Ever since the EU was diagnosed with a so-called ‘democratic deficit’, it has attempted to close the gap between the European elite and its citizens. At first, its communication policies were directed at providing information and ‘educating’ the public about Europe. However, since the mid-2000s, the EU has committed itself (in theory at least) to the idea of a true European public sphere involving genuine dialogue with its citizens. Via its ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (EfCP), the EU now supports various external projects to stimulate this two-way relationship.
A case in point is ‘Debating Europe’, a website created by the organization Friends of Europe, which seeks to stimulate a direct conversation between European citizens and their supranational politicians by connecting them on their online platform. Several of its debates are funded by the EfCP and citizens can engage in these debates by sending in questions or posting comments. Debating Europe then takes these questions to certain ‘European leaders’ like MEPs, policy-makers, academic experts or NGOs to have them respond. However, does Debating Europe actually succeed in its objective of encouraging honest debate and bringing together European leaders and their citizens? How is the interactive process shaped by all these actors?
Although research on the European public sphere has come a long way since the original Habermasian understanding of the term, I argue that the interaction between all these different actors asks for an approach that integrates both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Especially in current-day digital society, traditional media, political actors and citizens are all involved in the online “production, distribution, consumption and discussion of political content on issues of societal relevance.” By understanding the European public sphere as a network of online and offline meaning-making, it becomes possible to see the intersections between EU policies, transnational media discourses and citizens’ practices. Continue reading “Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?”→
In the midst of a nasty break-up in the West and moves by Hungary and Poland towards ‘illiberal democracy’ in the East, a unique opportunity might present itself: a pan-European list of MEPs. Because let’s face it, the European elections do not rouse the spirits of most European citizens. Very often, European elections are hijacked by national quarrels that transform the European elections into an evaluation of respective national government’s performances. While we know all about Trump and American affairs, European issues do not get a seat at the dinner table. With the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union in March 2019, 73 seats will become available in the European Parliament. Notwithstanding the trauma of Brexit, these free seats can be used to create a pan-European list of MEPs to be voted upon directly by European citizens. Such an electoral college will strengthen European democracy, thereby bringing the EU ever closer to its citizens and put a halt to the nationalization of the European elections.
More than being just a fancy idea, it provides a firm response in the face of recent illiberal moves by Hungary and Poland. Over the last year, ruling Eurosceptic parties Fidesz and PiS have taken several highly controversial measures. For example, by taking government control of NGO funding. Recently, their close bond was confirmed when Mateusz Morawiecki, freshly appointed Prime Minister of Poland, decided to use his first bilateral visit to meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Together, their deep resentment and distrust of Brussels increasingly poses a threat to Europe’s core values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Continue reading “How Brexit could pose an opportunity for the EU”→
This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.
It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.
The surge and decline of Geert Wilders
In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.
It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.
Puzzling for a coalition
With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.
Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.
The Netherlands in Europe
What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.
However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.
There are two types of threat – those from the outside and those from the inside.
Since the first foundations of the European Union were laid more than fifty years ago, it has changed, deepened, and certainly, become more complex. In fact, one can even argue that the EU is somewhat unique, exploring new ways for states to cooperate while allowing them to maintain their full sovereignty. A similar system has never been attempted in the history of humankind.
However, with the these changes, new challenges have arisen. It is not a secret that the EU is currently facing an “identity” crisis, to some extent. After Brexit, a new wave of sceptics has awakened as determined as never before. Eurosceptics.
Interestingly enough, the term “Euroscepticism” first appeared in 1985 in a British newspaper. Since then, in various forms, such as hard or soft Euroscepticism, economic or political, it has become a permanent component of the political landscape of the EU. It is a truly complex phenomenon, with many issues underlying it. With every new aspect of Europe introduced, the main focus of Euroscepticism has changed – from attacking the notion of the European citizen to opposing the common currency and immigration policy, to even the critiquing of the whole idea, as we see now.
Having a Eurosceptic party as a member of a government coalition is common practice, and criticizing the Union is usually a “job” for the right and far right wings, who have enjoyed a recent rise in public support. Yet, what might surprise you is the fact that even in the European parliament, within the very heart of the EU, we can find Eurosceptic groups. It makes sense. The EU is an international organization made up of 28 Member States. A very popular debate among politicians and political scientists presently is whether the EU is turning into some sort of federal state, like the USA, leading to criticism of its supposed power. It is true that with every new treaty signed, the European Union has come closer to resembling a federal state, even if in reality it is far from it. It is also odd, though, because, the EU only has just as much power as the Member States are willing to grant it. The EU is the Member States, although some of its critics argue that at this point, states are pressured to be a part of it, because otherwise, the state is bound to face difficulties on trade and cooperation with others. While to some extent this is true, we can find plenty of examples where states have chosen to remain outside of the EU – Norway and Switzerland, for example, or Britain, which currently in process of leaving the EU.
It should be noted, that no European Union is not an option anymore, and even the harshest Eurosceptics sense that some minimal form of integration is unavoidable. The debate remains whether the EU should be an “ever closer union” or return to its original state as a free-trade zone with minimum supranational competences.
However, the close relationships between the Member States of the EU might be seen as a powerful response to globalisation. The nations of the world are ever more interdependent, and with the influential economic and cultural position of the US and the rapidly increasing influence of China, it could be argued that, if for nothing else, Europe should “stick together” for social and economic security and international competitiveness.
Nonetheless, unfortunately, most of the Euroscepticism that we see during our day-to-day lives is not based on political and/or economic facts and calculations, but rather on “she said, he said, I heard…” This is the most dangerous type of Euroscepticism. Based on the absence of knowledge or understanding, or plain ignorance, it spreads fast and effectively, and is carefully nourished by a mainstream media that submissively give the people what they want – a bad image of the EU. It is just that simple! When looking at survey data from 2015 Eurobarometer report, 42% stated that they do not understand how the EU works. If one does not understand how the EU works, are they able to critically assess the information given through the media?
Looking deeper, since 2010 Euroscepticism has increased not only in traditionally sceptical countries, such as Denmark and the UK, but also in founder states, such as France and Germany. Moreover, in 2015, Iceland withdrew its EU membership application. This summer, the British voted “leave” and now we see speculations here and there about Frexit, Nexit, Gexit and so on. The founding states themselves are debating the future of the Union.
Therefore, the European Union is now threatened not only by the economic crisis and the refugee crisis, but also by an “identity crisis” – mistrust and ignorance. Scepticism itself is not so bad. There is an opposition for every practice in this world, and often the opposition only pushes for the better. The EU is a new form of international organisation, and, in fact, it is expanding into unknown territory. On that account, if justified, Euroscepticism can be seen as “healthy criticism” and is actually great for reflection on current policies. Unfortunately, at the moment a major part of the scepticism among people of the EU is more “unhealthy”, as it does not propose possible compromises, but is founded on a lack of information as well as twisted information and thus, leads to resistance against any form of European Union. To fight this, people need to be informed, information needs to be made available and supporters of the EU must help disseminate an accurate image of the EU. To do that, first they must educate themselves on the inner workings of the Union. Eurosceptics will not be deterred by a Europhile who knows nothing of the EU.
There were a few weeks where it looked as though the Brexit dust was settling. The markets had remained surprisingly robust, defying immediate post-referendum expectations, and aside from Labour party infighting, the political landscape was relatively calm. Then the Conservative party conference arrived, to crush our dreams. Here are five moments of fresh misery the government delivered to the UK electorate:
A Hard Brexit will begin March 2017, with the UK potentially exiting the European Union by 2019
The term ‘Portuguese Brexit’ has been popping up in Portuguese media as of late. While this is a very unlikely scenario, I think that in the context of growing Euroscepticism and growing support for right-wing populist rhetoric in the EU, this merits some attention, especially given Portugal’s generally favourable attitude towards the EU.
The idea of a Portuguese Brexit was voiced by Catarina Martins, Chairperson of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda party in Portugal, who is campaigning for a referendum to be held on Portugal’s membership of the EU. This situation arose in response to the possibility of sanctions being applied to Portugal and Spain for “lack of effective action” in dealing with levels of “excessive deficit”, which was discussed earlier this summer.
The decision to discuss the application of sanctions came after a meeting held by Ecofin, the EU’s economic and financial affairs council, as a result of Portugal and Spain’s failure to comply with rules stating that EU member state’s budget deficits should remain within 3% of GDP (gross domestic product). Had the commission decided to apply sanctions, these would consist of a fine that could go up to 0.2% of the country’s GDP, and would be the first case of sanctions being applied to a Eurozone country.
Feelings of outrage and injustice were sparked in Portugal and Spain as a result. In the case of Portugal, its deficit stood at 8.6% of GDP in 2010 and was reduced to just over 3% by 2015. This was the result of horrendous salary cuts and reforms which have characterized an economically precarious situation for Portuguese citizens in the past few years. António Costa, Portuguese prime-minister, argued that imposing sanctions on a country that is implementing demanding measures in order to reduce deficit is unjust and unreasonable, highlighting the unfavourable social and economic European context in which this situation took place. In a period of weak economic growth, perhaps asphyxiating that growth through sanctions is not the wisest move.
Furthermore, Portugal and Spain were by no means the first, nor the worst, member states to breach the 3% deficit rule. Fingers were pointed at France, with 11 violations, as well as Italy, and even Germany for surpassing this figure. The debate then turns to the EU’s (in)ability to challenge larger member states. As one Portuguese politician argues, it is inequality that is killing the EU. All this is not to say that the EU shouldn’t take its role of ‘refereeing’ countries that fail to keep within the established deficit seriously, but that discussions and punishments not be dished out arbitrarily, and not throw weaker member states under the bus.
In the end, the commission decided not to go forward with the application of sanctions against the two countries, recognizing the immense sacrifice that has been made by the Iberian people in order to improve their countries economic situation. Both member states are now tasked with coming up with measures to ensure the deficit will be within the 3% limit by 2017, a process which is currently being tackled in Portugal. The situation is a little more difficult across the border in Spain, in the midst of the political gridlock taking place there, due to the fact that the provisional government is not able to make any kind of binding budgetary proposals, thereby assigning this task a more challenging nature.
While sanctions were not applied, bitterness towards the EU for its supposed unfair treatment remains. Situations like these only serve to increase criticism of an EU that is far removed from the lives and interests of European citizens, and will do little to remedy the issue of the perceived democratic deficit in EU politics. Perhaps the commission would do well to pay less attention to the well payed economists of the Eurogroup and instead find a way of decreasing the space between the EU and the ordinary European, . Unless it does this the EU risks fuelling a domino-effect of campaigns for referenda on EU membership in the aftermath of Brexit, jeopardizing the entire European project in a period of great turbulence.
(Ever wonder how difficult it is to bring students from all over the world together in a single program spread over many universities and countries? Albert Meijer, coordinator with the Erasmus Mundus Euroculture program, gives some practical advice in ‘The Back Office”)
Amongst all the sound and fury in the aftermath of the European Commission’s decision that Ireland mustcollect a minimum of 13bn in tax from tech giant Apple, a fury that has included accusations of tax evasion, a tense moment between coalition partners and endless debates over the benefits of the Irish “Sweetheart System”, most observers seem to have overlooked a key piece of dialogue from this drama. The lines were delivered by none other than Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, and they were part of his response to questions regarding the Irish executive’s decision to appeal the Commission’s ruling. Kenny said:
“…I make no apology about our decision to appeal this because it’s about Ireland. It’s about our people, it’s about us as a sovereign nation actually setting out what are appropriate policies to devise job opportunities and employment careers for our people.”
This statement marks something of a sea change in Irish politics. Far from breaking down under international pressure, Kenny seemed unrepentant before a hostile media response. It is a rare stance to take for a state that rarely raises its voice in class. Long accused by some states, including a SYRIZA led Greece, of failing to fight the imposition of austerity as a condition for an EU bailout during the height of the financial crisis, the Republic of Ireland has cultivated an image of Europe’s “good performer”, as Christine Lagarde of the IMF has put it. This has been bolstered by a stupendous economic recovery, unmatched by any in the Eurozone, and by consistent growth. When Yanis Varoufakis, in his brief stint as Greek Finance Minister, went to war with the EU establishment over austerity, the Irish government kept mum. Where Portugal and Spain failed to find a political consensus in the post-austerity fragmented political landscape, Ireland’s largest party, Fine Gael, managed to cobble together an uneasy alliance to allow their continued governance.
The decision of the competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager to pursue the tax ruling, however, has sparked something that has been quite alien to Ireland in the past; it has brought out the Eurosceptic. If you are not convinced, read another choice quote by Kenny:
“This is about the right to small nations. I’m not sure whether the European Commission want to ingratiate themselves with countries more powerful than ours. But this is a small country, and the first meeting I attended after being elected in 2011 was [about increasing] our tax rate.”
To hear an Irish leader speak of the “right to small nations” is, to an Irish citizen, to be transported to another age altogether, when the island of Ireland as a whole was a member of the British Commonwealth. Now, not yet a hundred years since the dissolution of the union of Great Britain and Ireland, the same rhetoric has for the first time been used by a person of power in Ireland against Ireland’s greatest benefactor: the European Union.
Understanding the significance of this will take a little background. For those of you who have not been keeping abreast of the Irish Apple drama, it can be summarized easily enough. Apple has used the Irish county Cork as the base of its European operations for nearly four decades, taken advantage of a lucrative Irish corporation tax of 12.5 percent. The Commission has found that, rather than paying this rather paltry sum, Apple has been afforded a special arrangement involving some complex constructions which allowed the company to pay next to nothing in taxes- which has been referred to as a “sweetheart” deal – by successive Irish governments. Although this deal is set to expire in 2021 in order for Ireland to be compliant with EU competition law, the Commission has decided that the Republic of Ireland was breaching EU law in its refusal to collect the full scale of Apple’s taxes on all of its European operations, and has demanded that the Irish government collect between 13bn and 19bn in back taxes from the American company.
The Irish government has responded negatively and vowed to appeal this decision, citing the potential loss of 5,000 Irish jobs and the possible knock-on effect the decision might have on Ireland’s financial recovery. Apple has stated that it has not broken any laws, a sentiment broadly backed by the Irish government. However, other commenters, such as economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz have dismiss this argument as “balderdash”. At the same time, a few Irish politicians say they would welcome the cash influx to invest in Irish society. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, however, claims that the sudden windfall of 13bn to the Irish budget would have to be used in full to pay back Irish debt, an argument that is being vehemently denied by Commission spokespersons.
All these dissenting voices lead to a complicated international incident, rife with tension and accusations. The only consensus to be found, it seems, is among the Irish population; the decision by the government to appeal this decision is one of the least divisive issues in Irish politics today, as in a recent survey, 62 percent of Irish people have said they support the government’s decision. This perhaps appears to be less than shocking in the current European climate which has seen the beginning of a Brexit, and the rise of Eurosceptic parties across Europe. However, when you put it in the context of another recent poll, in which respondents were asked whether Ireland, given a Brexit like vote, should remain in the EU, things seem somewhat different. The poll by Ignite Research found that 76 percent of Irish adults would vote to remain in the EU. This poll was not conducted in the distant past during the first flush of Euro money into the Republic, but in June of this year, after nearly a decade of austerity.
In this context, the government’s talk of “sovereignty” for small nations seems premature and out of tune with Ireland’s relatively positive relationship with the EU. Indeed, the Irish have many reasons to view the EU positively, as access to the single market and stability funds has allowed the young Republic to make investments, build roads and establish an international reputation in business. It could seem like the comments by the government and the recent poll are a fluke: an issue-based response to a current crisis. This is only the comforting reading of events, however, which conveniently forgets the fledging movement that was UKIP in the UK, and forgets that a snow ball rolling down a hill gains mass.
Irish Euroscepticism is not unique, but it is new, and may even be nipped in the bud. The Brexit referendum has shown that public opinion in European nations is volatile, and the EU does not need a big toothache from little Ireland. The fear of a knock-on effect from the Brexit and a disintegration of the EU is by no means an inevitability. Ireland, along with many other countries, do indeed gain from their membership of what will remain – even when the Brexit negotiations have concluded – the world’s largest trading bloc, and this in itself can be enough to keep the project moving forward. However, it might take the Commission developing a different political sensibility.
This is not to say that Apple should not pay its taxes. By all rights it should. What it means is that a stronger Europe might be better achieved quietly. Loud pronunciations and condemnations from on high can spark a fire in a population. The Apple ruling, no matter if it was legally correct or not, came at a time when the rhetoric of sovereignty is echoing across Europe, where smaller nations are clinging to their rights under subsidiarity. The decision here, to rule against a law already destined for the rubbish bin strikes many as high-handed and has definitely been taken as politically motivated. At a time when the Commission has failed to deal with, for instance, the flagrant disregard for environmental law shown by the German car manufacturer Volkswagen, Kenny’s reference to larger countries highlights a keen suspicion that the Commission serves the interests of the EU’s larger, more populous states.
To fight off such accusations the Commission is forced to either launch an assault on the various corruptions afflicting every EU state, or to take a more practical approach, finding compromises rather than delivering rulings. Issues such as the Apple “sweetheart” deal and the Volkswagen emission scandal must be dealt with for the sake of all European citizens, but perhaps, in a time when Europe hangs in the balance, a quietly achieved consensus is better than a trumpeted success.