LONDON – The European Parliament election has set off a painful process of rethinking not only how the European Union works, but also what it is fundamentally about. The outcome made it clear that there are now two Europes: one in which the logic of integration is deeply embedded in the political system and the social order; and one that rejects the basic assumptions of pooled sovereignty.
The good news is that most of Europe is in the former category; the bad news is that the exceptions include two very large and powerful countries.
The debate about Europe is not simply a discussion of the merits of this or that institutional or technical solution to a problem of political coordination; it is about how societies can organize themselves successfully in a globalized world. Up to now, there has been too much emphasis on institutional design, and not enough on social dynamism and innovation.
Before the election, pro-Europeans regarded the upcoming vote as evidence that a new pattern of EU-wide democracy was emerging. Europe would look more like a country, with pan-European political parties proposing a top candidate (Spitzenkandidat as the Germans put it) to be the European Commission’s next president.
But Euroskeptics countered that the new political order would not work. Voters would treat the elections as they had in the past: an opportunity to protest – though not against Europe so much as against their own national governments. They would also vote against austerity, imposed as a part of the EU’s strategy to defend the monetary union.
Neither the optimists nor the pessimists were correct. No obvious European leader emerged from the election, and political haggling among EU governments over the next Commission president is likely to be prolonged and to look anything but democratic. At the same time, despite news headlines suggesting the contrary, there was no uniform wave of anti-Europeanism, or of disillusion with the European project.
Indeed, in many countries, including some of those most severely hit by the financial and economic crisis, voters turned out to endorse both their governments and the European project. The pro-incumbent effect was discernible in Spain and, most dramatically, Italy, where the new reform government of Matteo Renzi defeated expectations that Italians would deliver another big protest vote. In Eastern Europe, Poland’s governing Civic Platform outperformed the nationalist opposition, while voters in the Baltic states, where the economic effects of austerity were the most severe in the entire EU, endorsed centrist European Parliament candidates.
The unexpected weakness of the populist right in the Netherlands and the solid performance of the ruling Christian Democrats in Germany was a reflection of the same phenomenon: a new core Europe that is politically stable and self-confident.
Across the Rhine and across the English Channel, however, things look very different. In both France and the United Kingdom, the success of insurgent populist parties has shaken the political landscape. In both countries, the incumbent party – the French Socialists and the British Conservatives – were not only beaten, but finished third.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the victory of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front as a political “earthquake.” And, though the Front’s triumph could easily be ascribed to the unpopularity of Socialist President François Hollande and his government, the parallel triumph of the UK Independence Party cannot be explained as a protest vote against the coalition government, which is delivering an economic recovery. The UKIP’s stunning victory was unambiguously a popular rejection of Europe, in particular of immigration from the EU.
The election outcomes in France and Britain reflect both countries’ deeper deviations from the European pattern. For starters, their imperial legacies constrain them to behave like nineteenth-century Great Powers, not as part of the globalized and inter-connected world of the twenty-first century. This is reflected in their economic models. In Britain, over-dependence on financial services reflects the view that finance is the central coordinating activity of economic life, which made more sense in the nineteenth century than it does today.
For France, the equivalent weakness is a proclivity for corporate gigantism. There are highly successful large industrial enterprises, most of them politically well connected, and tiny mom-and-pop businesses that are vestiges of a lost country. But the panoply of small and medium-size enterprises that make Germany and Spain entrepreneurial and economically successful is almost entirely missing in France.
Both Britain and France are having vigorous debates about how to change their economic models. Some reformers in government want more German-style apprenticeship schemes; there is talk of tax breaks for small businesses, and of easing excessively intrusive regulatory burdens.
It is difficult to see how either Britain or France can survive on the basis of nostalgia. Reforming both countries is as essential a task as reforming Europe’s creaky and complex political order. And that requires much more than just tweaking public spending and introducing some high-tech infrastructure projects; it means recreating the basis for a more dynamic society.
Domestic reform in Europe’s two large former imperial powers is also an essential element in making Europe work. While it is conceivable that the European project could survive without Britain, a united Europe without France is unthinkable.