Although the root cause of the UK’s discontent with the EU can be found in the way that the ‘Common Market’ was originally (and dishonestly) sold to the British electorate, the battle of Brexit can also be viewed as yet another front in a wider, multi-faceted struggle across the EU between the sometimes unlovely populists of right, left and hard-to-say on the one side and the post-democrats steering the Brussels project on the other.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Fraser Nelson:
Martin Selmayr is one of the most powerful men you’ve never heard of. He is chief fixer for Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission; we have him to thank, at least in part, for the woeful ‘“deal” that David Cameron was given in his renegotiation. Professor Dr Selmayr, to give him his German style, is deeply unimpressed by the British referendum, and even less impressed by the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign.
This week, he invited his Twitter followers to imagine a G7 meeting of Donald Trump, [France’s] Marine Le Pen, [Italy’s] Beppe Grillo and – his new demon – [Brexiteer] Boris Johnson.
This “horror scenario”, he continued, shows the importance of “fighting populism”. He signed off with a new rallying cry: “#withJuncker”.
Behold, the great battle of our times: the bureaucrats of Brussels, unsullied by the need to win votes, ready to take on the democratic process and any leaders that it might catapult to power. Things have certainly been fraught recently: a few days ago, Austrian voters came within an ace of electing the first populist head of state since the bad, bad old days. Norbert Hofer, from the Austrian Freedom Party, was pipped by the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen.
The result caused much rejoicing in Brussels, but it shouldn’t have. The presidential campaign only exposed and deepened a political rift that cuts across not just Austria, but much of the continent: the established parties versus the insurgents…
A spectre is once again haunting Europe, but it’s not that of populism. It’s the intransigence of established political parties who prefer to denounce populists rather than seek to understand what motivates their supporters. And the EU, which set out in hope of uniting the continent, has become a source of instability – sticking to an outdated script at a time of unprecedented demographic and economic change. If Europe’s populists do go on to scale greater heights they will have Brussels, and its obstinacy, to thank.
The EU’s suspicion of representative democracy is based on four propositions. First, it believes that people cannot be trusted to support policies necessary for the preservation and improvement of society. Second, it claims there is an important trade-off to be made between democracy and efficiency, and that, in a time of crisis, efficiency must prevail over democracy. Thirdly, it believes that governments, especially democratic governments, have lost the capacity to deal with the key problems facing societies in today’s globalised world. Finally, it is convinced that, given the naivety of the electorate, the main beneficiary of a genuine process of democratic decision-making would be right-wing populists.
Indeed, the anti-democratic instincts of the EU are most strikingly expressed in its obsession with the problem of populism. It imagines itself to be the beacon of enlightened democracy, while the people – the demos – are xenophobic and bigoted. That is why it can casually dismiss and ignore the verdict of national electorates. So, when it seemed as if the Freedom Party could win the Austrian presidency, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said that the Austrian electorate’s will would be ignored. ‘There is no debate or dialogue with the far-right’, he warned.
Juncker’s assertion that there would be ‘no debate’ exposes his reluctance to account for EU politics in front of an electorate. It is also a statement of political cowardice. If indeed the Austrian far-right is a problem, then the task facing genuine democrats is to change the outlook of those who voted for [the Feedom Party’s, presidential candidate Norbert] Hofer. That requires a willingness to argue and debate – something that Juncker and the EU oligarchy studiously avoids.
Instead the members of this elite prefer to delegitimize dissent. They are more comfortable with labels (“Islamophobe”, “populist”, “far-right”) than logic, something that reveals both their confidence (in an increasingly post-democratic EU, it’s increasingly easy to dispense with genuine debate) and, paradoxically, their lack of it: Argument is too dangerous to be risked.
And in another (fascinating) article in the same issue of Spiked Review Chris Bickerton indirectly points to at least part of the explanation of why that might be. What underlies it is the distinction he draws between the nation-state and (EU) member-states, “states whose power and legitimacy are entirely bundled up with their membership of transnational communities of rule such as the EU”:
Rather than deriving their power internally, from their own subjects, governments of member states derive their power from sources externally, in particular from relations forged with other governments and international organisations. The most extreme case of this was Italy a few years ago. In 2011, when Silvio Berlusconi was ousted from power, he was replaced by Mario Monti. Monti’s authority derived from the support he received from outside powers: global markets, other EU leaders, the European Central Bank. When he tried to win over the support of Italians themselves, he failed miserably, with his Civic Choice party gaining only 8.3 per cent of the popular vote in the 2013 elections.
Bickerton pushes this argument—and not only this argument—further than it ought to go (to start with, that “entirely” goes far too far), but there’s a lot to this:
Member states seem powerful because of the dominance of the executive, but appearances are deceptive. They are ‘hard but hollow’, as one political scientist put it, writing about the contemporary Italian state. Their ability to shield themselves from the public has come at the cost of any social contract between politicians and citizens. The member state is hollow as it lacks a legitimising principle capable of replacing that of popular sovereignty.
And an imaginary “Europe”—the “reunification” of a continent that was never united, the proto-state for a European demos that does not exist–will not fill that gap.