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The European Union Needs a New Fundamental Myth

Published on , , Sofia

Political exotic, extreme populism or politics as usual is euroscepticism, practised by an increasing number of political parties across Europe? Whose enemy is mistrust in the EU and who is afraid of it? Those are some of the issues to be discussed in public on 4 September, Tuesday, at 10 am during the presentation of the latest book by Lyubomir K. Topaloff “Political Parties and Euroscepticism” (Palgrave, 2012) in the EU Information Centre at 9 Moskovska street in Sofia.

Dr Topaloff is Senior Assistant Professor of Politics at Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan, and Senior Lecturer at the Global Studies Program, Northeastern University, USA. He is also Associate Research Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Northeastern University, Boston. euinside did a preliminary interview with him on some of the fundamental issues concerning the future of the European project.

euinside: Dr Topaloff, in our preliminary conversation you described yourself as “eurofederalist by intuition”. Has your study on the euroscepticism amended this attitude?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: The last few decades were, among other things, the period during which some of the most powerful ideas and ideologies clashed: capitalism, communism, nationalism, totalitarianism, democracy, globalisation, Christian, Jewish and Muslim political fundamentalism, etc. They gave birth to some monsters, such as the totalitarian communist system in the former Soviet Union and its satellites around the world, or the totalitarian nazional-sozialism in Germany and else were. Of course, they gave birth (activated the appearance) to some more benevolent political systems as well, such as the liberal and social democracies in Western Europe and USA. Nationalism, however, proved to be by far one of the most resilient of all and emerged almost without a scratch from this “clash of the titans” with the exception of a short period after the end of the Cold War, when the “death of the nation state” seemed – obviously incorrectly – rather inevitable.

Not only as an explorer of these phenomena, but also as a person who witnessed one of the rare transitions from one system to another, and from one ideology into another – luckily without the usual share of extreme violence and bloodshed – I am naturally inclined to stray away from these powerful but destructive ideas. The idea of a federalised Europe – a system that actually already exists on many levels – clearly offers an alternative to the previous status quo. As I point in the Prologue of my book, this idea is not new and many statesmen have tried to accomplish this goal before and during times when not as many powerful alternatives were working against it as today. Yet, it is today that we have a political and economic union in Europe of an unprecedented scale. This is incredible!

As you correctly point, I am Eurofederalist by heart. But I am also a reluctant Euro realist by mind. My intellectual curiosity to tackle in the book the issue of euroscepticism was not driven by some desire to research the “dangers” to such personal preferences, as my own biased favouritism of united, preferably federalised, Europe. In fact, my interest was drawn by a simple mismatch of facts, which I already outlined above. To put it in simple terms, I asked myself how was it possible that, given all the odds against it, the European Union was accomplished without provoking vehement opposition against it? Euroscepticism is a phenomenon that appeared quite late in the political game, and only now started to gain speed, while all the conditions would have favoured its appearance much earlier?

Euroscepticism, at least for me, represents manifestation of a natural opposition, embedded in the traditions of nationalism and the nation-state, to something rather innovative and unnatural – supranational political and economic system of united European states. It is populistic and opportunistically exploited opposition to the slow destruction of a system that has dominated the world order – the nation state – and to the forging of a new, common European identity and citizenship. The scientific significance of euroscepticism lies in both its prolonged absence and its belated appearance. As such, the phenomenon of euroscepticism is rather an anomaly not because of its mere existence but quite the opposite – because of its meagre existence.

euinside: In the preface to your book you mention that euroscepticism is not just opposition to United Europe but rather a defining part of it. Would you now comment on this issue from the perspective of the increasing euroscepticism in the new EU member states? Does euroscepticism there differ from that in the countries that have longer experience in the EU?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: Euroscepticism is, in its essence, a political process even in its cultural-identity manifestation. The accelerated emergence of united Europe beyond the mere notion of a common market between independent nation-states – the intergovernmental approach – which took place over since the Single European Act, and especially over the last 15 years with the culmination of the Lisbon Treaty, naturally elicits some form of opposition to itself. The presence of such an opposition is indicative that serious change is taking place and the process of integration is not just a breeze on the surface. This is, indeed, what I meant when I claimed that euroscepticism is a defining part of united Europe. This is, if you would like, the litmus test that integration is taking deep roots and begins to impact all aspects of the daily life of the more or less ambivalent European citizens.

The problem with euroscepticism in Eastern Europe is, indeed, a bit different. It actually bears resemblance with some of the dynamics in Spain and Portugal around their accession to the then European Community: the act of membership was not just a step into the huge open market with all of the economic benefits that this brings. It was also a defining moment in the democratic consolidation of these countries: a kind of recognition for their achievements towards the political, social and economic reforms that would help them reintegrate in the new, post-war, prosperous, democratic Europe. In Spain, for example, the Communist and Socialist parties were very careful how and how much they criticised the European Community/European Union during that period. In fact, even today Spain is among the least Eurosceptic countries due to that fact: EU membership was the best indicator that the country has cut off its ties with the Franconian past. Being pro-European in post-communist Eastern Europe also meant a genuine commitment to democracy – a powerful legitimiser in those societies rattled by dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Coming from this perspective, the appearance of euroscepticism in the Eastern European countries is actually a sign that both the political parties and the societies have matured from their complex of inferiority, where a rejection of the European Union was automatically equated to rejection of democracy and revision of its commitments to cut off with its totalitarian past. I recognise, of course, all the risks and negative consequences related to the increased popularity of euroscepticism, especially in those countries. For example, both Russia and the United States, have their vested interest in weak and disunited Europe. Rampant euroscepticism in Eastern European countries is just one of the vehicles for this to be achieved. But I still like to look at this process from a different perspective: there is nothing more natural than the existence of opposing views of all kind, including harsh and unrepentant opposition to change. The lack of such opposition actually stifles the real debate about the creation of a common European identity, which is perhaps the most challenging part of the grand change that European integration brings.

euinside: Analysing the behaviour of political parties you state that only recently the eurosceptic ideology started to bring electoral benefits. Does this mean that finally the “accusations” against the EU for being a project of political elites can be eliminated?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: EU is indeed a project of the political elites. And not of all elites, but of the mainstream ones. Its realisation, at least in the initial phases, was achieved against all odds mainly thanks to what political scientists call – ambiguously – “permissive consensus.” This is, of course, not all of the picture. From the early stages of the Cold War, and well into the 1970s, opposition to the European Community was politically linked to the ideological clash with Communism and Nazism. Ultra left and extreme right parties had to be very careful not to be recognised as revisionist of the post-second world war order, or they risked losing legitimacy.

What is more paradoxical, some of the most pronounced champions of euroscepticism today – for example the French National Front and its former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, or the late leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Jorg Haider – in the beginning regarded the accelerated European integration as a means to oppose the power of mainstream political elites; as a way to weaken them through supranational political and economic control. Soon after that, however, they actually realised that European integration is in fact a powerful vehicle to increase and consolidate mainstream political parties’ power, not to decrease it. A brief survey of the members of the European Commission, which I present in my book, demonstrates that the members of the Commission throughout the years are almost exclusively drawn from the mainstream parties. These parties also are in the key agenda setter places when it comes to redistribution of various funds from the EU budget, from agricultural subsidies, to Structural and Cohesion funds.

The problem is not that EU is an elite project

Without being an elite project, we would not have had a European Union today. The problem is that these elites have to face eurosceptical voters whose identity is conflicted by the new reality, but “don’t have the guts” – vernacularly speaking – to stand their ground. In short, the problem of the EU – as heretically as this my sound – democracy. Today’s European Union survival path increasingly passes through greater political and fiscal federalisation - a process that must be seen through the prism of nation-building dynamics. If nation-building history teaches us anything, however, it is that democracy is not the answer but could very well be the problem. Historically, nation-building has always been a project undertaken by elites. It is not and, despite widespread misperceptions, has never been a spontaneous bottom-up process. If anything, nations have come into existence despite the desires of the myriad small and incoherent groups and their narrowly defined interests, which were later united into nations. The frequently cited 19th century exclamation by Massimo d'Azeglio "We made Italy, now we must create Italians" is all but example of that trend. United States, for example, did not become either a coherent state, or a functioning regional power, until it went through a nasty civil war that forged a common national identity along with a forced legitimacy of the federal power institutions, which laid down the foundations of the contemporary American historical myth. In some cases, overarching common identity comes slowly or not at all, as the popular support for the separatist Lega Nord in Italy, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in Spain, Scottish Nationalist Party and other separatist movements across Europe unequivocally demonstrate today.

euinside: The topic of the discussion on your new book, in which you will take part, is “Who is afraid of euroscepticism?”. Would you announce some of your arguments for the euinside's audience?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: I already stated some of the tenets of my argument for the discussion - the wave of euroscepticism, despite all of the risks and dangers it bears, is in and of itself a manifestation of a positive trend: European politics transition from “second order” politics into mainstream issues. This is, indeed, a healthy trend for the democratisation of the European Union. The debate about European integration must include opposing views, including very hard anti-European positions. Unlike the national identity, which is usually forged through myths, the pan-European identity should not, and does not, necessarily pass through destruction of the existing identity and the invention of myths. It is, indeed, meant to compliment existing identities. It is not a process of exclusion, but of inclusion.

Eurosceptics, unwillingly, also fulfil one more important role.

They provide the kind of criticism, the end result of which is the strengthening of the integration process. The lack of transparency in the way the European Commission takes its decisions, the cumbersome bureaucratic system in Brussels, etc. are all very valid criticisms. It is doubtful, for example, whether the European Parliament (in my opinion one of the most important institutions in the future European Union) would have gained all these powers it has recently acquired without the need to democratise further the EU as a response to a legitimate criticism coming from some of the Eurosceptics.

On the other hand, we must be wary of the dangers some extreme forms of euroscepticism bring along. The most obvious one is the way Eurosceptics frame the political processes today on domestic level, due to their increased power in the conditions of the current eurocrisis. A celebrated political scientist, Robert Putnam, has one theory about the way governments negotiate on two levels – one on domestic and the other on international. This is indeed what happens today with the European political leaders due to the increased general euroscepticism among voters.

European leaders gather at summits but fail to tackle the pressing issues decisively, but use these meetings to gain domestic political dividends. Or they agree on politically unpopular decisions only to renounce them once they step on domestic soil. European leaders today are indeed in the role of the Apostle Peter, who denied and disowned Jesus before roosters crowed, and are forced by increasingly eurosceptical public to renounce and disown European integration.

In the current eurocrisis, for example, governing pro-European elites did not only fall victim to the austerity backlash. They were engulfed by the rising tidal wave of ever harder euroscepticism. Over the past year the issue of Europe crossed the threshold of a critical moment and became salient electoral topic of first order. But make no mistake - euroscepticism is not a new ideological divide; it is just a new disguise of an old electoral strategy of reckless populism. Unlike what eurosceptics try to convince us, euroscepticism is not some sort of new ideologically driven cleavage but a populist face mask behind which rational unscrupulous marginal political actors hide their bid for power. As such, European integration becomes eurosceptics' preferred battlefield - in fact, the only one which they can fight on and potentially win. And the criticism against the European institutions lacking democratic underpinning is their preferred choice of weapons. The real danger is not that they become electorally more visible. It is in the way they make it, legitimising their opposition to further European integration by misusing a concept that has strong cognitive power over the European voters – democracy itself.

euinside: The eurozone crisis has for the first time since long brought the news from Brussels in peoples’ homes. Do you think that the European leaders succeed in using this opportunity to explain to the citizens why do we need the EU?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: Ivan Krastev is correct to point in a recent publication that the danger of disintegration is hanging in the air and that pro-integrationist elites are under pressure, shaken by fear and unprepared to pay a high political price to stand and defend their positions, to take decisions that might lead to adverse and unintended fatal consequences. I am afraid that not too many political leaders today have the guts to face the real problems and to take action. Politicians are painfully rational and pragmatic breed of beings and naturally tend to avoid pain in the best tradition of the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. That is why we hardly hear, if at all, real debates about the future of the European Union from them.

I don’t want to mix here too many topics, but just to illustrate the last point - the political and economic price German and French leaders lacked the guts to pay in 2010 and 2011 to solve the euro-crisis, and especially the issue of Greece, has now spilt over throughout the entire Eurozone and beside the fact that it has hit hard big countries such as Spain and Italy, it could now engulf France itself. This is all directly linked to the mediocrity of the current European political elite to take costly decisions and face the consequences. This mediocrity, shortsightedness, and lack of commitment is the dangerous conductive environment in which euroscepticism and its wild populism, as being exploited by the conformist leaders, could metastasise into a dangerous tumour that could very well bring the European project to a halt, or worse. Knowing these dangers, and others, is a necessary part of acknowledging the role euroscepticism plays in contemporary domestic and European politics. It is sad, however, that European leaders don't find the strength to actively defend the benefits from United Europe. They seem to explain and excuse themselves, instead of showing genuine commitments.

euinside: In less than a year EU will have 28 member states and over 60 years of institutional history. The global challenges facing the Union, however, increase – the eurozone crisis, the loss of competitiveness, the immigration problem etc. Don’t you think that the current upsurge of euroscepticism comes to remind us that it is high time to update the fundamental European narrative – that about prosperity through peace – as it gets more and more obscure to the generations that have never lived a war?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: The experience of over 20 years of democratisation around the world, along with a growing number of the so called “reversed waves” of democratisation – i.e. the return to some more sophisticated form of authoritarianism – has clearly demonstrated two points. First, that without economic results democracy gradually loses legitimacy and becomes – as it happened in Russia in the 1990s – a hollow notion. And second, that without some fundamental idea – frankly a sort of a myth – its raison d’etre loses steam. The European Union is indeed in need of both economic upsurge and some revamped foundational myth that would speak to the new generations, whose impression of the war is distant and ambiguous. It is not by accident that the two recent appearances of the notion for United Europe – one during the early 1920s, and the other in late 1940s – happened immediately after the devastating world wars.

Many people tend to take the hard won benefits from the European integration process for granted and fail to appreciate its daily, seemingly mundane, manifestations. But it is in these manifestations that one can discover the true value of its existence. Peace and prosperity are benefits that are fundamental but ambiguous for those who have not suffered the horrors of a war and poverty, just as the lack of democracy is not understandable to generations which have not suffered the arbitrary and unrestrained terror of totalitarianism. That is why such fundamental notions are, regrettably, best appreciated only when lost. But that doesn't mean that we have to lose them today in order to appreciate them. Common memory through education is a viable alternative. This is, indeed, the kind of a myth that is needed. And when I use the word “myth” I don't mean that it is something that is unrealistic, a fantastic fiction. Rather, I mean the creation of a simplified and easy to understand image of the basic raison d’etre of the EU.

euinside: The understanding of the European identity appears to be much more lucid outside Europe than in Europe itself. At the same time, the public sense both in Europe and outside remains stubborn in the distinction between “Europe” and the “European Union”. Taking into account that – as you point out – there is no European “demos” to cement together those two notions, what course will, in your opinion, the frequently raised issue about the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions take?

Dr Lyubomir Topaloff: The creation of a common European identity, and indeed of a European “demos” is not something that can take place over one or two generations. But we already have the inklings of such a common identity. It is enough to look at the way millions across Europe respond to many of the world challenges over the past 10 years – from the 9/11, to the Bush war in Iraq, to the Occupy movements, or to the most recent exemplary sniffing of the innocent opposition against Putin embodied in three young girls. In all of these instances, a highly heterogeneous social group of European citizens responded in more or less consistent manner.

As for the so-called “democratic deficit” in the European Union and its institutions, the criticism is highly overblown, mainly by eurosceptics, but also a result of EU’s own misgivings. The so called Copenhagen Criteria – a list of democratic prerequisites for member states and candidates, which is frequently celebrated as perhaps the greatest democratisation endeavour of all times, was altogether an ill-conceptualised and badly applied tool for keeping the Eastern European and Turkish “ruffians” at the gates. Its subtle presumption was that if all members are democratic, so must be the EU itself. But in reality, this was a flawed logic. Just because the “elements” of a system are democratic doesn’t mean that the system itself must be, too. These are, indeed, some of the most substantial arguments of the eurosceptics today – EU being undemocratic, cumbersome, bureaucratic, non-transparent, corrupt and increasingly omnipotent political and economic entity.

Still, the EU is not really undemocratic. The European Commission, for example, is composed of politicians who are not only well established and respected in their respective domestic environments, but also take a pledge to serve European, and not national, interests. In addition, the Lisbon Treaty established new procedure of vetoing of candidates, and – as regrettably the case with the Bulgarian nominee for a Commissioner proved – the procedure of appointment is not as trivial and predetermined at all. The European Council is, for its part, composed by democratically elected officials.

And the European Parliament represents the largest multi-state simultaneous exercise of democracy in the world. True, all of these institutions need additional reforms in order to become more democratic and accountable to the European citizens. This will help them being recognised by the people as more legitimate. For this to happen, however, we need reforms that would turn Europe into a federal political entity, with unified fiscal, foreign, internal, defence, health, educational etc. policies. Only then we will be able to see the forging of a real European demos.

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