Why all the anxious talk of a Union in crisis when we witness the consequences of an old dream having come true? Europe had to become political; Europe had to be close to the citizens; Europe had to be more than “Brussels”. Today, thanks to the euro and the Schengen passport union, it is all that. And yes, it hurts. Democracy is not for the faint-hearted.
For decades, the European project was a perk for believers & businesses, farmers & fishermen, eurocrats & experts: in short, for un-ordinary people like you and me. Even if the single market with its magic number ’1992′ briefly caught the public eye, very few people took note when a year later the Maastricht Treaty turned them into ‘European citizens’. They were close to 300 million to shrug their shoulders.
Today, parliaments and public opinions all over Europe watch events in Athens intensely. Governments in two member states, Ireland and Portugal, fell over EU-IMF loan conditions. The recent cobbling together of a coalition government Finland was shaped by the country’s stake in financial rescue operations. Almost every week now, prominent German and Dutch television shows feature the long overdue debate about the euro.
What is happening? Is this a “renationalisation of European politics”, undermining the Union, as some fear? No, quite the contrary. We witness a europeanisation of national politics. We see a rising public awareness that decisions in one member state, affect all the others. That the shores of Italy and Malta are in a way Sweden’s and Poland’s external borders too. That the deficits of Spain or France may at some point concern Austria and Luxembourg too. Certainly, it gives rise to some tensions and crisis management hiccups, but this evolution will ultimately strengthen the Union.
The European public, finally woken from the slumber of passive consensus, will force governments and parliaments to act. Take the peer pressure in the Union’s new economic governance. Some fear that governments will water down Commission recommendations, as happened in the past. They forget a new element at play, a major incentive to keep an eye on ones peers: the billions involved in the rescue mechanisms. If, after a Commission warning, ministers for some reason let a colleague off the hook, and if at a later stage the country in question would ask for emergency loans, many if not all the other governments would get major problems at home. Their press would want to know: “How could you let this happen?”. The public mood, instead of being a problem, could thus become a part of the solution.
This forces a change of perspective for academics and EU-experts as well. To start seeing where European politics is, we must shake off the conventional wisdom (starting with the cliché distinction of community method and intergovernmentalism). So get some of the lenses off the Union’s institutions: a European body politic will not one day emerge from Brussels. Instead, watch the fascinating events which bring 27 national democracies within earshot of each other.
Not shooting distance, but shouting distance!