Dreams against Reality

The crisis of legitimacy of the European Union is yesterday’s news. Since the demise of the Constitutional Treaty, the road to integration has found such unbeatable obstacles that speaking of federalism is today a pure academic exercise. Instead, other issues have to be identified and solved.

Several forced steps taken during the crisis, triggered by necessity and not supported by public opinion, have increased popular “resistance” to integration. Some scholars, such as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, suggest that this sentiment has been fueled by the incapacity of national politicians: “Our lame political elites, who prefer to read the tabloid headlines – says Habermas – must not use as an excuse that the populations are an obstacle to a deeper European integration”.

Habermas’ wish is that the crisis gives Europeans a new sense of a shared destiny: but this feeling is not there. Simply said, citizens of the European Union – and citizens of the Eurozone – don’t perceive themselves as one polity, the crisis helping to tease out long buried nationalist prejudices.

Both national and European politics failed: Member states hid crucial information on the status of their respective banking sectors and each one of them proceeded to recapitalize its own banks, de facto determining a forced repatriation of capitals and violating the principles of the internal market. The Commission behaved cowardly on banking bailouts and played a marginal role throughout the whole crisis. Only the ECB surged as a “hero” on the world’s scene and is likely to be the biggest interlocutor for financial markets and governments, raising the eyebrows of federalist champions.

The reality is that the future of decision-making in the Euro-zone looks more and more inter-governmental, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Although inter-governmentalism is an inefficient method for decision-making, it is to date the only one that guarantees a certain amount of democratic legitimacy, as national actors are de facto accountable in a way that European institutions are not. Supra-national decision-making might be a more efficient tool to manage the Euro-zone and a driving force for better solutions, less biased by the influence of strong national interests. However, accountability would be minimal should the existing institutions be guiding the decision-making process.

In the tension between democracy and efficiency, the current Euro-zone decision-making process reflects the status quo: democratically elected governments are the only ones legitimized to discuss certain crucial measures because they are accountable with national polities – the only ones that exist so far. And when critics say that “national governments refuse to give away their competences”, they forget to remark that this is a consequence of a democratic, legitimate request from voters.

Even in the remote possibility that a method is found, which guarantees efficient and accountable political decisions at a supranational level, we would still be stuck with the problem of “which” institutions should be used to achieve such an objective: can the European Commission and the European Parliament act as catalysts for political decisions in the Euro-zone, given that they represent also countries – and therefore interests – which are not part of it? And the main problem in the near future will be if the two blocs’ will have different, sometimes opposite economic and political interests.

On the verge of a new era for politics in the European Union, repeating old mantra only hinders the chance to discuss the perspectives with an open mind.

Alfonso Ricciardelli

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