The European Union (EU) is under threat. The European project, which has brought most recent case is the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) from the EU. Although many in the EU believed it would never happen, the Brexit has become reality. More than 52% of the British people decided to vote for leaving the EU. Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, called the result of the referendum seismic. He argued that the people who have been oppressed, have rejected in this way the big politics played by the Union: “They wanted their country back.”
In the context of the Brexit, European leaders came to together in Bratislava to discuss the European Union’s future without the UK. The summit was marked by EU President Donald Tusk as a historical moment for the future of Europe. The big question at stake: how do we restore the confidence of the citizens in the EU?
Since the implementation of the European Market Program in the mid-1980s, the European citizens have been anxious that too much legislative power would be shifted from member states to EU. The European Market Program was seen as a huge step in Europe’s integration process that “would undermine the democratic accountability at the member state level without any compensation for this loss through improved forms of democratic oversight of policy making at the EU level.”
This fear became for the first time visible with the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. The aim of the treaty was to further integrate the EU in the areas of foreign policy, military and judicial cooperation. However, the Danish people were too afraid that they would lose control in the EU which has been dominated by large states such as Germany of France. The common idea among the Danish population was that the influence of the larger countries on these Maastricht-policies would have been much greater than Denmark’s.
In order to deal with this fear, the European leaders have reasoned for too long that strengthening the democratic credentials of the European institutions, in particularly the European Parliament (EP), would overcome this feeling of lacking influence. However, although the EP have gained increasing power over EU legislation since their establishment in 1979, the overall voter turnout in EP elections has dramatically declined over time. The EP has continued to fail to connect to its electorate: citizens remain to see the EP as a talk-shop.
The Brexit is in this respect illustrative as to how the democratic deficit of the EU came back into the picture. Many British believe that the EU has failed to protect them of the negative side effect of the European Single Market: globalization. According to them living standards were better protected in the heyday of nation states in the 1950s and 1960 than they are now. However, at no point, they feel that there was a possibility to hold elected Europe representatives accountable for their declining living standards. In fact the British people became to believe that the perpetual need for a further integrated Europe had become a function of the EU itself. Also a vote in EP elections could not impact this desire: there was no opportunity to choose between rival policies regarding the EU integration process. Therefore, according to the Brits it was necessary to return the powers to the national government to be in control again.
The question remains, how do we prevent other member states from following the example of the UK? As the President of the Council rightly pointed out, “It would be a fatal error to assume that the negative result in the UK referendum represents a specifically British issue.” To restore the confidence of its electorate, the EU needs to offer a visible and genuine choice about the speed and direction of the integration process.
Some optimists would argue that the different parties in the EP already reflect the political wills and behaviors of the electorate. However, the results of these kind of political debates in parliament are not connected to the political behavior of the EU. This makes it impossible for voters to hold the Members of Parliament accountable for acting against their interests and voting the ‘wrong way’.
Hence, the EU should not let the European process be an end themselves. The EU should significantly impact the vote of it electorate in its desire to integrate and above all, stop to act as a train who likes to continue its ride to a fully integrated Europe at all costs. Only when the EU improves it response to the continent wide sentiment among its populace of limited influence in Europe’s integration process, it will continue to survive.
Maarten Visser has studied Communication and Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam. He has gained work experience at the Samir Kassir Foundation in Beirut, the Debate foundation in Jordan and at the Dutch parliament for the labor party (PvdA). Currently he is doing a Master’s degree in International Relations in Historical Perspective in Utrecht. Maarten’s fields of interests include EU Foreign and Security Policy, EU (Dis)integration process and Europe’s relationship with the Middle East.
- BBC, “Referendum results Brexit” (Version June 23 2016)
- Nigel Farage, “EPIC EU Exit Speech in European Parliament”, (Version June 28, 2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhsmnyY2TaI (September 27 2016)
- Richard Bellamy, “The inevitability of a democratic deficit”, Edited by Hubert Zimmermann and Andreas Dür (London, 2012) 64.
- European Parliament, “Fact sheet Historical Background”, (Version January 2016) lhttp://www.europarl.europa.eu/ftu/pdf/en/FTU_1.3.1.pdf (October 22 2016)
- Larry Elliott,”Brexit is a rejection of globalization”, The Guardian, June 26 2016.
Press Release of the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Brussels, October 13 2016.