26th Oct 2016


In search of Europe's prophets

  • Higgins - Europe's legitimacy crisis (Photo: The Irish Labour Party)

Among other things, recent European politics has suffered from a shortage of prophets.

Although it would be a stretch to describe Michael Higgins as a prophet, the Irish president is possibly Europe's only intellectual leader.

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A poet, sociologist, and sometime politician, Higgins looks and sounds like a throwback to an era when politicians were statesmen rather than grey-suited and grey-sounding technocrats. His mere presence on the political scene is a novelty - in fact, he was elected in 2011 with the highest number of votes ever received by a Presidential candidate.

By most accounts, President Higgins gave one of the most elegant and eloquent speeches the Parliament has heard in recent years in Strasbourg on Wednesday (17 April). A cynic might argue that the competition has not been fierce, but it was hard not to be moved by a speech that had clearly been tenderly crafted to be enjoyed rather than endured. The standing ovation MEPs gave him at the end was spontaneous and genuine.

The implication of Higgins' narrative was that the EU is at a cross-roads, facing a serious legitimacy crisis, with its citizens "threatened with an unconscious drift to disharmony, a loss of social cohesion, a recurrence of racism and a deficit of democratic accountability."

There is a dangerous chasm that separates the dry, technocrat language used by EU officials and economists to describe budgetary austerity and the rioting and impassioned protests on the streets that it has spawned.

The agencies widely seen as responsible for dictating the terms of economic policy - credit rating agencies, the bond markets, and financial markets in general - are also impersonal and unaccountable.

"European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of bodies such as rating agencies, which, unlike parliaments, are unaccountable. Many of our citizens regard the response to the crisis as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity," said Higgins.

"We cannot afford to place our singular trust in a version of a logistical, economic theory whose assumptions are questionable and indifferent to social consequences in terms of their outcome."

With a little over a year to the next European elections, this legitimacy crisis should strike fear into the establishment parties who have struggled to cope with the five year economic and financial crisis, and stand to lose the most.

In a bid to plug the gap between leaders and electorates, it seems likely that Europe's biggest political groups will each put up a party candidate for president of the European Commission. At the post-speech press conference with President Higgins, EU parliament chief Martin Schulz threw his weight behind a directly-elected head of the EU executive.

Schulz, who is expected to throw his hat into the ring for the job, argued that the prospect of a commission chief with a parliamentary majority and a mandate would increase voter participation

In his words, European Parliament elections are currently "seen as something to bother with if you have five minutes to spare to put a cross on a piece of paper."

In the coming months, much time and money will be spent by the commission and parliament on how to increase participation next May. If the 2009 advertising campaign is anything to go by, the institutions will focus on the increased legislative role of the EU's elected assembly.

But to focus on the legislative powers of the Parliament would be to miss the point. For one thing, turnout is not going to soar just because people have a better understanding of the co-decision procedure. As the Parliament has become more important, more voters have stayed at home. According to the statistics on the Parliament's website, a 62 percent turnout across the EC-9 in 1979 fell to 43 percent across the EU-27 in 2009.

In any case, the role of the Troika - composed of representatives from the commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund - which has dictated the terms of bailout packages to five EU countries including Higgins' native Ireland, has also threatened to undermine the sovereignty of national parliaments.

As Higgins pointed out, "the citizenry needs to be offered a real choice rather than variations of the same choice."

To most voters, particularly those in the five bailout countries, there is little to distinguish between Europe's christian democrats, liberals and social democrats. And as national elections in Greece, Finland and Italy have shown, individuals are quite prepared to lend their support to a protest party if they have no confidence in the establishment parties.

If the only choice politicians can offer is between a stab in the front and a stab in the back, they can hardly be surprised if voters stay away.

Unlike the history of the European Enlightenment, the genealogy of European integration is associated more with 'great men' rather than great intellectuals. But, unusually, Higgins described the role of men and women of letters as "an urgent one", calling on them to "state publicly and unequivocally that the problems of Europe are not simply technical, and certainly not solely amenable to solution by technocratic measures at the expense of democratic accountability."

There can be little doubt that if EU leaders persist in sticking to economic policies that throttle growth and lengthen the dole queues, accompanied by the language of technocracy, the Union will face an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy.

To do this, in Higgins' words, would be to see Europeans "reduced to the status of mere consumers; pawns in a speculative chess board of fiscal moves in a game derived from assumptions that are weak, untestable or more frequently undeclared."

It would be comforting to think that those in charge of EU economic policy might cast their eyes over Higgins' speech. As Jacques Delors said of the current crisis, "Europe does not just need fire-fighters, it needs architects too".

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