Can the European Union ever move beyond an elite-driven project that ignores the citizens that make up the EU?
The EU is currently undergoing a crisis of legitimacy linked to issues such as austerity and immigration.
Seen as a means of boosting growth and prosperity, economic integration has so far taken place on terms that have prevented the development of the necessary ‘fiscal solidarity’ between the ‘weaker’ and the ‘stronger’ parts, thus placing severe strains on the management of crisis situations, and so heightening perceptions — especially among those in the southern countries — that their destinies are in the hands of authorities over which they can exercise little effective control.
Likewise, in the case of immigration: originally seen as a means of connecting the EU with its citizens, the Schengen free-movement principles have had to coexist with policies on asylum that in effect recreate internal borders. This obstructs intra-European solidarity in the management of migration and generates expressions of anti-EU resistance whenever Brussels is called upon to develop cooperative solutions to refugee problems.
Recent election campaigns in Europe have therefore had a distinctly novel element to them in that they featurethe EU’s legitimacy crisis as a particularly salient campaign theme.
Prior to the turn of the century, and especially before the 1990s, European integration had not gone far enough for it really to feature in member states’ domestic election campaigns to any significant degree; now, arguably, it has not gone far enough to prevent it doing so.
So what role did the EU play in the Italian election outcome and how will the outcome affect Italy’s relations with Europe?
Traditionally, Italy had been a country in which markedly pro-EU sentiments had been the rule. Policy makers had seen the demands of European integration as creating what was referred to as an ‘external constraint’ that would help them to achieve reforms that would previously get mired in the potential objections of public opinion and multiple veto players.
The public had seen European integration, with the shift of power away from an inefficient and ineffective political class, as offering the prospect of a new dawn of efficiency in public life.
Sentiments began to change with the introduction of the euro and growing awareness of the restrictions it placed on the government’s room for economic manoeuvre – restrictions exacerbated by the enormous public debt – in attempting to deal with the consequences of years of low growth.
More recently, support for European integration has been dealt a further blow by the role of the refugee crisis in exposing the conflict between Schengen and the ‘Dublin principle’.
Placing responsibility for assessing asylum claims on the government of the first country of arrival (and so enabling other states to reject claims and send migrants back to Italy), ‘Dublin’ has created tensions between the Italian government and the EU over the demand for common EU crisis management.
Not surprisingly, then, the parties were sharply divided on the EU in the campaign. On the one hand, the centre-left Democratic Party sought to draw strength from the majority that continue to favour economic and monetary union to argue, in effect, that robust solutions to problems concerning the economy and migration require more European integration rather than less.
On the other hand, the parties of the centre right sought to draw strength from the dramatic decline in confidence in the EU to call for a revision of EU treaties in the name of opposition to regulations obstructing economic development, and for more restrictive approaches to immigration.
Meanwhile, the Five-star Movement (M5S), which draws support from across the political spectrum and was seeking to compete both as a credible governing actor and as an ‘anti-establishment’ force, withdrew from its one-time demand for a referendum on membership of the eurozone while taking positions somewhat closer to the centre right than the centre left.
We now know that the national-populist League, and the M5s were the two great winners of the election, securing dramatic advances (from 4 to 17 percent and from 25 to 32 percent respectively), and this would appear to augur badly for Europe, not least because the flagship policies of both – the ‘flat tax’ and the basic income – are incompatible with the terms of the Fiscal Compact and the associated commitment to reducing a level of public debt that is now running at over 130 percent of GDP.
On the other hand, Europe’s reactions to the election outcome has for the most part been notable only for the absence of any signs of obvious alarm – reflecting, no doubt, an awareness of the powerful constraints to which the new government, whatever its composition, will have little choice but to adapt.
On immigration, they include the fact that Italy’s ageing population and the ‘brain drain’ render new arrivals essential to helping Italy overcome its economic problems, especially to ensure the sustainability of the pension system, since immigrants are on average younger than Italians and have a higher fertility rate.
Even assuming that the constitutional obstacles could be overcome, it is difficult to see how any serious move against the euro or its associated constraints could be made without provoking reactions in the financial markets so severe as to make it impossible to service the public debt.
But there is equally little doubt that the election outcome represents a wake-up call for Europe in that it reflects widespread feelings of anxiety and disempowerment.
Spearheading these feelings, both the League and the M5S have acted as outsiders, successfully challenging mainstream parties that have withdrawn from society and cast voters in the role of passive spectators while they attempt to come to grips with global processes of change which they seem to have little power to control.
The EU is a major protagonist of such processes. So as European integration has always been an elite-driven process whose rationale has been efficiency rather than citizen participation, the election has inevitably served to highlight the democratic deficit at its heart. For that reason the election outcome is a manifestation of a general crisis of representation and accountability in early 21st century democratic politics.
As such it has highlighted that the EU institutions are no longer fit for purpose and that further integration will have to be accompanied by a process of democratisation and a greater emphasis on building from the bottom up, if it is to be successful at all.
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