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David Thunder, researcher 'Ramón y Cajal' of the University of Navarra Institute for Culture and Society

European elections: the EU at a crossroads

Sat, 25 May 2019 11:17:00 +0000 Published in Expansion

In a few days, citizens across Europe will be able to decide how the European Union (EU) Parliament will be composed over the next five years. If the populists and Euroskeptics manage to consolidate their position, as expected, it would be a further sign that European voters are losing faith in the European project , at least as it stands now.

The question now facing EU leaders is: how can the current gap in European politics be bridged, so that we return to "normality"? How to interpret the growing voter resistance to EU policies and parties? Why does a growing issue of voters reject the current direction of the European project ?

The fracture in European politics today manifests a tension that has been latent in the EU since its inception, between two very different visions: the two faces, so to speak, of European politics.

On the one hand, there is the idea of Europe as a union of peoples or sovereign nations. According to this conception, the member states only relinquish the sovereignty they decide to delegate to the European institutions for promote common interests. But most of the political sovereignty remains in the hands of the national parliaments, which are exercised on behalf of the citizens of the country concerned.

This was, fundamentally, the underlying vision of the European Economic Community, at least in its early stages: a vision of international cooperation for peace and economic prosperity.

But this vision of Europe as a "union of peoples" does not fit well with a very different perspective of Europe as a democratic union of citizens. From agreement with this view, the EU should directly represent the interests of European citizens at the national and global level, functioning similarly to a federal state like the US, with centralized control over the welfare state, immigration policy, taxation, public finances, military defense and foreign policy.

The seeds of a more consolidated union have been present from the beginning, in the ideal of social justice and solidarity advocated by the architects of the European project , such as Jacques Delors.

The introduction of monetary union in 1992 served as a powerful catalyst for greater policy harmonization among member states' policies. Monetary union is only sustainable with a relatively high level of control by EU institutions over public finances and the expense, which requires member states to make a significant Withdrawal to political and economic sovereignty.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently published a article in newspapers across Europe in which he passionately argued for the consolidation of European sovereignty. He argued that in today's globalized and interdependent world, Europe requires more centralized coordination in a host of areas, such as defense, foreign policy, welfare policy, minimum wage, environment and public finance.

Whatever the possible merits of Macron's proposal , at least one thing is clear: pretending to reconcile the idea of Europe as a union of sovereign nations with the idea of Europe as a sovereign union of citizens with centralization of taxation, finance, defense and foreign policy is certainly a lot to ask.

By their complicity in these contradictions of the European project , EU leaders have effectively laid the groundwork instructions for the polarization of Europe into two factions: one that favors the concentration of a wide range of political and economic functions in European institutions; and another that favors a union of sovereign states in which each retains substantial control over fiscal policy, welfare and social security, immigration, foreign policy and public finances.

Until now, EU leaders have been willing to sidestep these contradictions. But as public finances become tighter, welfare more scarce and nationalist discourses gain momentum, it is increasingly difficult for voters to accept that Macron's Europe of a "collective sovereignty" and a Europe of sovereign nations can be accommodated within the same political package.

A difficult choice will have to be made between the path of further integration and consolidation, favored by Macron, and the path of a "smaller" and less ambitious Europe, favored by Brexit supporters and other populist parties across Europe.

Both options carry significant risks. An attempt to push the integration process forward may increase the sense of powerlessness on the part of citizens as they see critical political functions being removed from their national parliaments. Moreover, at a time when nationalism seems to be gaining momentum, moving towards further political consolidation could crack the EU.

On the other hand, any attempt to restore the fiscal and political sovereignty of the States could destabilize the Economics of Europe, at least in the short and medium term deadline. Monetary union could be jeopardized if the European institutions give up control of the public expense and finances of the Member States.

Sooner or later, EU leaders will have to make a decision about which Europe they want to support: a sovereign, federated union of citizens, similar to the U.S., or a union of sovereign nations. The upcoming EU elections will give some indication of what European voters think about this.