2019: The Resilience and Strength of European Institutions

Mario Telò
Professor of International Relations at Université Libre de Bruxelles and LUISS of Rome.

One aspect that is not often mentioned since the European elections in May 2019, or since the appointments of the members of the new Commission in July and the formation of the new Commission in September, is that we are witnessing an obvious demonstration of the strength of the European institutions.

Against the widespread radical pessimism, the conformism of the media and the intellectuals, which means that we can no longer speak of the EU without using the words crisis, decline, failure, end, collapse, etc.; against a defeatist political climate dominated by nationalist sovereignists, very poorly contrasted by European leaders, elected officials with no ideas, worn out and exhausted, a climate that allowed even the person in charge of relaunching Europe to declare “the existential crisis of the EU”; despite this “Spenglerian” intellectual climate which no longer allows the publication of books which do not contain in their title the announcement of the imminent death of the Union, its institutions have shown their vitality, almost like a replica of the film “The Revenant”.

The European elections by universal suffrage, with an increasing participation rate, not only stopped the national-populist wave at a threshold below 20%, but also blocked the attempts at a new alliance between the EPP and the sovereignists, with the consequence of dividing the front of the sovereignists between the proponents of the “Exit” (the British, isolated), the members of the EPP (like for example Viktor Orban), the Polish nationalists, and the extremists (Le Pen and Salvini), who abandoned the idea of leaving the EU and the euro area. The Italian “5 Stars” MEPs even voted in favor of President Ursula von der Leyen. Admittedly, the social-democratic forces suffered significant losses in France and Germany, even if the crisis of the “yellow vests” seems to be overcome and the meteoric rise of AfD to be blocked. In general, there should be no illusions that nationalism is defeated forever, but it suffered anyway two historically significant blows in 2019.

Brexit, often seen as one of the forms in which the EU crisis manifests itself, can be considered, as Prof. Gamble of Cambridge recently defined it, as “a political crisis of the party system, of the institutions of democracy, of the international role, the cultural identity and the very unity of the United Kingdom”. Boris Johnson got what Theresa May did not get because of the clarity and simplicity of his populist message: putting Brexit into practice, but offering no credible project for the future of the United Kingdom, that risks turning itself into a dis-united Kingdom (centrifugal thrusts in Scotland and Northern Ireland). What does it offer to young people? 700,000 young people demonstrated for the EU in London. Admittedly, the UK's exit is a serious matter for the EU and for its global role; however, not only has no contagion occurred yet, but Brexit is now a bad example in the eyes of Europeans and it has pushed towards institutional advances impossible to have with Great Britain (the EU Defense Union, started in 2018, for example). It is up to the EU to offer the United Kingdom a new place in the European institutional architecture of which it is the center.

The European institutions have shown a remarkable capacity for renewal: the S&D-EPP parliamentary majority had to open up to the Liberals after the success of Emmanuel Macron, and elected an Italian anti-Salvinist (David Maria Sassoli) as President of the European Parliament. Macron played a key role: two women at the top, at the Commission (Ursula von der Leyen) and at the European Central Bank (Christine Lagarde), Charles Michel at the Presidency of the European Council. The succession to the Presidency of the Commission has seen the failure of the Spitzenkandidaten method and of sometimes obscure negotiations, but finally led to a good-quality agreement on a very pro-European woman, “ordo-liberal” but open at the same time to social issues and to the environment. And finally, through its Vice-President Frans Timmermans and the Green Family Commissioner (big election winner) confirms the new president’s commitment to sustainable growth. The Financial Times has rightly pointed out the strong response expected by the new Commission in relation to Donald Trump's economic challenge: the Vice-President Margrethe Vestager to catch up on digitalization, the French Breton to the internal market and industry, and Joseph Borrell to foreign policy. The opposition by part of the S&D to the Commission - which has more socialists than ever, including two vice-presidents of great political weight and intellectual strength like Timmermans and Borrell, an expression, these two appointments, of the excellent electoral results obtained by their two respective parties - can only be explained by internal dickering. The EP has resumed its central role, desired by Spinelli throughout his life, with the hearings of the Commissioners and the rejection of three candidates, including the powerful Sylvie Goulart.

As for the future, if we really want to reduce the nationalists' propaganda margins, we will need concrete results and good communication. The odd Dombrovski /Gentiloni couple will have to face the difficult challenge of building a new dynamic balance between the rules of rigor and the strong commitment to sustainable growth and a policy for employment. No illusion: combating excessive public debts remains a priority (in the interest of indebted states and young generations), but, with the help of the ECB, we can pursue this objective by encouraging investment in research and innovation. It is not more “flexibility” that is needed, but new shared rules and, first of all, a reform of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Europe has fostered very significant national developments, thanks to an increasingly interdependent and constraining institutional system. Greece and Portugal, contrary to the anti-European rhetoric, emerged from the crisis boosting their economies and normalizing their political systems: we observe a democratic alternation and the defeat of the fascists in Greece, with the opposition guided by the ex-populist Tsipras at 30%, anti-nationalist and more social-democrat; we should also note the good performance of the left coalition government behind the unexpected success of the Portuguese model. Social democracy in the Scandinavian countries shows that it is possible to curb the advance of the national-populists through policies of effective integration of the immigrants and of reforms of the welfare state. In East Germany, the SPD and CDU parties prevented the AfD from becoming the first party. In Austria, the national populists are excluded from the government. There are anti-nationalist successes in Slovakia and other eastern countries. Finally, the radical change that took place in August in the government of the third economy of the Euro zone, Italy, under the paradoxical appearance of  continuity of the Prime Minister, Mr. Conte. The defeat of Salvini, betrayed by his own tactical error, now marginalized and ally of the fascists in the opposition, despite the polls still giving him the lead, is only the result of a simple change of alliances, in any case constitutional in parliamentary republics. The transition - thanks to the evolution of the “5 Stars” movement and the participation of the Democratic Party - from the most sovereignist government to one of the most pro-European governments in the EU, and the political defeat of Salvini – who had become the hope and symbol of the success and sovereignist ambitions in Europe – is the result in Brussels and Strasbourg of the favorable vote of the “5 Stars” movement to the election of President von der Leyen. Romano Prodi was even hopeful for an “Ursula coalition” in Italy.

To conclude, I would say that the conditions for a European spring are partly present. The risk? That, once the danger has passed, we continue with the inertia of muddling through, that nothing changes in the EU, that the strong political responses to the three major challenges on the agenda will once again be missed: a European policy of immigration and integration, overcoming the Dublin agreements; a sustainable, digitalised European growth policy; a EU’s proactive role vis-à-vis its neighborhood (in the relations with the Arab world, Russia and especially Africa) and the ongoing confrontation between the United States and China. An effective and coherent foreign policy and a revival of multilateralism could broaden the internal consensus for the EU. The priority given by the Commission and the Council (with the contrary vote of Poland) to the “Green Deal” shows a political will to move forward and to reconcile an avant-garde cultural project, an idea for the economy of the XXI century and a good step forward in the re-legitimization of the EU among young people.

Contrary to the functionalist model, it is institutionalism that is coming back in force: the European institutions do integrate, socialize, change the behavior of national actors. The strength of the institutions has allowed the biggest and longest crisis in the EU to be largely behind us. But  beware: without concrete results and a common vision, without strong, mobilizing ideas, the nationalists will come back even stronger than before, both at national and European level.

The civic duty of the world of communication is to emphasize and deepen the scope, complexity, and dramatic urgency of these challenges.

Translated by Vittorio Quartetti

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