The European Elections that took place last year were seen by many as a black swan. No one in the mainstream in Brussels could understand why so many parties from the fringes did so well in so many Member States.
To most in the Euro-Bubble, the 2019 elections were a disaster that saw the growth of parties such as the Alternative fur Deutschland and Lega as well as the sustained position of SYRIZA and Podemos. The mainstream parties in the centre, for the most part, went backwards.
The results of the elections upset the balance of the ‘Grand Coalition’ in the European Parliament and ultimately led to increased trouble when trying to form a College of Commissioners, and nominating the heads of the main EU institutions. It was only through backroom dealing and a total disregard for the Treaties that we finally ended up with Ursula Von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Josep Borrell.
The last year since the election has seen the Commission struggle to walk a political tightrope – trying to balance their policies in a way that can appease both left and right. The results so far have left very few satisfied. The so-called ‘European Green Deal’ has ignored the most efficient source of clean energy (nuclear) for the sake of appeasing the Green Group in the European Parliament, and yet has been criticised by the same grouping for not having gone far enough. In many ways, the Green tail is wagging the Commission dog and alienating many in the Centre-Right EPP who are looking for a more pragmatic deal.
And this is only one of a long list of examples where the Commission has found itself struggling to push through its agenda across various sectors because of the delicate political situation they find themselves in. The European Mobility Package is facing strong opposition in both the Council and Parliament. The response to the Coronavirus Crisis has left many wanting. The reescalation of the migration crisis has left the relationship between the EU and Turkey strained. And the ongoing trade talks with the United Kingdom post-Brexit have stalled.
The reality is that the European Union is not equipped to face these challenges – and their failure to do so has fuelled Euroscepticism across the continent. The results of last year’s European elections shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone – nor should the growing support for fringe movements. These things have taken place because the European Union continues to be perceived as out of touch. And those who believe in the project have such a fanatical devotion towards the project that even the slightest criticism is perceived to be some form of heresy worthy of denunciation.
Take the recent example of the resignation of Mauro Ferrari – the Chief of the European Research Council. Ferrari resigned in April criticising the lack of a coordinated EU effort to resolve the Coronavirus Crisis. He set out a number of very fair criticisms and offered some solutions. Rather than accept the criticism the European Union launched a character assassination against him – with prominent Christian Democrat MEPs briefing against him and the CRE putting out statements undermining what he had warned about. Rather than take seriously the advice of an expert the pro-Europeans chose to shoot down the dissenting voice.
The same has been true of the Commissions handling of Brexit. Throughout the first stages of the negotiations – EU Brexit coordinator Michel Barnier met with many politicians and stakeholders from the remain side of the referendum – but the Commission never seemed to publicly launch any kind of investigation into why it was that one of the top three economies in the Union decided to leave.
Had they done so, they would have found that many – especially those in the less well-off parts of the country – felt distanced from decisions being made by the EU and as though they were being left behind. This is by no means unique to the United Kingdom.
So what can be done? The European Union’s motto for the last twenty years has been ‘United in Diversity’ and it is perhaps time for the EU to start living up to that slogan. Whilst the Commission and Council are very good at balancing out the national mix of their workforce, they are not as good at ensuring intellectual diversity.
By and large, most of those who work in the Institutions are committed to the singular purpose of ever closer union, putting them in a minority of people who even think about these things. They’re divided into DGs that have little to no recognition outside the bubble, where they work on new regulations with little to no contact with the real world. Whilst millions of Europeans are currently worried about their jobs being lost – those who work in Brussels can be assured that they can continue to work without being impacted by the coming economic crisis.
The Commission and Council should, therefore, look at ways of reaching out to employ people from different sectors. They should make it easier and more attractive for people to move from the private sector to the European Civil Service in order to ensure a new diversity of backgrounds and ideas. Equally – the private offices of the Commissioners should look at hiring individuals who can scrutinise legislation from sceptical stance before it is put in front of the Parliament – thus ensuring that it is in a workable position from the start for cross-group support.
But perhaps the most important and difficult thing that needs to change is the attitude taken by those committed to Europe. The current dismissive tone has only served to radicalise and alienate those who are opposed to the European project. The way in which the EU has ignored the legitimate concerns of member states and political parties that want to move in a looser direction has only given fuel to those who want to destroy the project altogether. The ‘Grand Coalition’ should work closer with reformers to ensure that Europe works for everyone – and take their concerns seriously. Otherwise, voters will take their frustration out in 2024 and we risk losing everything.