Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

Habermas versus Farage

The 2014 election campaign for the European Parliament sees Euro-realists squeezed between federal radicals and anti-EU-extremists. Our leading politicians are reluctant to come to the rescue.

You would expect that, in the run off to the ‘mother of all European elections’ – the forthcoming May 2014 elections for the European Parliament, at which everyone expects a giant battle between pro-EU and anti-EU forces -, that political parties would come up with the best lists of candidates possible and campaign on the most daring and convincing party programmes ever.

For the Netherlands, and my own party, Dutch Labour (PvdA), I am afraid to say, this is not the case. It is even worse than could be imagined: a tragic paradox seems to be playing out over the last decade. The more important and powerful the EU-level and eurozone matters become, the less quality parties seem to be able and willing to invest in European politics, in terms of personnel and programme development.

Social democratic parties preach that, by definition, they are the internationalist pro-EU parties, but they do not practice this with their heart and soul, to put it mildly.

Historically, it has not been the best or the brightest who have been active in European politics in Brussels and Strasbourg (I dare to say so, because I was a European candidate myself on the last PvdA-list, representing the not so good and bright). The strange thing is that this does not seem to be improving spectacularly, now European politics is more and more centre-stage due to the financial-economic governance of the currency union and the (assumed) disappearance of borders in our post-national world.

I dare to break this taboo on personal political quality, because the leadership candidates for the PvdA-group in the European Parliament did so themselves, even in Dutch newspapers: “Sorry that it is us who stand for these elections, being not very well-known and experienced politicians at all. In fact, we need a guy of the standing and stature of Frans Timmermans, the actual Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, to lead our campaign, but these kind of people are not available.’’

Unfortunately, this is totally true. Nobody likes to run for the European Parliament in the Netherlands. The EP is a very unpopular institution, with a bad reputation in terms of greed, corruption, inefficiency and symbolic politics. In political debates in the Netherlands, the negative stories about Brussels and Strasbourg are played out loudly by the eurosceptic parties. The EU in general can be defended with good arguments, but, say, the Strasbourg seat of the EP is totally indefensible in times of austerity and a populist zeitgeist.

In the narrative about the Europe Union and European integration, the European Parliament constitutes “the weakest link’’. It is, true or not, the most vulnerable, controversial and disputed institution of the EU. The communicative tragedy (for mainstream pro-EU parties) is that many debates about Europe’s future have to be channelled through the elections of the European Parliament. So fundamental discussions about the eurozone make-up, or subsidiarity, are mixed up, and polluted by negative stereotype discussions about the European Parliament.

Problematic on top of that is that European elections are second order elections of the most horrific nature. Voters are not turning out (democratically shameful scores of below 40% are no exception). They feel negatively indifferent about European politics. Europe “for the many, not the few’’ is a slogan far from the reality of the feathered-bed elitist politics that has come to hold sway in the past decade.

This all seems to be radically different at the forthcoming elections in May 2014. We are facing a make-or-break moment for Europe. The European Union is storming toward a huge clash. A clash between two opposing camps of radicals: the ‘federal radicals’ versus the ‘populist radicals’. This may result in an electoral bloodbath.

Two extreme camps stand against each other. At the one hand, there is the camp of anti-EU forces. For the European elections of May 2014 an unprecedented and powerful new alliance has been formed by right-wing populist and (former?) far right parties. This alliance consists of parties such as the French Front National, the Italian Lega Nord, the Dutch Geert Wilders Freedom’s party (PVV), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Flemish Vlaams Belang party of Filip Dewinter.

Jointly they are preparing an anti-EU campaign for the elections and will explore forming a new radical-right grouping within the European Parliament. Geert Wilders has said that „our parties could make the Europhile elite sing a different tune“. They are calling for a break-up of both the eurozone and the European Union. Marine Le Pen, the leader of Front National, has vowed that the European Union would „collapse like the Soviet Union“. She criticised the EU as a „global anomaly“ and pledged to return the bloc to a „cooperation of sovereign states“. She said Europe’s population had „no control“ over their economy or currency, nor over the movement of people in their territory. „I believe that the EU is like the Soviet Union now: it is not improvable,“ she said. „The EU will collapse like the Soviet Union collapsed.“

Not that far away from the political goals of the new anti-EU alliance (but seriously keeping distance, especially from the islamophobe and xenophobe image of the new right-wing populist alliance) is the UKIP-party of Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. A more complex player has also entered the field in the form of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland party, which criticises the make-up and governance of the eurozone, but is not anti-EU per se.

The other camp of federal radicals contains Brussels old boy’s insider-networks such as the Spinelli Group of federalist MEPs (led by Guy Verhofstadt and Andrew Duff), or a new established group of eleven German economists, political scientists and jurists, the Glienicker Group, which recently developed proposals for a deeper union. These groups, frontrunners and avant-garde of the European establishment, plea for a rapid and drastic deepening of European integration – a federal leap -, to finally solve the contemporary euro crisis. They plea for a new Convention and a new Treaty to form a Federal Political Union, in which the European Commission is transformed into a EU constitutional government, or by which a euro-government is formed, a central government for the eurozone.

What about the third camp, the camp of moderate euro-realists? This camp, and this makes matters more complex and vulnerable, contains the majority of the European electorate and the majority of the mainstream political parties in Europe. This camp is neither ‘anti-EU nationalistic’ nor ‘Europistic-federalist’.

The tragedy is that this third camp seems to be paralysed and squeezed in-between the more fanatic outspoken federal radicals and nationalistic extremists, and therefore suffers from weak candidates and weak programmes with hybrid positions.

As a result, strong, experienced, common-sense driven mainstream European politicians are not leading the campaign for a reformed Europe: rather it is our great thinkers who have been sent out to do the dirty job. Intellectuals are acting as anti-populist and anti-neoliberal spokesmen. Jürgen Habermas is all over the place, defending a reformed transnational democratic European Union for a post-national world order. And Anthony Giddens just published his apologia for Europe: ‘Turbulent and Mighty Continent. What Future for Europe?’

Habermas and Giddens versus Farage and Le Pen. Fingers crossed for Europe.

The article was published as contribution to the monthly insight bulletin State of the Left by our London-based partner thinktank policy network.