EU stuck in a ‘representation spiral’?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The weak democratic link between national leaders, EU institutions and the citizens has led to a 'representation spiral'. [fdecomite/Flickr]

As European integration has progressed in the Monnet method, national leaders have become stuck in a ‘representation spiral’, which the recent crises accelerated to a point where major EU decisions can no longer be made, argues Balázs Kiss.

Balázs Kiss is a European Commission official and wrote this opinion piece in his personal capacity. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Commission.

Until the 1980s, the depth of European integration at the level of the single market was compatible with the elitist, technocratic method of integration, called the ‘Monnet method’. As EU actions did not yet affect ‘hard’ national sovereignty issues, people could acquiesce in the process, despite their lack of democratic involvement.

In the 1990s, with further deepening of European integration, with the creation of the euro and the Schengen system, national leaders and EU institutions started to ‘split from the citizens’. Deeper integration meant higher interdependence between member states, and increased stakes for joint EU decisions for each member, for example, regarding bailouts. For such decisions, national leaders would have needed stronger support from domestic voters. However, their electorates started to become alienated because they felt ‘left out’ from those decisions.

This launched a ‘representation spiral’. Since national leaders are politically accountable to their domestic electorates, the higher the stakes of joint EU decisions, the more their voters view their attempt to represent common European interests as irrelevant or disloyal. Consequently, national leaders become bound to focus on the national aspects of joint EU action, and to abandon the representation of common EU goals.

They take credit for the benefits of such action and blame Brussels for its costs. In their EU level discussions, they defend national interests and become less aware of common European objectives, which make EU decision-making more difficult. This led to a myth of ‘weak’ European leaders.

Stuck in their national constituencies, and trying to contain increasing challenge from Eurosceptic parties, they leave common European interests unrepresented. At the same time, the leaders of EU institutions remain unable to represent EU interests: since they are not elected, they are not directly accountable to EU citizens.

This lack of representation of EU objectives was the main reason why French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution in 2005 and the Irish the Lisbon treaty in 2007, before the economic crisis.

Since 2008, the euro and migrant crises have substantially accelerated this representation spiral, because in bad times, the necessary joint actions entail high costs but limited benefits. The economic crisis contributed to growing Euroscepticism mainly indirectly: the question on what decisions were taken on austerity was less important than how those decisions were made.

This accelerated representation-spiral led to a referendum in Greece last July on a euro bailout package, and another referendum soon on the UK’s EU membership. Both national referendums, by Prime Ministers Tsipras and Cameron, are to compensate for the weak democratic link between the citizens and the EU discussions between national leaders in Brussels, trying to reassure people that their elected governments duly represent their interests.

The representation spiral pushed European integration to such a dead end where EU national leaders cannot agree on how to address today’s major challenges of the euro, migration and terrorism.

In short, the Monnet method is unsustainable at this deeper level of integration, because the representation of common EU interests is abandoned, while national interests become so manifest that they start to be the source of conflicts between EU members. This risks dismantling integration.

This structural flaw of European integration can be resolved either by ‘going back’ to the single market, or by creating a true European political sphere that ensures due representation of common EU interests. Therefore, there appear to be two scenarios for Europe’s future.

In the most likely scenario, the EU continues in this ‘Monnet matrix’. No matter what the leaders decide, the result will be ‘going back’. Any attempt for ‘more Europe’ – for example closer eurozone governance – would only escalate the representation spiral. Another convention on the EU’s future would again just gather elites without involving the citizens; increasing the role of national parliaments would not address the lack of European-level representation either.

In an alternative scenario, Europe’s leaders jointly recognise the EU’s existential crisis. They make a genuine attempt to conduct a major political reform and turn the method of integration into a democratic process. By launching a European political sphere – not a political union –they allow the European citizens themselves to eventually determine whether the integration should rescind, consolidate recent achievements. or leap forward in the longer term.

Before an attempt to launch a European political sphere, there should be a radical opening to involve citizens, given the divide between them and the leaders, and today’s acute challenges. This would require a citizens’ conference through the whole year of 2016, with scheduled periods of debates between European parties and citizens on major European issues including migration, security and the eurozone, and subsequent EU-wide referendums on them. Solutions to these challenges should be decided on a fully democratic basis, no matter how people decide.

As the EU Treaty does not allow for such referendums to be legally binding, they should be prepared and implemented in such a way as to ensure their `legitimacy` and attraction. This process should lead to European Parliament elections in Spring 2017, with transnational parties (unlike today’s groups of national parties).

A gradual emergence of European politicians and a European constituency could start enabling the representation of common EU interests. This process would soon be coupled with a democratic debate on EU issues also at national and regional levels which could link to such EU-level politics.

The EU’s historic achievements certainly justify an attempt to pursue this latter scenario. Time has come for a major EU political reform – one that enables European citizens to make an informed decision on Europe’s future direction.

An extended version of this opinion piece can be read here.

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