Leiden, a.d. IV Non. Mai. MMDCCLXIX A.U.C.,
A few weeks ago, on the 6th of April, the Netherlands held a referendum about an association agreement with Ukraine. After a half-hearted campaign by the Dutch government, some 61% of the 32% who bothered to show up voted against. Putin had a great day. While sharing the concern of the organizers of the referendum about the democratic deficit in the EU, I also am very concerned about the paranoid rhetoric coming from those circles. It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue with many of the Eurosceptics (I do happen to know some very well read Eurosceptics though, to whom this article does not apply), because they are no longer using rational arguments, they are out of touch with reality, and they base their opinion on paranoid doomsday thinking.
To go back a few weeks, days before the referendum took place the organizers of the referendum admitted they actually could not care less about the association agreement. Their actual intention was to weaken the EU-Netherlands relations, which should eventually lead to abolishing the EU, and to ‘save’ democracy. I actually completely agree that the EU suffers a democratic deficit, however, we have to move beyond this simple and rather uncontroversial conclusion, and look at why this is the case. When talking about the ‘EU’, the organizers actually mean the European Commission (EC), which they believe to have some kind of dictatorial power to rule over Europe. However, taking a closer look at EU politics reveals that national governments play a fundamental role in policy making. The European Commission has agenda setting powers, and it carries out EU policies, but it cannot do anything without implicit or explicit backing of the European Council. Three more institutions have a say, firstly, the European Council (the Council), in which the national heads of government have a seat, and which defines the EU’s political direction and priorities. Secondly, the Council of the European Union (the Council of the EU), in which national governments are also represented through their ministers. The Council of the EU can negotiate with the EC and the European Parliament (EP), and it can veto all legislation. Lastly, the European Parliament is directly elected by European citizens, and it co-decides on most legislation. In other words, Mark Rutte and David Cameron must have agreed to the most important policies coming from ‘Brussels’, and they certainly had a say during negotiations about less important legislation, which can pass by a qualified majority. In other words, the national governments are part of the problem, because they are imperfect agents of their electorate. This is what causes the democratic deficit, as the EC really has to closely follow the wishes of the national governments, while the national governments have much wriggling room in Brussels, as I argued more elaborately before.
According to the organizers of the referendum the solution is to abolish the EU, because the EC does not follow the wishes of the European people. While I somewhat agree with the latter statement, I think the solution makes no sense at all. If it is the national governments who are shirking agents (that is, they do not follow the wishes of their principal, their electorate), the solution cannot be to abolish the EU. If anything, the solution would be to abolish the national governments, which shows the utopianism of those who want to abolish the EU. You cannot just abolish a layer of government which carries out a fundamental task in coordinating the policies of the member states (at least not without coming up with a very detailed plan on what to replace it with), just like abolishing the national governments is a ludicrous idea.
Nevertheless, if the EC is made to follow the will of the national governments, and the national governments cannot be trusted, we should change the EU in such a way that the EC will start following the wishes of the European people. Yet, abolishing the EC would not help at all, as the national governments would still need to come together to solve a whole lot of problems, while nothing would have been changed to make the national governments listen better to their electorate.
But then again, Eurosceptics no longer even pretend to base their opinion on rational, fact based arguments. For example, GeenStijl, a right wing blog and one of the organizers of the referendum, recently tweeted: “See, the EU is determining what should happen with the DUTCH no at the DUTCH referendum.” If the intention of the referendum was to make the EC more accountable to European citizens, this is exactly what GeenStijl purportedly wanted from the EC: to respond to Dutch referenda and to the wishes of the Dutch people. But, now they have achieved that, they are so paranoid about the EU, that they think the EU’s reaction is some kind of conspiracy, even though the tweet GeenStijl retweeted actually reads that the Netherlands was preparing a proposal for the EC. It shows they do not actually care about a solution to the European democratic deficit, because they have long lost hope that the EU will ever change its ways (and scaremongering gets them more views). This is exactly what GeenStijls co-organizers of the referendum also said about the EU, that its democratic deficit is inherent to its structure.
Another good example of how Eurosceptics are losing touch with reality is how Boris Johnson, former London mayor and unofficial leader of the Eurosceptic Conservatives, recently compared the EU to Hitler, because they both want(ed) to unify Europe. In other words, they differed in methods, not in goals. This is a ridiculous comparison, because firstly, it is exactly like saying people should not become vegetarian, because Hitler was a vegetarian. There is a name for this fallacy, it is called Ad Hitlerum, in other words, ‘it is bad, because Hitler did it’. Secondly, the EU does not exterminate minorities, it does not have the habit of conquering other countries, it promotes human rights and democracy, and it tries to bring peace to a continent which sparked several world wars. In other words, the EU is in most ways exactly made to prevent another Hitler. So, the comparison is absurd, but it is completely in line with the paranoid rhetoric coming from Eurosceptics in the UK and the Netherlands alike.
Sadly, this kind of paranoia works well with Eurosceptics’ constituency. For example, just skim through the comments on GeenStijl, and count how many times you read the words ‘war’, ‘civil war’, ‘traitors’, etc. A very large group of people really seems to think that the end is nigh. These feelings are mirrored in GeenStijl blog posts themselves, which speak of civil war in the Netherlands, and how Europe’s Ragnarok is close. An excellent article by the Groene Amsterdammer shows how something similar is going on at GeenStijl’s ideological partner, the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy), a conservative organization founded by Thierry Baudet, which is striving for a democratic revolution, including its own vanguard which should replace the current Dutch elite. As the article clearly shows, the attendants of the Forum’s meetings fear for the demise of the Netherlands. Be it the EU, be it immigrants, be it a self-serving ‘usurping elite’, they are threats to the Netherlands and its traditions. So, it seems like a feeling of paranoia, panic and terror has spread surprisingly wide.
This is indeed reflected in the surprisingly low trust in such institutions as parliament, the press and civil servants. On average Dutch citizens put more trust in banks and large corporations than in parliament. So it is obvious the Dutch political system and/or its policies need to be reformed somehow. Citizens who do not trust parliament, will not stand up for democracy, and citizens who do not trust the free press, will not defend it when creeping autocracy shuts it down (look at Erdogan how that is done).
However, simply letting the EU collapse is not going to solve any of our problems. Europe will still need to protect Eastern Europe from Russia, it will still need to integrate the Southern and Eastern European economies into the European economy, it will still need to reduce regulation by adopting common regulation, it will still need to cooperate to solve the refugee crisis, it will still need open our internal borders for labour, goods, services and capital in order for the European economies to grow, it will still need to cooperate on nuclear energy, and it will still need to cooperate on climate and environmental issues. In short, Europe is in desperate need of cooperation. In other words, the rest of the world will not disappear simply because we want it to disappear. Reality will keep knocking on the door, whether we like it, or not. So, abolishing the EU will not magically end the need for cooperation in Europe, something Brexiteers and Dutch Eurosceptics should start to realize.
Meanwhile, the EU provides rule based decision making, and it provides a framework which gives smaller countries at least somewhat of a chance to influence European policy. By abolishing the EU, and by refusing to let any supranational layer of government with direct accountability to the people to replace it, you only increase the leverage of the largest countries, because you make decision making more ad-hoc and less structured. Moreover, it increases the power of the national governments (which we still will not be able to trust), while abolishing the European Parliament, which is the only venue where European citizens elect their own representatives to influence European policy.
So, abolishing the EU is a fantasy solution, even though indeed the EU needs more accountable government. Such a drastic measure only makes sense if you are scared to the bones by the outside world, but even then, the outside world is there, you cannot make it disappear if you keep ignoring it. Then, flipping the table in panic, and barging out the door with our tails between the legs is not going to solve Europe’s democratic deficit. So, rather than looking away, we need to democratize Brussels, and we better do it fast. We also need to slim down the EU on some issues, but we also need to let it do more on other issues. Any such increase should happen under the watchful eye of Eurocritics, because Europe cannot afford an ever increasing bureaucracy. Still, the core of the matter is that reality essentially cannot care less about your opinion of it, and it will not change because you happen not to like it. So, pretending the outside world is not there will not change the outside world. If you want to change it, you need to drag it by the ears until it pays attention, and then force it to change. So, no matter how arrogant Eurocrats are, and no matter how bureaucratic the EU is, if we want to solve Europe’s many problems we need to cooperate and get business done together. This is essentially (and perhaps unfortunately) impossible without the EU. Meanwhile, the question ‘quo vadis Europa?’ is still left unanswered, but it is certain that leading Eurosceptics do not have a clue.
Update: Meanwhile the AfD in Germany has also contributed to the already wide variety of bizarre remarks uttered by Eurosceptics: “Alexander Gauland, the deputy chairman of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying she was a “dictator,” who is trying to “replace the German people” with migrants.”
Bottom Line: By all means, let’s start this democratic revolution. But simply shutting our eyes, putting our fingers in our ears and shouting: “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!1!” is not going to solve any of our problems. We need some type of European cooperation mechanism, just as much as we need to work on its flaws.