Seventeen months after the guns fell silent in Berlin, Winston Churchill proposed a “United States of Europe” to promote peace and well-being. The European people, devastated by war, embraced the concept of continental integration, but decades later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prospect of a “federal Europe” is widely scorned. The Euro crisis is by no means the only problem faced by the European Union; the European Union as a whole faces a crisis in its ability to compete with the powerful economies of the United States and China. However, a more dangerous threat is growing from inside the institution itself: a lack of legitimacy, democracy, and consent, and a growing gap between EU institutions and citizens.
As national leaders press for further European integration in their attempts to soothe the sovereign debt crisis, it seems that democracy has been low in their priorities. There is no longer the same public appetite for integration as there has been in the past, with growing levels of apathy towards European politics. If Churchill and Merkel are to be believed, the future of the European Union is as a powerful super-state; on its current path, it may well become the world’s most illegitimate super-power.
Despite how much sovereignty has been surrendered by constituent nations to the centralized EU policy-making bureaucracy (including control over trade, environmental and agricultural law, as well as monetary policy for the 17 Eurozone members) there has never been a direct public vote about membership of the European Union in eight member states, including Germany, Greece, and Italy. In many other countries, the referenda that have occurred referred only to the EEC (the European Union’s predecessor), long before Europe had power over the political and social, as well as economic, functions of government. The legitimacy of the European Union’s power is questionable in its current form, let alone in light of the increasingly inevitable prospect of tighter integration.
In response to the Euro crisis, in December 2011, a summit of leaders ended with a rushed renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty, which allowed greater centralized control of the fiscal spending of all EU members, not only those in the Eurozone. It is clear that Europe is becoming a set of countries that are not only monetarily, but fiscally and even politically aligned. This is not to mention the imposition of strict austerity measures upon the peoples of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland. With the Euro crisis shaking the very foundations of European internationalism, leaders are currently pursuing a policy of more Europe, rather than less.
These “more Europe” policies have come at a cost. The European Fiscal Compact means that EU members no longer have complete sovereignty over their budgets; only Ireland has held a referendum to democratically legitimatize this transfer of power. Furthermore, as a result of the Eurozone crisis, Mario Monti was appointed as Prime Minister of Italy, having never been elected to any public post, and has led a government of other unelected technocrats since November 2011. Whilst he is now seeking to be elected for a second term, the power that he exercised during his first term had no democratic legitimacy whatsoever. Similarly, an unelected Prime Minister led the Greek government for over seven months. Whatever the long term outcome of actions taken to maintain financial stability in Europe, it is clear that democracy has suffered in the short term.
The negative public reaction to the encroaching power of Brussels has been palpable. In the Greek elections of June 2012, the far-left Syriza party, which had strongly opposed Europe-imposed austerity measures, polled over 27 percent of the vote, becoming the second largest parliamentary party, with other radical anti-Europe parties polling a further 17 percent of votes. This trend is reflected across the continent, and is not only a reaction to recent policies regarding the Euro crisis but part of a more systemic rise of European apathy, or “Euroscepticism.” In January 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to pressure from the right wing of his own party and pledged to repatriate powers from Europe and offer citizens of the United Kingdom an in-out referendum regarding the European Union. Furthermore, there has been a growing tide of grassroots Euroscepticism in Germany, while in France, the anti-Europe National Front has won greater support, with its leader Marine Le Pen placing third in the 2012 presidential elections.
There is nothing impossible about the concept of internationalism and peace emerging from Europe’s long history of bitter nationalism. However, the EU is unsustainable in its current form. The Euro crisis is providing impetus for substantial structural change - if that means that Europe will have more influence over national politics without a greater public mandate to do so, there could be serious problems ahead for Churchill’s grand vision. The departure of some nations from the Eurozone is now a realistic prospect: should this happen, it would be catastrophic for the future of Europe. However, if the movement to strengthen the solidarity of the EU is undertaken alongside efforts to streamline its functions and to increase its democratic legitimacy, then it will not only be able to recover from its current crisis, but also grow into the superpower it has the potential to be.