A spectre is haunting Europe: right wing chauvinist populism. The tendency has been developing for years, but it is getting worse. Recent elections in Finland have seen a rise in the True Finns’ Party. Xenophobic populists support the government in the Netherlands. In Austria Stracher’s FPÖ is only 2 percentage points behind the Social Democrats and before the ÖVP. In France, Marine Le Pen (Front national) is also the second largest party in the opinion polls and pulls more votes than Socialists and Sarkozy together among the working class voters. She now calls openly for France to leave the Euro, which she triumphantly considers to be the first step of dismantling the European Union.
At the last European Parliament election, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) came ahead of the British Labour Party. In Germany, Angela Merkel has taken the lead of the movement by servicing right wing populists’ sentiments when she declared that Greeks are having too much holiday and cannot stay in the Monetary Union. In all member states of the European Union voter participation has fallen, both in national and in European elections. In Portugal, the recent national elections saw the lowest turn-out rate ever with 59.7% participation. Often low turn-out goes hand in hand with bad results for centre-left parties.
The rise of right wing populism is threatening the European Union and the great peace programme of the last 60 years. According to German newspaper reports, Greek demonstrators have recently been showing the European flag with a swastika between the twelve European stars denouncing “fascism” and USSR style “centralism” coming from the EU. A PASOK deputy, Maria Skrafnarki, told visitors from the German Bundestag: “if you don’t help our country, your compatriots will suffer the same fate as during World War II in Crete” (see Eurointelligence.eu, 6. June 2011). These political developments are in contradiction with the fact that the European Union has been yielding economic benefits for the Union as a whole, and in particular that the Euro has been an instrument that has protected European citizens against much worse consequences from the global financial crisis. Without the Euro, Europe would have been destabilised to a degree not seen since the 1920s and 30s. However, as drastic austerity programs are implemented by conservative-liberal governments all over Europe, the EU does no longer seem to convince many citizens that it stands for a better future. Politics has become the Achilles heel of Europe.
Overcoming Europe’s Democratic Deficit
One reason for this split between broad economic success and growing political disenchantment lies in the fact that politics does not seem to matter anymore in the European Union. Fundamental choices between different policies are not available as all political parties seem to share the basic consensus. The voices of people are not listened to and citizens feel excluded and ignored by their leaders. In other words, Europe suffers from an increasingly more profound democratic crisis.
The European construction has been built on market integration and a broad political consensus between pro-European parties, mainly Christian democrats, Liberals and Social Democrats. The intergovernmental nature of the integration process required that national governments needed to agree with their partners irrespective of party political orientations. Hence European policies are the smallest common denominator, because intergovernmental agreements have to be implemented nationally. This makes it nearly impossible to present political alternatives in the European polity, and European policy makers increasingly sound like benevolent patriarchs who tell “their” people what is best for them rather than like representatives who defend citizens preferences.
Europe’s democratic deficit is becoming unsustainable. Albert Hirschman famously showed the interaction between exit, voice and loyalty: if members of a group feel that their voices are not heard and the other members of the group do not exercise loyalty towards them, the only way is exit. We now witness Europe coming dangerously closed to the logic of exit.
If the European Union is to survive, it has to politicize policy debates. It will need political parties that establish clear alternatives and give citizens real choice. Citizens must again have a sense of being the sovereign (and not their states), of being able to charge their representatives with the policies they prefer (and not some other government). They must regain hope that they can change society, that a different Europe in peace and solidarity is possible. Yet, this cannot be done without political parties that structure and organise policy debates and present alternatives, say, between Social Europe versus a neo-liberal or conservative market economy.
At present, the European parties have created loose confederations of national parties at the European level, such as the Party of European Socialists (PES) or the European People’s Party (EPP). However, national parties still dominate within these confederations. Often, member state governments and their supporting party organisations give instructions to the members of the European Parliament on specific issues. For example, the Spanish and Portuguese socialist governments asked their socialist members of the European Parliament to vote for the “Iberic candidate” José Manuel Barroso as President of the European Commission. As a consequence, many voters, who consider Barroso a conservative and incompetent candidate, felt betrayed by socialists and did not vote.
Overcoming Europe’s fractured Party System
If the European Union wants to survive, it must change. This change needs a twofold and parallel transformation: on the one hand, the weight of policy making has to shift from the nation state to the European level for all those issues which concern all European citizens together. Second, the European level needs to become more politicized, and European political parties must formulate true policy alternatives. Political parties must become the integrating force in the EU because they share similar values and objectives.
The shift of power away from national governments is necessary because it is precisely the mechanism of policy coordination at intergovernmental level that hollows out democracy. In national elections, citizens can elect only small parts of the overall European decision making institution, which is the Council, while there is no general debate about the proper policies citizens want to see achieved at the European level. As a consequence, policy debates are often articulated in terms of national conflicts. For example, Germany is imposing budget austerity on Greece, Ireland or Portugal. The choice is not about what is the best policy in the interest of European citizens. When policies affect all citizens, which is clearly the case with the Euro, then all citizens together must have the right to elect a Parliament that then gives legitimacy to an agent, which would act effectively like a European government. This agent must become a democratically controlled European Commission. Such a shift in political power is perfectly compatible with the Lisbon Treaty and in particular with the ordinary legislative process which is envisaged in TFEU, article 294. However, it requires a political putsch by the members of the European Parliament against the intergovernmental system or, to put it more mildly, it needs a confrontation between Parliament and Council over the control of the European Commission.
Such re-articulation of political power must draw its legitimacy from political parties, which present alternative programmes. Especially social democrats need to articulate a clear alternative to the conservative austerity measures that are threatening social cohesion across the European Union. They also must articulate the principles of social, material and political equality between European citizens. Fighting material inequality means fighting poverty; political equality means that “one man, one vote” should be the criteria to choose the policy direction of the European Union. Both together are called solidarity.
However, formulating a coherent and attractive party programme is not enough. The last European elections have been a clear example that European socialists cannot win in elections without having a candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission. Given that the Lisbon Treaty has opened the way for the European Parliament to confirm the Commission President, the Parliament and its parties must declare in advance whom they are putting up as candidate in case they obtain the majority of seats in the Parliament, possibly in coalition with other parties. This candidate will then implement the party programme. It is this choice between programmes and candidates that will give people the sense that they actually can exercise their rights as sovereign and choose a government that implements policy which affects them all.
European Primaries for the Presidency of the European Commission
The democratization of party politics needs to go one step further. There has recently been a debate about how a socialist candidate for the presidency of the European Commission should be selected. The electoral campaign of Barak Obama has inspired many European socialists to open the political process for primary elections at the national and European level. This step would give citizens the possibility of being actively involved in articulating their ideas and desires for the future of Europe. European socialists, as well as the European People’s Party, must now decide urgently on the practical processes of such primary elections. Should primaries all happen on the same day? Or should they be stretched out over time and member state, somewhat similar to the presidential election in the United States? Who will be allowed to vote in these primary elections? Should it be only card carrying party member, or should it be all those who declare their sympathy with the movement?
A further question that needs to be solved is how political parties at European level should be financed. If primary elections are becoming the rule to select the candidates for the Presidency of the European Commission, one also needs to decide whether such primary campaigns should mainly be left to rich people and their sponsors (like in the USA) or whether there is some form of public money that would allow candidates to run efficient campaigns.
Let us sum up. Unless the political dissatisfaction in the European Union quickly finds a voice and articulation in pan-European political parties, and unless elections start to offer citizens real choice again, the democratic deficit is going to bring down the whole European edifice. It is time that we tackle the most important of all issues: how can citizens control policies about issues that concern them all together. Unless this task is now solved with urgency, the European Union will not survive.
 Merkel declared in the Deutscher Bundestag (Tagungsprotokol 17. Wahlperiode – 30. Sitzung. Berlin, Mittwoch, den 17. März 2010, Seite 2719): “… dass wir für die Zukunft ein Vertragswerk bekommen, aufgrund dessen es als Ultima Ratio sogar möglich ist, ein Land aus dem Euro-Raum auszuschließen, wenn es die Bedingungen langfristig immer wieder nicht erfüllt. Sonst kann man nicht zusammenarbeiten.“ She made the point again, on 17 May 2011 at a CDU party meeting: „Wir können nicht eine Währung haben und der eine kriegt ganz viel Urlaub und der andere ganz wenig. Das geht auf Dauer auch nicht zusammen.“ (We cannot have one currency and one has a lot of holiday and the other very little. In the long run this does not go together.). http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/merkel-fordert-einheitliches-rentenalter-in-europa/4187960.html
 Hirschman, A. O. (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Responses to declines in Firms, Organisations and States (Harvard University Press).