Progressive Futures

Europeanism has no future without transformed Europeanist parties

12 September 2018

The current crisis of western democracy manifests itself, in Europe, in a crisis of Europeanism. No institutional or political solution will save the European Union if progressives and pro-Europeans do not face reality with courage: the only answer to a crisis of democracy is a renewed exercise in democracy by the pro-European parties.

Umberto Marengo
Markus Plaff / Shutterstock.com

Europeanism, that is the process of building a politically united and economically interdependent Europe, is one of the historic achievements of the post-world war generation, along with the Bretton Woods agreements and the United Nations. The post-war order was based on three promises: first, well-being and growth for all; second, the right to individual self-fulfilment; third, peace in the West through international institutions and some degree of multilateralism. John F. Kennedy explicitly spelled it out in 1962 when he invited the European Community to a “Declaration of Interdependence” with the United States.

For decades each generation has expected not only ever improving living conditions but also they deemed themselves to have a right[1] to well-being and self-fulfilment. Today, the post-war order is clearly in crisis, alongside the institutions and the elites that represent it. We must admit with realism that the consensus towards an open and united Europe has eroded rapidly after the promise of increasing prosperity and autonomy has been left unfulfilled for many.

How does this crisis manifest itself? The most striking effect is that the boundaries of acceptable behaviours and rhetoric have shifted dramatically in few years. Acts of racism or anti-Semitism, and blatant denials of reality have become uncomfortably frequent. Chaotic governments are tolerated on the ground that they are led “spontaneous” personalities. The loss of confidence in the ruling élite resulted in public opinions throwing their weight behind policies mainly because they are presented as “against the mainstream”. In short, elections have become acts of revenge against the betrayed promise of ever increasing prosperity and self-fulfilment, starting with the European Union.

The European Commission stresses the need to provide a strong institutional answer to two major emergencies: the fall of living standards and the migration crisis. In both cases, Europe proved itself not able to react to external shocks since 2008. This ended up exacerbating structural problems that had been present for a long time. None of these problems has a national answer, and therefore the answer must be European, starting from its institutions. But the institutional response is not at all sufficient.

The elites must respond to this crisis of democracy with a new and concrete exercise in democracy. I propose three steps in this direction. The first step is to ban the “there are no alternatives” argument from progressive politics. Even when it is true, lack of alternatives is the point of arrival of any political argument, never the starting point. The second is to put an end to any politics of self-aggrandisement the rings like “we were right and the public will come to recognise this soon.” Simply put, this never, never works. The third, arguably the most important step, is listening. Progressives and pro-Europeans need fewer editorials, more volunteers and organising. In many countries this aspect has been overlooked on the ground that today’s societies are disintermediated and thus leaders can forge a direct relationship with the public. However, disintermediation means that the social bodies are less strong, not that the electorate’s need for recognition has disappeared. The strongest lesson of the last few years it is also the most obvious: politics remains the collective “force of us”. This is no less true in disintermediated societies. In the end, consensus and ballots go to those who make voters feel recognised, valued, and protected – individually and as a community.

Strengthening European institutions continues to be crucial, especially in a period of increasing instability. But Europeanism is the expression of a democratic model in crisis. Not so much because of the so-called “democratic deficit of the European Union”, but in a much deeper sense due to the falling consensus towards pro-European national parties. If pro-Europe parties do not survive this time, Europeanism has no future. Only by rethinking what political representation, participation and activism mean, Europeanism can have a future.