The message from EU elections: Voters irritated by common rules

The message from EU elections: Voters irritated by common rules

Angelo Santagostino*
There is a common element among the winners of the recent elections in Europe from Greece to the latest ones in Poland and Spain: an aversion to EU rules. 

In Greece, as well as in Spain, voters have rewarded the formations, Syriza and Podemos, which are most adverse to fiscal discipline rules. In the United Kingdom, David Cameron became premier with calls to renegotiate the rules of the EU treaty – essentially those related to the single market and immigration. In 2017, he will hold a referendum asking whether or not the United Kingdom should remain a member of the EU. In Poland, Andrzej Duda became president showing off a Eurosceptic conservative mold, he too proposing to renegotiate certain aspects of the treaty. The next Polish political elections scheduled for October could bring his party, Law and Justice (Pis), to power. The same could happen with Podemos in January or February 2016. 

On one side, we find the irritation of voters with the rules that constrain the ability of government to spend as they wish and, more generally of politics, deal with public deficits and debts. No more 
austerity is the general cry. On the other side, the annoyance with excessive market regulations is seen as constraining the freedom of economic initiative and an attempt to homogenize Europe. One type of
 Euroskepticism wants freer public spending; another type of Euroskepticism wants more entrepreneurial freedom. Freedom of spending versus freedom to do – the aversion to the EU’s common rules has roots in two opposite political views. Despite these differences of thought, both these views feature varying doses of nationalism. Nationalism and Europeanism are an irreconcilable couple. 

Common rules are the expression of European sovereignty, that is, the process of transferring state powers to the supranational EU level. Actually, it is a process that is unique in the world. The fortunes of Europeanism, after a long and successful season, have gradually declined with the advance of this merciless crisis. Politicians, both those in government and those in opposition, have not missed the opportunity to make the EU responsible for the crisis. In this operation, they have been supported by a growing part of the intelligentsia. Consequently in these years, their arrows have pierced, among other EU achievements like the euro, the Brussels bureaucracy, which is deemed responsible for the acts of austerity and red tape. 

Bureaucracy, actually, only implements what the council and the parliament decide. As we know, politics does not hesitate to use false arguments when this is in its interest. But the essential point is the rejection of the supranational dimension on the ground that the protection of one’s own country calls for it. When the storms strikes, the national cave turns out to be the safer place; it is an instinct for all – not just humans. Others, believing that national pride has been injured for having to adopt laws “decided elsewhere,” demand a return to full, absolute sovereignty.  

Europeanism has been a center of gravity in normal times, but it loses strength when a crisis gets tough. In such times, the number of those who believe that it is better to go one’s own way grows. Europe has already experienced this attitude. It happened in the 1970s because of the oil crisis. In those years, the EEC was just something more than a custom union but big enough to disturb politician, inducing them to paralyze it, generating so-called Euro-sclerosis.  

The problem is whether European countries, once they are eventually divided, will be able to do better than the united Europe of the last 60 years. Will individual states have public finance rules better than the European ones? Will economies with country-to-country differences concerning regulations for the production goods and services work better? Will governments negotiate better than the EU agreements with powerhouses like China and India? 

And finally and above all, because this is the obsession of these years: In a divided Europe, will there be less German hegemony than there is today? History is not very encouraging on how much a divided Europe can successfully cope with these problems.

The rejection crisis that Europe is experiencing may be the start of the progressive demolition of Europe or the opportunity to figure out how to make it work even in times of crisis and be our common shelter, as well as our common launching pad. 

*Angelo Santagostino is the Jean Monnet Chair at Yıldırım Beyazıt University in Ankara.