(EurActiv) EU between a rock and a hard place

The EU has undoubtedly gone through tumultuous times over the last three years. Because of an unprecedented economic crisis, its leaders have been challenged both by stabilising their own economies, as well as by assisting those states facing financial collapse.

Truth be told, the functioning of the eurozone in particular has been subject to some significant upgrades that have improved the dysfunctional monetary union. Most importantly, the EU has so far held together.

Despite often justified criticism, it managed to pull together a level of solidarity among member states that has ensured no country has been left behind.

However, behind this headlines summary, we can observe with increased concern that little attention is paid to a more fundamental shift within the EU.

The once-benevolent supranational integration that regulated free trade, consumer rights and abolished borders among European states, has over the last three years acquired significant new powers that impact the very essence of the functioning of the welfare state.

The Euro Plus Pact, the Fiscal Treaty and the new set of legislative measures to strengthen economic governance are all extending EU’s powers into areas that have been traditionally under national democratic control.

Most EU observers will probably agree that these measures are necessary elements of a proper economic union. So do we. Yet we also believe that without a democratic counterbalance to the extension of EU’s influence on member states’ traditional competencies – labour markets, education, healthcare, pension systems – the EU’s (in)famous democratic deficit is set to grow and further undermine the diminishing legitimacy the EU has among its citizens.

The extended powers and the increasingly ideological nature of the EU need popular legitimisation in one form or another.

In fact, the already existing lack of legitimacy is the main reason why national leaders have had such a tough time arguing for solidarity in the face of a crisis. For short-term political expediency, they have for years blamed Brussels for unpopular decisions, instead of honestly talk about why certain decisions have been necessary.

Such narratives, bundled with some ignored referendum results, have over time led to EU being progressively seen as an elitist project run by unelected bureaucrats. Euroscepticism is now not only an exotic part of British politics, but a widespread political trend. And the national leaders’ own narrative is coming back to hunt them.

In the long run, establishing a genuine dialogue about what the EU is and what it does is essential to prevent the inevitable from happening: the hardening of stereotypes, euroscepticism and resistance to needed steps towards greater integration.

The final solution to the European sovereign debt crisis is slowly taking shape and we can say with increasing confidence that the euro will survive. Yet, the more important question is whether the EU will come out of the crisis more democratic and empowered with greater popular legitimacy or less democratic and with popular support at historically low levels.

If the leaders’ answer to the crisis is further integration in the form of a banking and fiscal union, it must come along with a political union where accountability is the rule, not the exception. Think of a simple example. National governments have been either reconfirmed or voted out in national elections over their (in)capacity to handle the crisis.

In contrast, nothing has really changed at the level of other EU institutions apart from the composition of the Council. In fact, the decisions of the president of the Commission, the president of the European Council, even those of the European Parliament have not been institutionally challenged.

There was no procedure launched to seek their replacement or early elections. Why? Because there is no functioning mechanism of accountability. The fact that the Parliament has been through recent history dominated by a ‘grand coalition’ among the Conservatives and the Socialists certainly does not help.

Quite the opposite, it largely prevents the Parliament from functioning as a normal parliament. We are thus led to believe that the EU institutions had nothing to do with the emergence of the crisis through their executive and legislative functions. In times when the EU impacts the core functions of the welfare state, this model surely is not viable.

Yes, a lot of institutional debates have taken place in the past – yet in a radically different environment. Adapting the institutions to a larger EU and streamlining its foreign policy is one thing. Making sure that essential choices about the core functions of the state and European integration are made democratically is quite another.

It is thus becoming pressingly urgent to call for a new European social contract that will ensure the EU’s survival and prosperity in the long run. Hoping that things will somehow sort themselves out is not a strategy.

(Written together with Nikos Lampropoulos, the director of EurActiv Greece and member of the board of the Union of European Federalists. Published on 13th November in Euractiv.)

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