The new threat to European identity

Four or five years ago, nearly every European Union official was looking to make national newspaper headlines. Today, the EU is a fixture on the front page — but not in a way we expected.

Four to five years ago too, the European Union was encouraging its citizens to pay attention to all the relevant EU issues, and to figure out a way to reduce the so-called democratic deficit. Today, people care – but not in the way we had hoped.

What has gone wrong?

In the past, the main threat to the development of European identity stemmed from the obstinacy of the so-called Eurosceptics. Europe, it seemed, was beloved by the so-called Europeanists — that is, everyone else. Those on the political right found that Europe’s newfound potential to have a consolidated market appealed to them; those on the left were moved by the idea of their fragmented continent evolving into some sort of internationalist dream. Perhaps most importantly, the EU was an idea that people on both the left and right could get behind because of the values it stood for: human rights, democracy, freedom, equality, and unity. While the institutions of the EU were still under construction, it was easy for all Europeanists from very different backgrounds and ideas to see the potential of Europe as their own potential.

Now that the building process is in an advanced stage, the ideas have begun to be implemented, leaving many of the previous Europeanists disappointed. In this case, the once-expected definition and materialization of Europe has resulted in a decrease of the people supporting it. While some may argue that the EU is an unfinished project, that there is still potential for everyone’s ideas, there is an increasing feeling among the disappointed Europeanists that the core values of the EU have been abandoned.

Examples of this crisis of confidence can be found all around the continent. Perhaps most obviously, consider Greece’s cancellation of the referendum on EU rescue aid for Greece. Had this referendum taken place, markets would have been shaken even before the world knew the outcome of the vote; if the Greeks had unequivocally rejected the referendum, the outcome may well have plunged Europe into economic chaos. Needless to say, it is understandable that the referendum was called off. But was this the correct course of action in the long run? Why do political leaders fear their people’s ability to take charge of their own future, instead of providing them the tools to do it? Is disrespecting the will of the people a healthy trend for democracy? Should the legitimacy of a people’s government and its decisions not be derived from the people themselves?

If financial stability trumped democratic legitimacy in Greece, speed and efficiency are what beat out democracy in Italy. The fact that the new Prime Minister was not backed by the people and was simply appointed by President Napolitano is hardly reassuring, and indeed a frightening trend. While there is no doubt he is a legitimate leader, the sense of urgency and need for a new head of state in Italy became more important than its democratic traditions.

In Spain, more disappointment abounds. One of the few EU member-state where a transition of power occurred completely democratically, the country had previously amended its Constitution to put a ceiling on public deficit. This measure was praised by experts, but also criticized by those who noted that only a national sense of urgency had incited the first-ever change to the rigid Spanish constitution. Whereas a referendum is traditionally desired to corroborate serious political change, the dire situation Spain found itself in was enough to get the amendment pushed through in about ten minutes.

The aforementioned examples indicate that the European Union may be slowly leaving behind the ideals that gave birth to the institution itself and increasing the democratic deficit. Ignoring the will of the citizenry is contrary to the core values of the EU; its tradition of pluralism is the main source of its strength. If the EU does not alter its trajectory, we may soon find that the EU has evolved into a kind of Illustrated Despotism, where “everything is done for the people, but without the people”.

Leire Ariz is the Media Officer at ThinkYoung

Alex Yamet contributed to this article

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  1. I like very much the title of the article. But I do not agree with some of the things you say…. “Why do political leaders fear their people’s ability to take charge of their own future, instead of providing them the tools to do it?”

    Yes, democracy sounds good and we all want it, but let’s not stumble into means when the objective is more important. The objective of reestablishing the democracy even with temporary non-democratic measures. If you give the power to the people now, they will not know what to do with it, and the chaos will become even bigger.

  2. The means to achieve any given goal are extremely important, because they set and define the values of a country, a community, or even a person. If we change our most valuable methods depending on the circumstances, what are we promoting? And this is something I really want an answer for.

    Of course, some flexibility might be needed at some points, but not in the aspects that are the most fundamental for a society, like democracy is for Europe. Especially, when this sacrifice is not really needed. I don’t want to believe that the changes that were traditionally made with the people’s support now neeeeeeed to be done without consensus because we are in a hurry. That might be a short term patch for the crisis, but I believe it will bring bad consequences in the long run. If citizens don’t understand the changes that are being made, feel that these are being done in their backs, and see that the once sacred values are now put in the drawer for later, they will be disappointed at the least. And I don’t even say that if the changes are not supported they shouldn’t occur, nor even that the power should be for the people when they don’t know what to do with it. I just think leaders should take the time to explain the measures. It is obviously better to implement the regulations once the citizens know and support them, rather than making them with massive protests in the streets.

    It took ages to define Europe (or it is taking ages to define Europe), and if democratic deficit was once one of our biggest worries in this building process, I don’t see how today’s behaviors are promoting a more engaged citizenship.

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