Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Telling Election

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

June 2, 2014 

Last week, European voters went to the polls to elect all 751 members of the European Parliament. As expected, voters handed “mainstream” parties a resounding defeat by boosting the membership of left and right wing “fringe” parties. While far from having a majority, these parties may bring up their seat total from the twelve percent they had in the last Parliament to twenty-five percent now. The success of the fringe parties—many of whom oppose the European Union—has sent a shock through the entire system and raises their prospects in the elections for national parliaments over the next two years.

Right wing parties did especially well in France (National Front), Denmark (People’s Party), the Netherlands (Party for Freedom) and Britain (where the United Kingdom Independence Party outpolled the established Conservative, Labour, and Liberal parties.) Within the next few months, the Parliament will elect a new President of the European Commission. Until recently, Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, was the odds-on favorite to win approval. But he now faces increasingly stiff opposition, particularly from British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, because he is regarded as a traditional European federalist who would lead the EU toward greater unity. Cameron also has promised that if the Conservatives are reelected in 2015, they will sponsor a referendum by 2017 on whether Britain should withdraw from the EU.

This election is the most serious challenge to the dream of European unification since the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. Faced with a “re-nationalization” of the European political space, the EU and the euro zone face a daunting future, one that will determine what the community will look like decades down the road.

What has happened to bring about this set of circumstances now? 

First, opposition to a tightening EU is not new, and it has grown exponentially. As the number of member states has increased to twenty eight and population grown in excess of 504 million people, the political, economic, and cultural issues have exploded. The EU’s size and complexity have made it increasingly difficult to find consensus on issues or even to agree on the mechanisms to resolve issues, leading to confusion and substantial “enlargement fatigue.”  Second, the EU’s growth has led to increasing regionalization in the community, resulting in a multi-tiered Europe in which the countries of northwestern Europe are politically and economically more powerful than the countries of southeastern Europe; there are now four to six distinct regions, and the inequality plays heavily in determining policy.    

Third, the EU bureaucracy has an enormous maze of regulations and laws governing every aspect of EU life and trumping national sovereignty in such critical areas as taxes, labor law, and health policy. This has led to accusations of a political community that is run increasingly by elites and an “apparatchik” that have little understanding of the cultural, economic, and political differences among the members. Polls indicate that this democratic deficit has led to a rising hostility among members toward Brussels and consternation among those applying for membership; the Acquis Communautaire—the document that lays out the issues that must be satisfied before an applicant country can attain full membership—now contains thirty-one chapters.

Fourth, opposition is growing to the EU’s border policy, codified in the Schengen Agreement of 1985, which allows citizens of any Schengen country to travel to, live in, and work in any other Schengen country. This has effectively encouraged citizens from states with weaker economies and higher unemployment (mostly in the south) to move to member states with better economic opportunities, leading to growing conflict and a call for greater controls on immigrants and labor transfers. Finally, the financial crisis that began in 2008 continues to have a negative impact on EU economies, especially among southern members. There is particular resentment in the south towards the German-led austerity program designed to slash budgets and encourage growth. In several countries, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, the austerity program has led to more difficult economic conditions, including greater unemployment. 

Ultimately, the EU may have reached the limits of its growth. It will not collapse, but a “federal Europe,” once the dream of the movement’s founders after World War II, is probably out of the question. It is possible that the EU will allow a few more members into the club, but only under special circumstances (Serbia) and not for at least a decade. Turkey, the biggest country waiting in the wings, will almost certainly never become a member. Although the EU will likely remain the biggest political and economic club in the world, it will be a weaker, more contentious club than it was just a decade ago.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”