Thursday

12th Dec 2019

Interview

Populists 'could be the opposition parliament needs'

  • Heads of government have had to learn to lean on their personal judgement rather than just the small-print of an EU treaty (Photo: © European Union , 2018)

The expected surge in populists and nationalists in the next European Parliament after this week's elections has spooked many.

It has fuelled speculation that the legislature could be paralysed if a third of the MEPs are fiercely eurosceptic and anti-EU, as some polling suggests.

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  • Middelaar argues Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, the 'new opposition', mean business (Photo: Sake Elzinga)

The parliament's own projections put the number of nationalists and populists at 107 in the 751-seat legislature, plus another 66 eurosceptics.

Dutch historian and writer Luuk van Middelaar - whose new book, Alarums and Excursions, is a deeply insightful account of how the EU learned to deal with events via improvisation over the last decade of crises - counter-intuitively argues that this could be a good thing.

Namely: the EU could get the opposition it needs, and the European Parliament could become a more accurate reflection of public opinion across the EU.

In Brussels, people often forget that a parliament is not only a legislative body, but also a representative body, Middelaar points out in a talk with EUobserver.

"It is this second function where the European Parliament has most to win," he said, adding that up until now it has been perceived as too consensual and too distant from voters.

"It could be stronger, if it could more credibly embody the full spectrum of public opinion in EU," he said.

The EU has lacked a proper opposition for decades, because it has been built on the principle of "de-politicisation".

The idea that to "overcome political strife of centuries is to put politics under the carpet and pretend there is no conflict, only 'problems' [that] we can resolve with technical and procedural means, topped up with a little bit of rhetoric and values", Middelaar said.

"Any critical voices were disqualified, muted or put out of order as either 'you have not understood the EU', or 'you are not a good European'," he added.

While this was understandable in the early days of the bloc, as a weak EU needed to survive, it has over time become counterproductive.

"This de-politicisation strategy works against the EU, because it is no longer credible in all situations," the political theorist said.

Making rules for an internal market can be done with technocrats - but dealing with a refugee crisis that cuts to national identity, religion, and solidarity is deeply political.

Crisis breeds improvisation

This is a lesson the EU has learned over the last decade, Middelaar says in his book, which analyses how consecutive crises have taught national leaders to improvise, despite the EU's fundamental instinct to shepherd every difficulty into a procedure.

Political events, such as the euro crisis, Russia's aggression against Ukraine, Brexit, the refugee crisis, and Donald Trump's election, have upset the EU's rule-making routine, and required leaders to think strategically and manage crises.

"There are no given answers in a crisis, the treaty doesn't tell you what you have to do, it is indeed a matter of personal judgment," Middelaar said - warning, however, that improvisation does not mean arbitrariness.

In the process, the European Council, the gathering of national leaders given full status in the Lisbon Treaty, has become the most powerful forum in European decision-making.

Echoing what EU council president Donald Tusk said after leaders' met in Sibiu to discuss the EU's future strategic agenda, Middelaar said they "have categorically demonstrated that they want to take full political responsibility not only for single events or challenges, but for the EU as a whole."

Middelaar (who formerly served in the cabinet of ex-EU council chief Herman Van Rompuy and gives a fascinating first-hand account to an unfolding eurocrisis) said that to deal with crises in the future, the commission and the council need to stick to their roles in the theatre of EU politics.

The European council is the highest political authority for crisis management and setting the long-term strategy directions, while the commission is the place for initiative, expertise, and ideas to follow up on the leaders' decisions.

"They need each other," Middelaar said, adding that the two were sometimes at odds - pointing to the refugee crisis, when the commission "wanted to show it can act like a government" by insisting on the distribution of migrants. Meanwhile, the council for its part sometimes goes too far in its policy prescriptions.

The author did not want to comment on who, among the current contenders for the new EU leadership, would make the best 'improvisers'. But he said that a more strategic reflection is needed in the EU.

To accommodate opposition, to be better-equipped for the next political crisis, the EU needs to do away with a few taboos, Middelaar argues, and talk openly.

"There can be good reasons to have certain taboos, but at some point the cost may be bigger," he said.

So, for example, not defining the EU's border with Turkey has worked as a tool of "diplomatic ambiguity", not defining the bloc's frontier to the east, with Russia, created an ambiguity that contributed to the conflict in Ukraine.

"Putin implicitly said if you are too much of a coward to define your border, I will define it for you," he said.

'Do-ers' or complainers?

The question still arises as to whether the new opposition, such as Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini or Hungary's premier Viktor Orban, will act as a real political opponent, or merely attempt to troll an EU it despises.

"I think they mean business," Middelaar said, arguing that the Salvini-Orban generation will be a different type of eurosceptic force than the Farage-Le Pen one, referring to the French far-right leader and the principal Brexiteer.

He said Farage and Le Pen have used the EP for funding for their own parties at home and for exposure, particularly on YouTube, at which they had been "very successful."

"They were not there to have any influence whatsoever on the legislative work," Middelaar noted.

"Salvini and Orban want to get their hand on the tiller," he said, adding "also they are in government at home, not opposition, they want to weigh on the decisions, want to have an impact on everything" from migration, the future of Schengen, to asylum.

Middelaar argues that there is a "broad agenda" that binds the nationalist parties together, defying common perceptions that nationalists can never agree precisely because they are nationalists.

"There is a broad agenda, having to do with identity, Islam, migration where they all sing from the same hymn sheet, a common platform for action," he said.

"That [policy agenda] probably could be considered an opposition in the classical sense," he added, "unlike what Orban does to Hungarian democracy at home, which is deeply problematic.".

Alarums & Excursions: Improvising politics on the European stage by Luuk van Middelaar is published by Agenda Publishing (2019).

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