Europeans feel disempowered

Jan-Werner Müller in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 4 September 2014
German political scientist from Princeton University describes dangers and challenges which are waiting for the European Union in the near future.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Is the European Union going to fall apart?

Jan-Werner Müller: Nobody can tell for sure. However, quite apart from the empirical likelihood of Europe actually disintegrating, the way we think about this question is itself indicative of a certain problem. Angela Merkel famously said: “If the euro fails, Europe fails”. This may be true – if Greece were to exit the euro, and there were knock-on effects on other countries, the financial and political consequences could be severe, perhaps catastrophic, not only for Europe, but for the rest of the world. My concern, however, is why we assume that any failure of any particular European policy to deepen integration must automatically be fatal to the project as a whole. We are always so proud to say that democracy is the only system which – unlike dictatorships – can learn, can make mistakes and can change course. And yet in the European context it is said we cannot afford any mistake, so we always have to charge ahead, enlarge and/or become more closely integrated. Ultimately, we actually have so little trust in the European project that we think any policy failure of any kind could destroy it.

Muller_Autor_Aesthetics of Crisis_Źródło_Flickr

Author: Aesthetics of Crisis. Source: Flickr

Do you consider what Angela Merkel said a factual statement, or more of a political statement, which aimed to get people mobilized behind efforts to reform the European Union?

It certainly had some motivational function. It was a rallying cry meant to make people understand that they should care more about the freedoms they now take for granted, like the freedom of movement. But it also was a threat to the Europeans that we might lose what we have already achieved, if we don’t behave in a certain way. Can you imagine this kind of politics on domestic level, if every single issue was presented this way: either you adopt exactly my policy, or the state is going to collapse.

Yes, but introduction of euro was not just any kind of policy initiative. It was a project that was supposed to take the EU to a whole new level. Its failure might therefore be very consequential.

I’m not denying it. I simply think that you cannot blackmail everybody all the time into agreeing on one particular policy by saying that any alternative will have devastating consequences.  Such rhetoric is likely to boost populist movements and parties.

We have so little trust in the European project that we think any policy failure of any kind could destroy it.

Jan-Werner Müller

The European Constitutional Treaty (often simply presented as ‘the Constitution’) was rejected by the French and the Dutch and the EU did not break into pieces…

That is true, but the so-called European Constitution was then replaced by the Lisbon Treaty and when the Treaty was rejected by Ireland, the Irish were asked to vote on it again. This had two major effects: one was that a lot of European citizens felt ignored by their leaders and disempowered. On the other hand, European leaders drew the conclusion that they cannot undertake great initiatives and attach a lot of symbolic weight to them because these are not popular with the electorate. As a consequence, European elites are very defensive and don’t want to stick their necks out with any grand plans.

Where do we go from there?

Well, there are many factors at play. In a sense all of Europe is now being held hostage by Great Britain, because David Cameron let the genie out of the bottle by promising British people a referendum on leaving the EU. He thought that if he gives something to the Euroskeptics in his own party, this will calm them down. Clearly, he made both a strategic and a tactical mistake. Any practical concession will only increase their hunger for more. That’s one factor, but there’s also a difference emerging between two continental visions of a future EU. One is, for shorthand, a German vision that is leaning towards a more comprehensive and legal – constitutional, if you like — solution. In short: treaty change and the creation of a new overall institutional template. The alternative is something more congenial to certain French practices, which aim at a more flexible empowerment of executive agencies and agreements between particular member-states.

And what about Euroskeptics who were just elected to the European Parliament? Some pundits say they may bring the EU to its knees, others claim it’s a blessing in disguise, because these people will provide a background against which the EU will finally be able to define itself. What is your opinion on the matter?

Before speculating about consequences, let me point out to a significant structural problem that exists irrespective of what we think about Euroskeptic or even anti-European parties and that was often pointed to by the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair: citizens tend to use the European elections to register a deep discontent with Europe or the EU. But the problem is that the European Parliament does not really determine the architecture of the EU as a whole, it does not write the treaties. Therefore, if you want to see a fundamental change in the EU, you really should make this more of an issue in national elections and you should appeal to your national government, which will sit at the table when the next treaty is formulated.

On the other hand, if you have a major issue with a particular European policy, let’s say data protection, then ideally you would make this a priority in guiding your vote in a European Parliament election. But, as Mair argued, people get it exactly the wrong way round and express their preferences in the wrong political forum, so to speak. And as to the specific consequences of the parties you mentioned in the Parliament – I don’t think these parties will be able to paralyze its work.

But you compare them to the Tea Party, which has done precisely that to the U.S. Congress…

Well, there’s a difference between actually having enough representatives to bring a parliament to a hold, and only frightening other people so that they become extremely defensive and cautious about any further moves. This is exactly the case with the Tea Party. When people think of it, they imagine a huge movement with millions of members, while it’s actually very small, but creates a significant psychological effect. This can be replicated in Europe. Success of anti-EU parties may cause European leaders to think their electors are so anti-European that it would be politically suicidal to make any bold moves. That’s a little bit different from saying radicals can actually sabotage the European Parliament though something like a veto power.

If you join the European Union you cannot pull out the trump card of sovereignty whenever it pleases you. The EU is not an organization in which everybody can pick only these rules which suit them best.

 Jan-Werner Müller

There is another crisis you’ve been calling attention to for the last 4 years, since Viktor Orbán became Hungarian prime minister. You claim there is a growing institutional and ideological problem for Europe because it doesn’t have a way to effectively punish its members for – as is the case with Hungary – breaking common rules. But wouldn’t such punishment be a breach of national sovereignty and the will of the Hungarian people who elected Fidesz to power?

Nobody is denying that you can elect whoever you want. The European Union can never force a country to change its government if it was properly elected. However, it can point to certain measures or laws adopted by a government and say that they contravene the values listed in the treaties or, if you don’t want to talk about values, the kind of common core understanding of how certain institutions should work in liberal democracies. If you join the European Union you cannot pull out the trump card of sovereignty whenever it pleases you. The EU is not an organization in which everybody can pick only these rules which suit them best.

Do you think that Hungary should be expelled or somehow isolated from the European Union?

Legally, all that Europe can do at the moment to the Hungarian government is to take away its voting rights in the European Council.  But that is not really a form of intervention in the country itself; rather, it is a form of “political quarantine” or, if you like, normative isolationism: the rest of Europe is effectively saying “We want nothing to do with your government; we don’t want our citizens to be subject to decision in which your government has had a hand.”  It’s an expression of radical distrust in an institutional structure – the EU – that crucially relies on mutual trust and recognition.  There is also the question of what is supposed to happen next?  In theory, a disenfranchisement of a Member State in the European Council could go on forever. You could forever have a country in the EU that at the same time isn’t really in the EU. That prompts one to think about better means of intervention and maybe also of a mechanism to expel countries altogether. Right now we don’t have anything of this sort.

Do you think such mechanism might be used not only against Hungary? In one of the articles you make a broader case saying that there are ideological and political problems all across the Eastern Europe, with Hungary leading the way for other countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and even Poland. Is it not too soon to say – as you do – that Eastern European countries are backsliding from their way to democracy?

It depends on when you think the right moment for a warning is. I am trying to say that we have one, very clear-cut case of violation of the rules we all agreed upon and that other countries may be trying to learn from that case. Just to clarify, I do not say that the whole of Eastern Europe is the same, nor is it my view that everything in Western and Southern Europe is going great. Not at all. However, given that the change in Hungary has been so comprehensive and that it has generated a sort of a rule book on how such political transformation can be done, it does pose a great threat.

What does this rule book say?

I believe Orbán’s policies are to some extent modeled on Putin’s. It’s partly institutional: keep having elections, but disable checks and balances, and make a real turnover of power extremely unlikely.  But it’s also ideological: the Russian president has created a certain political package combining nationalism, very conservative values, nationalization of the economy benefiting oligarchs, and a kind of economic policy which promises the government will keep gas and utility prices low.  People are supposed to keep quiet in return.  In certain ways this actually also reminds one of the Kadar system in Hungary before 1989: the ideology was different, of course, but the idea of an authoritarian bargain with society is somewhat similar.

Are the Hungarians willing to accept the deal?

If you look at the polls conducted before the elections in April 2014 you will notice that Orbán’s government was not very popular for a long time. And then they came up with the idea of lowering utility prices, while forcing companies to write on the bills by exactly how much costs were lowered thanks to the government. As a result everybody knew that the government helped them save a certain amount o money. It seems that many Hungarians liked the idea.  What usually gets forgotten is that Hungary has the highest value added tax in the EU – and VAT is very regressive, of course.

We have to think about better means of intervention and maybe also of a mechanism to expel countries altogether. Right now we don’t have anything of this sort.

 Jan-Werner Müller

But why do you think this may be repeated in other Eastern European countries and not in the West, where populists are also becoming dangerously popular?

Because I believe that the new political systems remain somewhat more vulnerable than the older ones. Again, I’m not saying that everything in Western Europe is perfect, but even if there are parties or movements which are very worrying, such as the National Front in France, they are unlikely to reshape the institutions comprehensively — whereas in Central and Eastern Europe volatility of voting is much higher, and the political systems are less entrenched. It is hard to deny that even 25 years after the end of socialism, there is a little bit more fragility in these systems than elsewhere.  Having said that: it’s not enough to have illiberal ambitions and get elected; the circumstances have to be favorable and you have to be, if permit this expression, not just an ambitious authoritarian, but a smart authoritarian.  Orbán found highly favorable circumstances: the discrediting of the socialists, weak checks and balances apart from the Hungarian Constitutional Court to start with, global economic and financial developments that helped him (quantitative easing), and an EU distracted by the Eurocrisis.  And he has extraordinary political intelligence.  In that sense, it is not that easy to imitate what he has done.

Allegedly one of the reasons behind growing Euroskepticism is the EU’s distance from everyday issues that concern average European. Instead of being helpful it’s seen more as a nuisance, an organization trying to regulate those areas which clearly do not need to be regulated, while ignoring those which are really important…

I think that people are much less likely to say now that Brussels is this distant, technocratic entity that, as the cliché always goes, regulates the length of cucumbers and condoms. If you are Greek or German you can no longer say that Brussels does not profoundly affect the way you live. You know that you ought to be engaged with it. The problem – as I said earlier – is at what level can you really engage. The European Parliament will not fundamentally change the way the euro is set up, so in a sense it is not enough to realize that Europe matters, and then participate in the European Parliament elections. It will only make some marginal difference. To change the overall European architecture we need to put much more pressure on our national governments.