Public debate on Europe has shifted

World View: Leaderships accept political reality but struggle to find suitable vocabulary

Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz: German politics has a rapidly changing profile.  Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz: German politics has a rapidly changing profile. Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

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“Many public attitudes towards Europe have not changed much. What have changed are the domestic and transnational politics of EU affairs, which no longer allow for the silencing of public debates.”

This observation by Tanja Börzel and Thomas Risse captures many of the key issues at play in the evolving public debate on the future of Europe. Two of Europe’s foremost political scientists, based in the Freie University of Berlin, they ask how the main academic theories of European integration have accounted for the challenges of the euro crisis since 2010 and the more recent migrant crisis.

Their conclusion that the politics involved no longer allow for such debates to be silenced is amply borne out by the rapidly changing profile of German politics. Angela Merkel is under pressure for conceding too much to the Social Democrats in coalition negotiations and SPD leaders struggle to convince their members to accept what was agreed in a party referendum. The future shape of the euro zone and of policy towards migrants are central parts of the deal.

Vehement opposition to deeper euro integration and an Islamophobic rejection of more immigration are the key factors explaining the breakthrough of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in last September’s elections. With 12.6 per cent of the vote and 94 seats in the Bundestag, they stand to be the main opposition party if the coalition deal goes through.

Reviewing the three main theories of integration, in a special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy following a seminar in the European University Institute, Börzel and Risse conclude that in the euro crisis liberal intergovernmental means, whereby EU member governments act together in the European Council, were used to achieve neofunctionalist ends. These ends concern the delegation of political authority to EU institutions by elites so decisions can be taken to solve societal problems likely to be blocked or delayed by domestic opposition. Neofunctionalists expect a spillover effect from such decisions leading to deeper integration, probably in a federalist direction. But they underplay public opinion and citizen democracy.

‘Permissive consensus’

The third main theory, postfunctionalism, puts these factors centre stage. Developed by another powerful theoretical duo, Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks, it argues that in the first three decades of European integration political elites enjoyed a “permissive consensus” from mass publics which allowed transnational delegation of authority to proceed so long as it was justified by beneficial outputs.

But in the 1990s geopolitical change, together with agreements on the single currency and European citizenship, generated increasing public discontent, especially from those concerned with traditional values, authority and the nation state. More and more, they are counterposed to those holding green, alternative and libertarian values. Hooghe and Marks describe this new configuration as a “constraining dissensus” from mass publics on political leaders dealing with EU issues.

This account accurately foresaw the recent explosion of right-wing populist parties in Europe in the migrant crisis. However, Börzel and Risse point out that many of the new regulatory measures taken to save the euro were decided intergovernmentally and technocratically, disregarding such constraints and reflecting German bargaining power in resisting greater fiscal and redistributive capacity for the EU; but right-wing populists like the AfD in the north and left-wing ones like Syriza and Podemos in the south of Europe now challenge the resulting deeper integration involved and its associated austerity politics.

Public salience

These conflicts irreversibly politicise the issues by increasing their public salience, polarising attitudes and mobilising new actors. Political leaderships have to accept this new reality but have great difficulty finding a suitable vocabulary to express it.

In a companion article, Hooghe and Marks argue that the euro and migrant crises constitute a new transnational divide in European politics as important as those laid down by the Bolshevik revolution in the last century and before that the great Reformation, industrial revolution, state and nation-building cleavages that shaped the continent. Established political parties are ill-equipped to handle the new cleavage, as parties like the AfD, the National Front in France or the Five Star movement in Italy restructure political competition.

Surveys show these newcomers mobilise previously passive citizens rather than displacing existing ones whose commitment to European solutions remains steady or even increases – even though many are dissatisfied with how political leaderships handle and articulate them. Theorists like these help us identify and understand what happens when public debates on Europe’s future are no longer silenced and become so politically contested.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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