Britain and Europe

The importance of being able to leave

18 March 2016

Current tensions within the European Union should spark a politicisation of its failing institutions

Daniel Innerarity

Everything that preceded the announcement of a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union was a political absurdity (demagoguery, irresponsibility, shameful concessions) with one exception: it has politicised an issue that was resting on the placid necessity of unquestionable mechanisms. We do not hear a lot of good news out of Europe, which is why I am taking the opportunity to point out one piece of positive news, even if it may be only an unintended consequence of a bad decision: from now on, there will be less excuses to shelter European policies within the limbo that has protected them from the decisions of Europeans. Politics is returning to the European Union, not because of the dynamism of its institutions, but prompted by the pressures of populism.

The Monnet method of bureaucratic integration has been mechanical and furtive, dominated by necessity. This is revealed by the language of integration: benign despotism, integration by stealth, spillover, irresistible enlargement, irreversibility … The principal drivers of integration, on the right and on the left, have been governed by a crude determinism that presupposed that the desired institutional improvements would inevitably follow economic development. The principal strategy of integration consisted of conceding primacy to processes over results and accepting as a given that success was guaranteed. That led to the idea of irreversibility, the lack of contingency plans and the absence of any reflection about a possible failure, of “exit options” in case things did not go well, which was particularly obvious in the case of the single currency, which was agreed upon as an irrevocable commitment. It is still a paradox that, while the Treaty of Lisbon admitted for the first time the possibility that a member state could leave the Union, membership in the eurozone continues to be irreversible. No appropriate instruments have been designed for the management of crises, sometimes increasing the risk of future crises in favour of immediate short-term advantages or leaving a large number of technical and institutional problems unresolved. When there has been a crisis, European leaders have not known how to do anything but convince their electorate that there was no choice; their rhetorical strategy consisted of replacing their habitual absolute optimism with catastrophic visions of what would happen if integration or the monetary union were to fail. This is the conceptual framework in which the so-called “bicycle theory” of European integration was formulated, which posits that integration should not stop, especially in times of crisis. (Although, as Ralf Dahrendorf said, “I often cycle in Oxford, and if I stop pedalling I do not fall; I simply put my feet on the ground”).

All of this had a certain logic, and I am not going to discuss its historical appropriateness or the favorability of its results at this time; I will limit my attention instead to questions about its future utility. What is central to its limitations is the fact that a system designed to minimise decisions cannot make them entirely superfluous, among other things because there are always implicit decisions, in the same way that technical decisions always mask some political motivation. In the 1960s and 70s, in the age of “permissive consensus”, when its principal policies were distanced from people’s daily concerns, the European project did not seem to need the explicit favour of the public. In the current context, which is very different, the type of discourse that is apparently most mobilising (appealing to the need with which processes lead to established ends, completing what was put into motion, insisting that there is no other possibility…) is, precisely, what ends up irritating citizens the most.

Conflicts like the one presented openly with the Brexit debate are returning the European project to a space of free decision making. Integration is a free option, not the inevitable consequence of a process that escapes our control.

I do not possess a magic formula for achieving the full democratisation of Europe, but I would like to make a modest proposal of democratisation centered on the type of discourse we must maintain. Let us begin by abandoning that functionalist language, the language of irresistible and pressing needs, while barely making use of expressions that appeal to our freedom of choice toward the future. The practices of the European Union, which are on the one hand consensual and gradual, through procedural adjustments, also constitute a system that favours dissimulated or hidden decisions, decisions that are democratically unauthorised, sometimes in the form of non-decisions or submissiveness to technological objectivities. Even the “federate or perish” by Alterio Spinelli may be true, but it speaks the language of coercion. All our vocabulary is pure necessity; none of it speaks to a free decision of the citizens. This is incendiary material in the hands of populists who seek motives to denounce a conspiracy of the elite.
In the face of this type of surrender before a supposed historic necessity, the only democratically acceptable imperative is that Europe must be politicised. From this point of view, the existence of conflicts, questioning and tensions should not be considered a symptom that politics is not working properly, but as an opportunity for politicisation. The fact that decisions are not easily adopted or accepted is what makes them, strictly speaking, political decisions, beyond the unquestionable technological motives.

We may need to thank the British one day for their contribution to politicising the European Union. We will recognise it more if they stay than if they leave and will more fully appreciate a decision to stay if they could have left.

Photo credit: Piotr Zajda / Shutterstock.com