The Eurozone Crises and the Contestation of the Europeanist Hegemony

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

The history of the European integration has been characterized by a widespread consensus in the political elites of the member states. EU leaders have for the most part shared a feeling of overall support for a gradual economic integration at the regional level. At times, such support was almost unquestioned, leading to a “quasi-delegation” of decision-making power to technocratic elites. The expression of “permissive consensus” was coined to describe this situation of de facto cession of sovereignty to supranational technocrats.

The situation changed for the first time with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. With the restatement of the goal of the political union, the treaty indirectly generated the debate on the democratic deficit of the EU and more generally on the increasing politicization of the regional integration process. From that moment on, the previously de-politicized process of the EU integration became more contentious. A number of consequences derived from such shift, including the strengthening of the European Parliament and the inclusion of the topic of civil society participation into the EU agenda.

A second change occurred with the Eurozone crisis that is hitting vast parts of the EU since 2009. The economic downturn provoked dramatic changes in many domestic political systems and this is likely to have a significant impact on the future European institutions, beginning with the new European Parliament soon to be elected. At the national level, a number of governments were challenged, had to give up their leadership, or to accept alliances with the opposition parties in unprecedented trans-ideological grand coalitions. At the same time, long standing Eurosceptic parties grew and new critical political movements emerged with a clear anti EU establishment agenda. As a consequences of such shift, the European landscape appears today much more pluralistic than in the past, and the forthcoming European elections of May 2014 will most likely elect a very different composition of parties at the European Parliament.

While during the period of the permissive consensus there was only a limited scrutiny by European civil society concerning the decisions taken in Brussels, with the economic crisis and the deep social consequences suffered by so many countries, the level of attention towards the European decision-making process has steadily increased. More and more, national leaders are challenged in their positioning concerning major EU decisions, EU leaders are made object of criticism, as the EU as such is more and more seen with suspicion, if not with straightforward mistrust, by the majorities of many member states especially in the south of Europe, as indicated by the Eurobarometer data.

In order to capture the political dynamics underpinning the new European landscape and have a good picture of the political forces at stake, a major distinction should be made in the camp of those groups opposing major EU macro-policies. The new contentious politics against the euro-enthusiastic bloc is going to be carried out by two distinct angles: euro-sceptical and euro-critical.

On the right-hand side of the political spectrum, there are the main euro sceptical groups that are ideologically close to the idea of ethnic nationalism. They have been present in the European landscape for a long time and have also been represented in tiny minorities within the European Parliament. Examples of such groups include the Northern League in Italy, the National Front in France, the Finns Party in Finland, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, the Flemish Interest Party in Belgium, and the British National Party in the UK.

On the left-hand side of the political spectrum, instead, there are those euro critical parties linked to the principle of vernacular and local politics as embedded in specific social traditions. They have also played a minor role in the past but have now accentuated their contentious positioning towards the EU, especially its elites-driven, neo-liberal policies. Examples of such groups include the Greek Communist Party now “replaced” by Syriza in Greece, a fraction of the former Italian Communist Party now labelled Left, Ecology and Freedom in Italy, and the French Communist Party in France. The support to both of these two categories of political groups, eurosceptic and eurocritical, has been boosted as a consequence of the economic crisis.

Beyond the aforementioned groups that have been present in the European landscape for many years by now, a number of new political parties and social movements that were born or grew substantially after the crisis should also be taken into consideration. These groups have often electorally benefitted more than the previously mentioned parties of the economic downturn. These groups tend to have a most radical oppositional stance towards the EU, with a populist vein often associated to an explicit anti-euro attitude and a call for a more participatory democracy. Differing examples of such groups include the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Indignados movement in Spain, the Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Alternative for Germany in Germany.

If the widely share prediction about the new composition of the next European Parliament are confirmed, what consequences can be expected from this political shift? A major effect will be a much more pluralistic composition of the European Parliament. Two consequences will derive from this. On the one hand, it will be more difficult to reach consensual decisions. The classical consensual mode of many European institutions will probably have to shift to a majoritarian approach, if effectiveness is pursued. On the other hand, the presence of so many anti-establishment, if not anti-euro, parties will force the traditional euro-enthusiastic parties (mainly PPE and Socialists) to coalesce even more explicitly than they used to do in the past. A similar scenario to the one already occurring at the national level of many member states can be therefore predicted. A trans-ideological majority including all major pro-European integration groups, i.e., the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of the European Socialists (PES), and perhaps the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). And a mixed opposition with the right-wing nationalist parties, the left-wing critical parties, and the new populist movements. This might also suggest a more difficult task for advocates of pro-austerity measures to uphold their policies. In sum, the Eurozone crises has been a game changer in many member states and is likely to be transformative also at the EU level, beginning with the European elections to be held next May.