Politics & Policy

Europe’s Electoral Earthquake


‘There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation,” said Adam Smith — and that goes double for a continent. Sunday’s elections for the European parliament were an important stage on the road to ruin, which has now been traveled for almost 60 years, but they did not signal arrival at the final destination. From the standpoint of both its founders and its critics, that destination is a federal European state, and the transport system taking us there is the so-called “functionalist” theory of integration. Under this theory, Europe is supposed to be integrated function by function — coal and steel production, trade diplomacy, trade in goods and services, legal rules, police functions, defense, foreign policy, currency, etc., etc. — until its peoples and governments wake up one morning and realize that, Hey, we’re living in the same state/country/nation/polity/whatever. Isn’t that great! Henry Kissinger will be phoning any minute to congratulate us.

The single most vital missing ingredient in the functionalist recipe, however, is a European demos. “European” is no more than a geographical expression. There are Frenchmen, Germans, Brits, Italians, and Dutchmen, but there is no European people united by sentiment, common fellowship, language, historical institutions, the mystic chords of memory, and a sense of overriding vital mutual interests. There is the “vanguard” of a possible future European people in the form of those politicians and bureaucrats who go by the name of Eurocrats. But vanguards are no guarantee of a successful future demos, as the dissolutions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia illustrate horribly.

Without a demos, however, functionalism eventually fails to function. It runs into a crisis and it finds that it cannot call on the loyalty of its citizens to solve it. Indeed, its creates a crisis by removing powers from its constituent governments that the citizens would prefer at home. Eventually it provokes a rebellion. And that is what arrived on Sunday.

For the first 30 or so years of its existence, the European Union (which went under various aliases, such as European Economic Community, for much of the period) mainly pursued activities that were either mildly beneficial (e.g., reduced barriers to trade) or temporarily soothing (e.g., agricultural subsidies) or remote from everyday experience. Most of the crises that European countries experienced in this period, such as the Soviet threat, were unrelated to its existence. It rumbled on functionally. Most people lived their lives without thinking much about the EU.

After the Cold War ended, however, the treaties that installed the single European market, the harmonization of European regulations, and the single European currency meant that their lives were increasingly interrupted and disturbed by decisions made in Brussels. Tom Rogan has a very useful list of typical interventions in his NRO article. What irked people in individual countries, moreover, was that there seemed to be no way they could repeal or obstruct new regulations that they found expensive, burdensome, annoying, or simply unjust. National governments claimed to be powerless before Brussels.

However irritating this regulatory Saint Vitus’ dance was, though, no single example ever seemed worth making a real fuss over. And those citizens who did make a fuss — such as Britain’s “Metric Martyrs,” who objected to the outlawing of the UK’s traditional weights and measures — could be snidely dismissed as cranks, fined, and be forgotten. People did begin voting for Euro-skeptic parties, but in small numbers that grew slowly election by election. It seemed that it would require a massive international crisis with all its attendant sufferings before the functionalist model of integration could be stopped.


Three years ago the euro — which up to that point had been celebrated as an advance of civilization equal to the discovery of anaesthesia — began its descent into crisis. Attempts to solve this crisis have imposed an extraordinary degree of economic austerity on Mediterranean Europe and serious exactions on the taxpayers of Northern Europe. The euro itself has been preserved, but at the cost of high levels of unemployment and economic waste seemingly without end. The EU’s solutions to the euro crisis are worse than the crisis itself in their effects on ordinary people. People are enraged that they are not allowed to obstruct or even question the policies imposed by this functionalist express. In short, the euro crisis woke up European voters to the undemocratic nature of the European Union. Hence the rebellions in Sunday’s elections.

About one third of Europe’s voters cast their ballots for “anti-establishment” parties across Europe. These parties are very different in different countries. The hard-right nationalism of France’s Front National is very different from the welfare-state protectionism of the Danish People’s Party, which is in turn different from the free-trade, outward-looking liberalism of UKIP in Britain. But they are all reacting to the failure of supranational, undemocratic Euro-governance, and they all want the return of powers from Brussels to national parliaments. They are expressing deep currents of opinion in their respective countries, amounting in many, if not most, cases to majority opinion.

If that is so, it is fair to ask: Why did the Euro-establishment parties of Left and Right win two-thirds of the seats in the Euro-parliament? The answer is that most ordinary people in democratic societies develop a loyalty to established parties that goes quite deep and remains a force even when the parties disappoint or betray their supporters. Yet 5 million Spanish voters abandoned the two major parties of the Spanish state; the Front National defeated the two equivalent parties in France; and UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, is the first insurgent party since 1910 to win a UK national election. These are massive political facts signifying a deep national alienation that also influences other regular supporters of the major parties — just not to the extent of persuading them to abandon their customary loyalties and switch to parties widely seen as, at the very least, not respectable. At least for now.

Prudent leaders in national politics recognize such earthquakes and trim policy accordingly. But the leaders of the parties in the European parliament are the opposite of prudent; they are fanatical devotees of the undemocratic process of European integration that sparked the weekend revolts. They will work together across the aisle in an unacknowledged “grand coalition” rather than concede anything serious to the new arrivals. That will cause tensions with their colleagues in national governments, who will want to appease their publics’ opinions — which in most cases will be their own domestic political supporters. But the likelihood is that although the European parliament will become a more raucous and rowdy place, its bipartisan-establishment majority will push ahead with “functionalist integration,” euro and all, with the support of the European Commission and its bureaucracies.

But since functionalism eventually fails to function, there will be another crisis down the road, and a larger electoral rebellion in response. And at some point the people will defeat the vanguard. Just not this time.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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