Wednesday, 23 November 2016

National vs. European Interest: Which One is Closer to Citizens' Interest?

This note argues that the lack of awareness of our shared interests as Europeans is one of the main causes for the inexistence of a true European constituency made up of individual able to act politically upon their interests at continental level. Mainstream European political parties have not taken up the challenge of articulating such interests at pan-European level and have rather left the work of engaging with their citizens to national parties.

The result is that decisions at European level – especially in areas where the EU as no (or limited) competence – are taken often on the basis of national interests, which recent crises have proved to be against the overall European interest and, ultimately, against that of its citizens.

This short piece therefore suggests that investments need to be made on raising awareness of our common interest as Europeans and to the definition of a clearer vision for Europe in the 21st century. This would contribute to transforming Europeans citizens into a constituency willing (and able) to put forward ambitious reforms for Europe that require significant transfers of sovereignty and, therefore, broad citizens' support.

1. Global challenges but national interests in Europe.

Challenges are increasingly global. It is increasingly obvious that many issues cannot be dealt with effectively by any single country alone. This is clear for most challenges such as climate change, global governance, migration, smuggling, terrorism, tax evasion just to name a few.

However, in the absence of a global political sphere, the legitimacy to deal with any of these global challenges is often constructed at the national level. It follows that the approaches that are defined to tackle such challenges are often framed as opposing national interest, or as opposing interests of actors at various levels (e.g. local or global level).

In Europe, thanks to the European Union and its institutions, the articulation of interests can go one level higher compared to what happens in most countries. The iteration between the expression of citizens' interests and the decision-making process does not happen only at local, regional and the national levels but goes up to the regional/European level. This additional level allows citizens of small and medium countries to have an impact, through the democratic process, on issues that they would normally not be able to influence.

However such enhancement of European citizens' sovereignty does not materialise in all instances. It does indeed take place in areas where the EU has competence to act and where the European Commission is in the position to frame its policies in line with a common European interest. This is certainly the case for the policies addressing internal EU challenges such as the management of the internal market, regional development, research and innovation, employment creation. This is also true for external policies such as trade and, increasingly, for foreign policy as proved by the creation of the Partnership Instrument which differently from the other cooperation instruments was introduced precisely with the objective of promoting the European (and mutual) interests[1].

On the other hand, such reinforcement of European citizens' sovereignty does not materialise fully when the European Commission has no competence to deal with an issue and the power remains in the hands of the European Council. This is because the Council works largely in an intergovernmental manner and its decisions are informed by the perceived interests of the majority of the national constituencies that the various governments represent. The representation of national interests, as it will be noted later in this paper, often lead to decisions damaging not only the European interest but also the interests of the citizens that the various national governments claim to defend.

In the following pages this national interest bias is further analysed and some suggestions on how to overcome it in a European context are provided.

2. Whose interest?

When hearing the words “European interest” some may even argue that there is not such a thing, or that the European interest is the sum of the national interest of its member states. However, that is not always the case. As noted earlier, if we think of key challenges such as the migration, climate change, defence, terrorism, economic growth, freedom of movement or ensuring a high level of welfare, it is easy to confirm that Europeans share a common interest which is that of dealing with these issues effectively. It is also easy to agree that dealing with these challenges is also in the national interest of individual countries.

However, while the “European interest” and “national interest” are aligned in the long run, they may collide in the short run, due to electoral cost of burden sharing and the cost of competence sharing with the EU. In other words, the national electoral cycle weights-in heavily in the balance between short-term national/electoral interest and long-term European/general interest. Furthermore, when the two collide, the former is often preponderant when the competences to deal with the matter lie in the member states represented in the Council and not in the European Commission.

Typically, the clash between these two sets of interests results in the EU's inability to deliver as the EU does not have the competence to act and, at the same time, member states do not have the tools to make a meaningful impact at “systemic level”. In other words, as member states struggle to keep competences in areas in which they do not have any more the ability to have an impact, they impede the European level to take the lead and bring about more effective solutions to the detriment of the citizens. Moreover, reasoning on the basis of short-term national/electoral interest puts at odds the wish of national bureaucracies to keep the competence/autonomy to deal with the issue at stake and the necessity to tackle it at a higher (or more appropriate) administrative or political level, which lead to a vacuum of governance/government. The inability to deliver not only has a negative impact on general trust in the EU (seen as inactive) but also in the national political systems which are seen unable to deliver on the promises made by national governments.

When compromises are reached, often are sub-optimal and insufficiently ambitious to constitute a definitive solution (i.e. too little, too late syndrome) which leads to a “permanent emergency situation” which persists throughout the various attempts to fix what earlier half-baked solutions could not address due to the lack of political will at national level.

Delays in dealing with the various crises also results in increasing the costs of managing them in terms of social cost (e.g. following the economic crisis) and in significant negative externalities such as the rise of populist parties (e.g. due to the poor management of the migration crises) and the undermining of unity among Europeans (e.g Brexit and welfare/mobility debate in the UK).

Last but not least, decision-making on European issues based on national/electoral interests creates also a democratic problem in as much as national/electoral interest of more influential countries (and its citizens who can shape them) set the agenda and determine what is considered as acceptable and timely for the EU as a whole.

The desynchronisation between national and European/global interest also put citizens in competition with one another as rights which resulted from the articulation of interests within a national constituency are automatically extended to third parties without a complementary adjustment placed at supranational level (e.g. complementary welfare system in case of mobility).  Such adjustments, however, especially as far as welfare and security are concerned, would require stronger democratic legitimacy to be put in place and, therefore, a pan-European constituency ready to rally behind it.

It follows that decision making on European/global issues according to national interests jeopardises the ability of Europeans to protect the key principles that are at the heart of the European project such as solidarity, European quality of life, equality among Europeans and unity, all of which have been seriously challenged by the economic crisis, the refugees crises and most recently by Brexit. 

Faced by challenges - which are increasingly global – Europe is confronted with a persistent conflict of interest between national/electoral short term interest represented by national governments and the general/European interest. Despite the fact that in the long run the two interests may coincide such difference is exacerbated in the short run. Under the current institutional setting, national/electoral short-term interest will always prevail over the general European one, simply because there is not a sufficiently strong and organised European constituency to which all governments have to respond to and, ultimately, national governments are only accountable to their own national electorate (i.e. national interest bias).

In other words today's EU institutional setting is in a partial deadlock: in the absence of a European constituency - and faced with the imperfect EU institutional setting - the most viable solutions seem to be are the well-known “compromises” that are rarely sufficient solutions in the long run. In such a scenario, a fundamental change in the way citizens' interests are articulated at European level is desirable.

3. Interests require a constituency to matter

Despite the existence of a European interest – and as noted earlier even of a foreign policy instrument to promote it - up to now the awareness of such a shared interest has not trickled down to the majority of European citizens. Europe (or Brussels) is often talked about as something which is separate from national politics and often in contraposition with it and with national interests. It follows that despite the fact of having shared interests, Europeans are not aware of them and, therefore, they do not act politically to defend them.  In other words the citizens of Europe have not yet developed a sufficient awareness of their shared interest to become a constituency able to promote change in line with their interests. The result is that interests keep being articulated primarily at national (and local) level through national (and local) constituencies. This continues to be the case despite the fact that the EU runs European elections for the European Parliament and that so called "European parties" put forward their candidates. Under such circumstances, why the awareness of belonging to the same constituency hasn't emerged? This is arguably linked to how political parties - as well as the EU itself – are structured and work.

Political parties, which historically had the role of articulating the interests of the citizens into political action have not delivered on this task at the European level. Mainstream European parties have rather acted as bureaucratic agglomerates of largely different national parties that meet before the European elections to define their minimum common denominator rather than developing direct links with their (European) constituency. Most importantly, they develop their minimum common denominator through a process that does not involve their membership base – which often does not even realise that their party is a member of a pan-European party.

This means that the articulation of political interests into political action at European level through mainstream European parties has not contributed to build a constituency of European citizens aware of their shared interests and ready to act politically at European level. Traditional European party up to now have relied largely on national parties for any relation with the grass-root.

The "spitzenkandidaten" process, leading to the indirect election of the President of the European Commission through the European Elections, is probably the only major improvement towards the Europeanisation of the European elections and contributed to identify slightly more directly European parties with their affiliated entities at national level. However, this innovation is certainly not sufficient to build a sense of belonging to the same constituency. A true pan-European electoral list could be set up to address this issue at the next European elections and allowed to be voted by citizens from across the continent. A proposal along these lines was put forward during the 2009-2014 European Parliament legislatures but did not gather sufficient support.

At the same time, if traditional European parties shied away from the attempt of articulating the interests of European citizens directly at European level, some pan-European political movements attempted to do so and build such a pan-European political space for debate. One is the European Federalist Party, which for the 2014 European elections joined forces with Stand Up for Europe and took part in European elections in six countries with candidates defending the same programme drafted and voted by its members from across Europe. Despite the moderate electoral results, such an attempted to develop a more grass-root pan-European approach to political participation in Europe showed that it is possible to articulate interests at European level. The full impact of initiatives of this kind in building a pan-European constituency is yet to be assessed, but it seems that that they contributed to trigger a positive evolution in some mainstream European parties which have also started granting membership to individuals directly.

Overcoming the crises by developing a clearer vision for Europe

If we consider the weak awareness of the European interest among Europeans, and the sub-optimal functioning of the EU due to the national interest bias and the lack of a European constituency able to advocate for the European interest, the crises that Europe has been facing over the past few years are not the main problem, but they have rather crystallised the shortcomings of the EU's imperfect institutional architecture.

The more interesting part of the crisis, therefore, becomes the way we address it. In Chinese the word crisis (i.e. 危机) is composed by two characters: "danger" and "opportunity". From this angle, the crises Europe is facing are certainly "dangers" as they are putting into question some principles at the heart of the European project on and could even lead to the disintegration of the EU as we know it. On the other hand, they could also be "opportunities" to improve the EU's architecture and enhance the resilience of our institutions and democratic processes.

To benefit truly from such crisis, however, we need first to assess what Europe's crises actually are.

If we look at the crises that Europe has been facing over the past decade, most of them are exogenous: the financial crisis that engendered the economic crisis started in the US, the migration crisis has been triggered by the conflict in Syria and by the instability in our neighbourhood. The key issue is therefore why these crises have become permanent conditions. The answer is arguably threefold:

  • they have not been managed decisively, primarily because of short-term national/electoral interests (e.g. euro-crisis),
  • they became permanent due to the structural weakness of EU's institutions vis-a-vis member states who constantly delay the implementation of necessary solutions (e.g. migration crisis),
  • European leaders acted without a clear vision and did not consider the implications of their (non)decisions (with one notable example being German Chancellor Merkel initial statement on the refugees crisis).
The financial crisis is a good example. Given the lack of appropriate macroeconomic measures at European level (as it happened in the USA for instance) it quickly turned into an economic and social crisis (due to the high level of unemployment and worsening of the level of welfare of our fellow citizens). Lack of quick collective action within the Eurozone triggered a debt crisis that hit both our banks and some of our countries via a sovereign debt crisis, which ultimately exposed a confidence crisis in our future (and in the euro) fostered by the perceived incapacity to deal with the challenge via the existing institutional structures. In followed that the crisis became an institutional crisis and showed how the unfinished process of European integration needed to be addressed: namely that we cannot have a monetary union without a fiscal policy and a banking union.

However, rather than opting to sort out fully the institutional weaknesses and reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions (which would have been needed to put in place legitimately the ambitious policies needed to address the root-causes that allowed the crisis to unravel) it was decided to empower the Troika which was perceived as imposing reforms and supporting technocratic governments. Such decision turned the crises into a democratic crisis. The latter evolved into the current political crisis which de-legitimised elected governments in certain countries, disenfranchised part of the electorate - which reduced its electoral participation - and ultimately led to the rise of populist and nationalist parties later galvanised by the poor management of the following crises that hit Europe.

In other words Europe - under the national interest bias - muddled through the recent crises without a clear understanding of what was our shared interest as Europeans, nor which should have been the guiding principles for our action. In this light, the actual European crisis can be considered first and foremost as an identity crisis based on lack of a shared vision and purpose for the European Union in 2016.

How to build a European constituency and give room to a European interest?

This short piece argued that the lack of awareness of our shared interests as Europeans is a cause for the inexistence of a true European constituency made up of individual able to act politically on their interests at continental level. Mainstream European political parties have not taken up the challenge of attempting to articulate such interests at pan-European level and have rather left the work of engaging with their citizens to national parties.

The result is that decisions at European level – especially in areas where the EU as no (or limited) competence – are taken often on the basis of national interest, which has proved to be against the overall European interest and that of the citizens. This has clearly been the case for the recent crises that Europe has faced which could ultimately be traced back to a more fundamental identity crisis.

Against this backdrop, how to ensure that Europeans becomes better aware of their shared European interests and that the EU becomes better able to tackle its crises?

               Today's national debates are quasi-waterproof to one-another, which tend to exacerbate the misunderstanding among Europeans rather than finding common ground. It is crucial to build true European debates to understand from a European perspective the various aspects of each crisis: European crises require European debates, visions and solutions. Awareness of the implications of each crisis by individuals from across the continent is a necessary condition to create the necessary empathy among people which is a necessary condition for solidarity to emerge.

               It is time to recognise that European interest and national interest do not necessary coincide and that increasing national interest also clashes with the citizens' interests of seeing the current crises overcome. This awareness should be taken into account when reforming the EU in order to reduce the weight of the institutions that represent primarily national interests (i.e. European Council). On the contrary, considering that organisations at any level tend to pursue their own interests of conserving or maximising their leverage, the concept of “citizens' interest” instead of “national interest” should be framed as the key principle of policy-making in Europe.

               Issues that are considered of national interest (e.g. national sovereignty, budget, welfare, security) need to be framed within a European system of checks and balances ensuring interpersonal justice, interregional justice, intergenerational justice. To overcome the national interest bias we need to reorganise the division of tasks/competences and budgets in line with citizens' interests and develop policies at the appropriate level to respond to European citizens' needs from as close as possible to them according to the principle of subsidiarity (e.g. local level, regional level, national level,  European level). Passing on national sovereignty to the more appropriate level will ultimately lead to more sovereignty for the citizens (not less as nationalists argue) as people's interests will be translated into policy decisions better able to deliver than individual national initiatives.

               It is time to outline a clear European vision: where is Europe and Europeans heading towards and why? It is crucial to go back to the source of political legitimacy (i.e. the people) and rediscover together the principles at the heart of our societies and democracies. At a time where the search for identity is so pressing, it is fundamental to determine our long term shared interest and objectives as Europeans (if not as global citizens) in order to be able to define the institutional tools better placed to achieve them. Such European dialogue should be a generational exercise carried out through a pan-European participatory process that would lead to the definition of a new “social contract” for 21st century Europe.

Pietro De Matteis, PhD (Cantab), President of the European Federalist Party, Board member of Stand Up for Europe

[1] Art.1 of the Regulation establishing the Partnership Instrument. 

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