Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The European rift

Ralitsa Kovacheva, May 21, 2011

“The rift between Europe and its citizens is already there. Europe no longer registers well with many Europeans … because of the disconnect between the European institutions and its citizens. ... Europe’s institutions and its representatives are perceived as distant and technocratic, immersed in their own world, speaking their own language. ...We have to convince our citizens that Europe is good for them, that it is an idea worthy their support – and their votes. We have to do that in a language they can understand, not in bureaucratic “Brussels speak”. And we have to put our money where our mouth is. Or more precisely: their money.”

These words do not belong to one of the founding fathers of the European Union, nor have they been said 60 years ago. They belong to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and were said only a few days ago before the participants in the Brussels Economic Forum. To say such a thing in Brussels is as if mentioning rope in the house of a hanged person. Not that there people are not aware of the situation, but from the windows of the European institutions, the European idea is seen much more clearly than from the streets of Finland, Greece, Spain or Germany. Not to mention Bulgaria, where EU membership has never materialised into shared values and mentality.

But the process described by Mr Schäuble is not new. It begins with the creation of the European Union when the momentum for unification focuses primarily on the institutions. In the years of prosperity Europeans enjoy their high economic and social status, and the institutions - their growing powers and everyone is happy. Until the crisis hit and it turned out that Brussels's long arm can reach to every European pocket. Now everybody is discontented. The “rich” are not happy with the need to give money to the “poor”. The “poor” protest that the “rich” are forcing them to become even poorer.

In such a situation, national governments quickly discovered the magic phrase “Brussels said" to justify their unpopular decisions. This further strengthened the discontent against Brussels and Europe, seen as some external (evil) forces. This is a perfect ground for populist parties to grow and to ride on people’s discontent, and to carry them to the national parliaments. And all this happens with the irresponsible assistance of media that are conveniently drifting along the stream of indignation, in order not to lose their readers or advertisers.

The rift is already threatening to become a European Grand Canyon. Not just because Europe does not speak the language of its citizens, but because Europe is promoting division itself through its own institutions. The healthy dispute between the European Parliament and the Council, where national interests are represented, has started to become a race for power. Discrepancies between the two institutions have seriously delayed the adoption of important decisions over the past year and the specific arguments have been reduced to recriminations in search of influence and pursuit of national interests.

The same scenario was played out on the stage of the Brussels Economic Forum. Shortly after the speech of Wolfgang Schauble, his words were commented by MEP Sharon Bowles (ALDE, UK). She put all the blame for the situation, described by the German minster, on the Council (member states) giving as an example the legislative package on EU's economic governance: „The Council is quite happy that it has the reversed QMV [quality majority voting] but they are distinctly unhappy that there should be any role via the EP for debate of the circumstances and the issues before any decision is being made”.

She stressed that with its actions the European Parliament was trying to make precisely this link between the European and the national level, involving the national parliaments in the process of the European semester. “I don't think that one should see it as some kind of competition between national competences and European competences,” Ms Bowles said, explaining that the purpose of the Parliament was to have more publicity and debates.

For example, if austerity measures should be imposed on a country, isn’t it better to have a public debate, things to be put on the table and discussed, she asked. “But of course ministers don't seem to like that idea. We think probably the public might.” Maybe here we could recruit the German Minister for our cause, the MEP joked. She noted a discontinuity not just between the European and national levels, but also within the national level. “For far too long there has been a lack of disclosure about what ministers are doing in the name of their citizens in Europe,” she said.

Think for example, how Bulgarian society was surprised by the news that Bulgaria will participate and will pay a contribution to the European Stability Mechanism. Not that this was a closely guarded secret, or the country had any other choice, but the absence of any information from the government and the lack of any public discussion led to the resistance we had witnessed.

Of course, as I already mentioned, media are primarily to blame for this because while euinside was following disputes about the establishment of the ESM and was searching for the Bulgarian position, the mainstream media chose to deal with far more attractive domestic issues. But on the other hand, although we have very few public debates on European policies in Bulgaria, media did not miss the chance to accuse the Government, Brussels and the international situation for having benefited from poor Bulgaria to pay for others' sins.

The question is not even more or less Europe, as they like to say in Brussels. The question is how to maintain the balance between national and European interests moreover – in the interest of the citizens. Europe cannot exist without the states. As noted by Wolfgang Schauble, “no-one wants a European super-state. A European super-state would basically just be an attempt to transfer the monopoly on regulation characteristic of the outdated nation-state to a larger unit. That would not be new. Nor would it be worthwhile.” Europe needs something new, unique - sui generis, in the words of Schäuble.

Namely, it would be this community of nation states, united not just institutionally, but through shared values, spirit and culture; not only a union of states but a union of citizens. “Europe does not have a soul. It might have a heart, but the soul is not here yet,” professor Ferenc Mislivets (director of the Institute for Social and European Studies Foundation in Hungary) said at “A Soul for Europe” conference in Istanbul last October.

He was supported by Dutch Professor Paul Scheffer: the European idea cannot be achieved without the active participation of the European citizens. And to become a European citizen, at first you must be a citizen of your own country, your own city, the neighbourhood you live in. “It's easy to be local and be universal, but it is impossible to be universal without being local,” professor Scheffer said. According to him, Europe could play a very positive role “keeping together these attitudes of open-mindedness and loyalty”:

“European integration should be seen as a means to prevent the crisis in our democracies from deepening. It can only succeed if it is perceived as a protection or a means of 'survival' for the nation states that compose this Union.”

The rift between Europe and its citizens can be filled only by the joint efforts of all stakeholders - European institutions, national governments, media, and citizens. The language which they speak can become mutually intelligible only when everyone is convinced that there is something to talk about. In this respect, not only the institutions must translate their "Brussels speak" in a plain language. Citizens must also come a long way to realise that their interest does not end at the doors of their homes. The national politicians have to stop convincing them to believe in this. Europe is the home of Michelangelo, Audi, Nokia, Real Madrid, U2, chocolate and wine. I want it to be my home too. Do you?