2 – A shadow cast by democracy
BSSB.BE carnegieeurope.eu 19.08.2016
To respond to the growing threat of populism, the EU should engage citizens directly, refocus on their grievances, and promote tolerance and pluralism.
The EU’s Options
Political change has accelerated since the end of the Cold War. Over the last two and a half decades, the EU has developed various response mechanisms for challenges to its integration project. Some methods are no longer credible, while others should be developed to make them more effective. Looking forward, the EU should focus on five specific ways to combat the rise of populism.
The EU members first attempted to deal with the threat from the populist Right by using ostracism in 2000. Austria had broken a long-standing taboo against allowing far-right parties into office. After the center-right Austrian People’s Party formed a government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, the then fourteen other EU member states adopted bilateral sanctions to limit diplomatic and political contacts. After a few months, these sanctions were abandoned when a group of experts commissioned by the other members confirmed that the new coalition was not taking measures that violated EU law or values.
Since then, far-right parties have joined governments in several member states: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Greece. The taboo has disappeared, and bilateral punishment through diplomatic ostracism is no longer a realistic option.
Another method of isolation has been used in the European Parliament. After the 2014 elections, which brought in many new populist MEPs, the mainstream party groups formed a grand coalition to monopolize leadership positions. This has kept the parliament working, but over the longer term the grand coalition could increase voters’ frustration. Strategies of isolation can backfire, therefore, as they give credence to the populist claim that the establishment is protecting itself rather than listening to voters.
Some parties will remain beyond the pale because the EU cannot compromise with groups advocating racism and violence, such as Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party. Such xenophobic and fascist groups that oppose the EU’s long-standing norms of liberalism, tolerance, and multiculturalism are unconvertible. Similarly, the EU is unlikely to convert parties that base their electoral appeal on avoiding interdependence and any sharing of sovereignty; these are the nativists on the Far Right and the fundamentalist antiglobalization campaigners on the Far Left.
The EU institutions should seek to consolidate the consensus in European societies around tolerance, rights, and pluralism.
Apart from these extreme cases, the EU institutions should not try to isolate parties that attack values but should instead seek to consolidate the consensus in European societies around tolerance, rights, and pluralism. Values surveys suggest that Europeans have not grown significantly more illiberal or xenophobic in recent years.
Challenge Undemocratic Practices
The EU is a values-based project as well as an economic project, and the European Commission is the guardian of the union’s treaties, which contain a statement of its values and a Charter of Fundamental Rights. The EU has several official mechanisms that can challenge practices in member states that threaten to breach EU law or values.
The most far-reaching measure is Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides for an early warning of potential breaches of core values and can then trigger sanctions in the event of a serious and persistent breach. This mechanism has never been used, despite calls from the European Parliament for the commission to consider activating it against the current Hungarian government.
Like a nuclear weapon, Article 7 is difficult to use because it might provoke unstoppable escalation rather than bringing the rogue state into line. Moreover, the values listed in the treaty that the clause is designed to protect are broad and underspecified, making its legal application difficult.
To create a more usable instrument, in 2014 the commission adopted an EU framework to strengthen the rule of law, with a process for reacting to an emerging threat to that system before it reaches the stage of triggering the mechanism of Article 7. This new framework was used for the first time in 2015 to challenge the government of Poland’s move to pack the country’s constitutional court with party-affiliated appointees.
The commission can launch infringement proceedings against member states that violate EU laws, which means a legal process to take a case against a country to the European Court of Justice. This works well when there is detailed EU legislation, but in many areas relevant for democracy, rights, and justice, there is only sketchy or soft law.
So far, success in using legal instruments and oversight mechanisms is mixed. Often, governments have quietly changed problematic legislation to bring it into line with the letter of EU law. But some governments have resisted strongly, causing the commission to back off to avoid a political confrontation. Disciplinary efforts are effective when the other member states are united and their criticism reduces domestic support for the culprit. The commission shies away from using these instruments when it fears that it lacks wholehearted political support.
Convert the Newcomers
The EU’s decisionmaking system relies on intensive engagement from many political actors at the national, regional, and EU levels of government. This creates a powerful socialization effect as newcomers learn to use the system to achieve their objectives. Gradually, outsiders become insiders with a stake in the system.
For example, the Greens started with a strongly EU-critical position, but they have turned into the most pro-integration parties, because they understood the value of this transnational framework for achieving their environmental objectives. This adjustment could also happen to emerging movements that have political aims such as anticorruption and more reliable rule of law, as well as to some of the current anti-austerity parties.
Some populist parties have shown a capacity to convert when they entered national governments. Once in office, Greece’s far-left Syriza party and the right-wing Finns Party dropped their more extreme positions and joined the mainstream on policy choices.
To foster the conversion of these parties, the EU needs to avoid giving the impression that it represents only the old political order. The union should strive to integrate new actors quickly once they assume governmental responsibility and should engage new political forces in its debates earlier on.
Heather Grabbe is a Jean Monnet fellow at the European University Institute and the director (on sabbatical) of the Open Society European Policy Institute.
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