Europe in Crisis, Part IV: The Brussels Behemoth

by Jerome Roos on May 7, 2011

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Can we still imagine an alternative Europe, beyond both the archaic nation state and the Brussels bureaucracy, capable of facing the crises of our time?

Originally published at Breakthrough Europe

Europe in Crisis, Part I: The Age of Austerity
Europe in Crisis, Part II: China to the Rescue?
Europe in Crisis, Part III: The German Engine
Europe in Crisis, Part IV: The Brussels Behemoth
Europe in Crisis, Part V: The Death of Liberalism
Europe in Crisis, Part VI: The Future of Europe

With the continent in crisis, the need for European cooperation has never been greater. Yet the European people are becoming increasingly skeptical of the idea of European integration. Where did the EU’s technocratic model go wrong? And could we still imagine an alternative Europe — beyond both the archaic institution of the nation state and the anonymous bureaucracy of the Brussels behemoth? A Europe that is capable of confronting the many global challenges our continent faces?

In the last installment in this series, we showed how the Franco-German tandem that once pulled the European project ahead is slowly grinding to a halt. As France loses its political and economic clout and Germany increasingly turns inwards, Europe appears to be in desperate need of strong and visionary leadership. But, sadly enough, this type of leadership remains lacking.

In a way, one would expect the leadership vacuum in Paris and Berlin to create opportunities for new forms of transnational action in Brussels. After all, in today’s era of globalized risks and challenges, the need for pan-European solutions has never been greater. No European nation state could convincingly rise to the challenge of climate change, financial meltdown or rising oil prices by itself.

Yet the ‘depersonalized’ and ‘depoliticized’ institutions of the EU have distanced themselves so far from the concerns of the average citizen that the European Union has become fundamentally incapable of galvanizing the public support it needs to push through the requisite transnational solutions. How can Europe possibly extricate itself from this predicament?

Populist Backlash: Legitimation Crisis of the Brussels Bureaucracy

The European Union today is facing a profound Habermasian legitimation crisis. A euroskeptic populist backlash is threatening to derail – or at least significantly slow down – not just the long-term project of European integration, but especially the crucial short-term effort of finding a solution to the European sovereign debt crisis and agreeing on an effective policy framework for dealing with climate change.

As Der Spiegel recently wrote, “the success of the True Finns in last week’s Finnish elections has shocked Brussels,” not only because the True Finns are part of a continental trend that sees right-wing populists flourishing across the board, but also because they could upset the EU bailout of Portugal, which would spell catastrophe for efforts to stem the economic fallout of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

For euroskeptics, the project of European integration impinges far too much on national sovereignty. In this neo-populist discourse, the EU is often painted as an undemocratic and unaccountable ivory tower, populated by anonymous bureaucrats and governed by intractable technocratic rules and regulations. All in all, it seems too far removed from the everyday concerns of the average European citizen.

In a way, the EU has itself to blame. Back in 2007, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, publicly displayed his elitist insensitivity to these popular concerns when he referred to the EU as “a new kind of empire.” In the meantime, the first fulltime President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, unwittingly cast himself as the very personification of the EU’s apolitical, impersonal and uncharismatic bureaucracy.

Interestingly, the recent surge in euroskepticism is going hand-in-hand with a resurgence of both climate skepticism and anti-immigration sentiment. As with the Tea Party in the United States, the European populists run on a platform that is firmly ethnocentric, skeptical of instrumental reason and weary of the liberal notions of progress and cosmopolitanism.

The Brussels Behemoth Smells Blood

Yet as the Franco-German tandem is collapsing and Europe finds itself in a protracted fiscal crisis, the bureaucratic machine in Brussels smells blood. Instead of trying to find lasting solutions to the crises we are facing, the Brussels bureaucracy is staying in line with Barroso’s empire-building ambitions, rapidly mobilizing resources and narratives in an attempt to expand its own powers in a number of key policy areas.

When the Greek debt crisis spread to Ireland late last year, EU President Van Rompuy warned that if Europe did not work together (i.e., if Ireland did not accept the punitive austerity measures of an EU-IMF bailout) the EU as a whole might collapse. The political result of this scaremongering was the virtual abolishment of Irish fiscal sovereignty and its subjugation to EU debt reduction timetables.

In this respect, the EU response to the sovereign debt crisis shows striking similarities to EU climate policy. For many years now, the EU has deliberately used the climate crisis to mobilize popular support for pan-European timetables in energy, transport and industrial policy. Barroso’s repeated warnings of “irreversible climate catastrophe” sound suspiciously like Van Rompuy’s scaremongering on debt.

The result of Barroso’s apocalyptic narrative was the culmination of the EU’s neoliberal technocratic reason into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Despite the glaring failure of the ETS to reduce carbon emissions — it actually led to theftfraud and even a dash to build new coal plants — Brussels has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to the Scheme, jealously clinging on to its newfound authority.

Neo-Functionalism and Technocracy in the European Project

In essence, of course, this EU ‘mission creep’ into fiscal bookkeeping and climate and energy policy is nothing new. Functional spillover is encoded into the very DNA of Europe’s political institutions. The Kantian culture of European cooperation that underpins the integration project always presaged a form of federalism as the inevitable endpoint of the European Dream.

When they first set out their ideas for European integration, the founding fathers of the European Union — most importantly Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman — realized that European unification would never succeed if it were to be subjected to the latent nationalism of the traditional democratic process. For this reason, the European project was depoliticized and depersonalized from the very start.

A small technocratic elite based in Brussels was to administer the coal and steel sectors. But the goal was never for European integration to halt with the European Coal and Steel Community. As Monnet’s neofunctionalist theory of ‘positive spillover‘ held, integration in one sector would create strong incentives for further integration in other sectors, thereby catalyzing a wider process of integration.

In many ways, this has been a positive development. After centuries of recursive warfare, it was indeed a spectacular achievement for the continent’s two dominant powers, Germany and France, to agree on a voluntary pooling of national sovereignty over the key sectors underpinning modern warfare. The gradual expansion of Brussels’ authority helped contribute to a peaceful, free and prosperous Europe.

Yet the idea of functionalism is more problematic today than it was 50 years ago. The depoliticization and depersonalization of Europe have created a democratic deficit, which in turn has led many European citizens to turn away from the ideal of a united Europe altogether. Riding on this growing tide of frustration, the euroskeptic populist parties end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Political Trilemma of European Integration

Still, Europe’s elites remain convinced that the EU is like a bicycle: the momentum of integration will have to keep moving forward, or else the entire project will collapse. While Monnet himself declared neofunctionalism dead in the 1960s, the pull towards ever deeper integration still appears to exert great pressure on the minds on European leaders — and not without good reason, as we shall see in the next section.

As a result, national politicians find themselves in a split of sorts. On the one hand, Brussels pulls them towards ever deeper European integration, while on the other hand, an increasingly frustrated domestic electorate is kicking and screaming for the restoration of national sovereignty. Unfortunately, we cannot have it all.

As Dani Rodrik, a renowned Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, points out in his latest book, at the heart of the world economy lies an impossible trinity. When confronted with a choice between the three political objectives of democratic governance, a strong nation state and deep economic integration, policymakers will find it impossible to combine all three at the same time.

At most two of the three objectives can be actualized at any given point. When economies become more integrated, either democratic principles or the strong nation state will have to go. After all, if our liberalized and financialized global economy were to be made accountable to democratic principles, new forms of global governance and democratic representation would have to be devised, requiring a devolvement of national sovereignty to transnational institutions.

Yet if nation states were to remain the predominant institutional bearers of democratic legitimacy, while deep economic integration allows financial capital to flow freely around the globe, there could be no democratically elected ‘governor’ of the world economy. This is the undemocratic ‘neoliberal straitjacket’ in which the world — and Europe in particular — currently finds itself.

Another Europe is Possible: Re-politicize the EU!

Yet there is an alternative. While nationalists like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party claim that the only way to restore democracy is an unequivocal retreat to national politics (see this video, for example), Rodrik’s impossible trinity teaches us that there is a third option, beyond both the undemocratic technocracy of the Brussels behemoth and the populist jingoism of the archaic nation state: the creation of a truly European government.

As Slavoj Žižek has argued, such a move would mark the re-personalization and re-politicization of the EU, while introducing the possibility for aspirational European leadership to win the future. Pragmatically, it would involve a transformation of the technocratic Commission into a humanized, democratically-elected administration; the conversion of the European Council into a Senate-like Chamber of regional representation; and the radical downsizing and streamlining of a greatly empowered European Parliament.

While many skeptics would consider these suggestions to be Utopian, the ideas are actually less radical than one might think. Europe is already being challenged by environmental, financial, economic and fiscal crisis to move towards deeper political integration. Already before the crisis, economists warned that the project of monetary union was doomed without an EU economic government to address some of the structural imbalances within the single market.

As I pointed out elsewhere, resolving Europe’s multidimensional crisis is impossible without a form of collective action spearheaded by a European government. The question is therefore not so much whether or not to support political integration, but whether or not to make this political integration accountable to the European people. In its present form, the Brussels behemoth will simply extend its reach and expand its powers without the European people really being able to influence its trajectory.

Alternatively, the democratization of Brussels would mark the liberation of the periphery and the victory of the European people over the bureaucratic monster that we created to protect us from ourselves. But most of all, it would mark the elevation of democratic principles and aspirational politics over the cold mathematical reason and technocratic incrementalism that led Brussels to its present legitimation crisis.

But before such a possibility can even be seriously considered, it seems that the liberal ideology that underpinned the aloofness of the European elite will have to die. This will be the subject of the next article in this series.

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