The biggest takeaway from the European Parliament elections, which were held last weekend, is that the political center continued its decadelong retreat. This election is a milestone in that regard, though it is difficult to articulate why, considering the European Union has no clear constitution that defines its institutions and its powers. Instead it is governed by treaties among nations. Treaties among nations are necessarily compromises, and compromises necessarily make for ambiguity. Some institutions are controlled by constituent governments, of course, through which democracy is mediated by domestic elections. But the European Parliament is the only institution in which the votes of EU citizens create the membership. The multiplicity of authoritative bodies and their overlapping powers only adds to the ambiguity.
From the beginning of the European project, few European governments were prepared to cede power to pan-European institutions. The European Union is not a multinational state. Yet the European Parliament reflects the idea of Europe as a single political entity. The rest of the European Union reflects the fact that it is the nation-states that have joined together in a treaty organization, the elected governments of those nation-states retain ultimate authority, collectively over the EU, and ultimately over themselves.
Before the Maastricht Treaty went into effect in 1992, there were several disagreements between European nations over policy issues, with many going their own way. These faded for a while but never completely disappeared. Nations occasionally chose to disregard European rules and go their own way, but they were bound together by their original ideology, which dictated simply that after two world wars of staggering horror, Europe sought an exit from its past. The creation of economic unions (one of the stipulations of the Marshall Plan) was designed to eliminate what was thought to be the fundamental cause of these wars: nationalism. The thought was that binding nation-states together economically would reduce the chance of war. It worked insofar as there were no wars, though that had as much to do with the general weakness and dilapidation of Europe as it did with the fear of battle.
Nationalism may have been the original motive for the EU’s creation, but after 1992 the bloc adopted another principle: technocracy, which arose from the ashes of the Soviet Union. The Cold War had been an ideological battle. Europe’s leaders envisioned something that moved beyond ideology. They wanted a government of experts, a government that made decisions without the burdens of outdated systems of belief about what government should do. Beneath the nation-states, and beneath the democratic parliaments, emerged a cadre of what might be called technocrats, a disinterested class committed to efficiency and governance. The EU managed the enormously complex system through regulations, and the regulations were formally approved by political masters but were generated and controlled by the civil service.
All this worked to some extent until 2008, when the competence of the technocrats was brought into question, and when national leaders became more responsive to the problems in their own countries for fear that they would lose their jobs. The idea that the technocracy of Europe was not ideological was an illusion. Technocracy is itself an ideology, deciding what is better and worse based on the consensus of the moment, rather than on explicit principles.
The consensus between 1992 and 2008 was the belief that economic growth, seen as the inhibitor of war, was all-important. The distribution of wealth, or the damage done to some through the impositions of efficiencies leading to growth, was simply a price to pay. Somewhere along the way, a tacit consensus emerged between center-left and center-right parties of a Europe with common values. In their shared vision, Europe’s laws aligned not with the wishes of their voters but with the principles of the parties and the technocrats who shared them.
The measure of a technocracy, though, is its competence. It appeared to many that Brussels was incompetent, and that their pious repetition of the centrist belief in European values was merely a cover for the interests of the European elite.
This came to a head with the Muslim migration issues, and it did so in three ways. First, it raised the issue of whether the EU principles could compel nations to accept migrants based on European principles from which some states and many people dissented. Second, there was the awareness that when migrants came, they would not live in the elite, affluent neighborhoods of the member states – in other words, the places that advocated the loudest for open doors. Third, it raised fundamental questions about the limits of EU power and the rights to self-determination of member states.
Over the past 10 or so years, the EU’s center held in the face of the British referendum to leave the EU, the Greek crisis, the election of governments in Poland and Hungary that pursued the wishes of their electorates rather than the EU, and of Italy, which resisted the EU’s attempt to impose a solution to its financial crisis.
Naturally, the center responded by demonizing all of these centrifugal forces. Also natural was the spread of these movements labeled as populist. What they were was a return to what Europe had always been and truthfully never left, for all the efforts of the EU. Nationalism was re-emerging, drawing the lower classes into the system, insisting on controlling who may reside there, and treating Europe as a treaty rather than a nation. The EU was created to suppress such forces, and the EU was losing control of the situation. As happens to those who believe that they have the right to govern, they could not accept the idea that the right to govern was slipping away.
Hence the importance of these EU elections. The centrist parties weakened a little. The nationalist parties strengthened a little. And, depending on where you draw the line between left and right, left-of-center parties fared pretty well. But what is important is the fact that the elections showed that the center parties are losing control over the political system, however slowly. (Losing, but not yet having lost.) The decisions on this will not be made in the European Parliament but in the national parliaments, which are directly representative of their citizens. I suspect that one more economic crisis or attempt by the EU to impose behaviors that many oppose, such as migration into Europe, can break the increasingly fragile structure. Since the technocrats can’t imagine losing authority, this will be led by an unwillingness to adjust to changing realities, the weakness of all treaties.