their book on European citizenship that this would allow for the development of a greater horizontal project of social integration, in contrast to the vertical or top-down style of existing policy-making.

Other German critics such as Ulrike Guérot call for a European republican model to replace that. In practice, she says, it has abandoned the core value of governing for the public good. She quotes Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: "The time when the old cannot yet die and the new cannot yet emerge are the times of monsters." Like the EU system.

Times of crisis are also times of opportunity – for citizens as well as elites. A generous response to the refugee crisis and a more socially mobilised response to the economic crisis at European level can ensure they catalyse greater solidarity, rather than a retreat into sovereign bunkers and stronger borders. There is room for hope when we see how ordinary citizens act together if given the opportunity. That changes the mindset of cautious political leaders afraid of change.