Future of the EU: the death of Euroscepticism?
The rise of populism in Europe in recent years and the UK’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union have prompted many to question if the EU can survive. Recently, however, there’s been renewed optimism about the prospects for the EU. Voter turnout in the 2019 European Parliament elections was higher than in previous elections and pro-EU liberal and social-democratic parties did better than expected. Some cite this as evidence that the EU has renewed legitimacy.
A notable development is a new reluctance among Eurosceptic parties to push for a break from the EU. As one commentary put it, ‘instead of promising to protect people from the European Union, populists have started promising to make the EU protect the people’. In 2016, at least 15 parties across Europe campaigned for a referendum on their country’s EU membership. Yet today, populists in countries such as France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany seem focused on securing change from within the EU. The UK’s long battle to leave demonstrates the difficulties of a state extracting itself from the EU. Has this, along with the experience of Syriza – recently voted out of power in Greece after failing to resist the onerous bailout conditions – dealt a fatal blow to support for a return to national and popular sovereignty?
Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, captured the new mood by promoting the idea of a ‘Common-Sense Europe’: not an end to the EU, but a changed EU, one that focuses more on security, manages immigration more closely and takes a ‘nation first’ approach to the economy. But given that in the EU Parliament the League belongs to an alliance outnumbered by pro-EU parties, how can it challenge EU legislation and promote national priorities on the likes of migration policy, deficit spending and monetary instruments such as Mini-BOTs? More broadly, how will it create genuine change, given a toothless parliament where MEPs cannot propose legislation?
And what of the EU itself? How viable is ‘reform’ and can this inject a democratic purpose into the EU? After all, the much-promoted Spitzenkandidat party groupings voting system for electing officials fell apart immediately when the new Commission president was imposed via deals cooked up within the Council of Ministers. The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 believes that a citizen-oriented New Deal for Europe can help the EU can become democratic force for good. Others argue, however, that not only is the EU undemocratic but it is inherently anti-democratic. How can the EU be democratic, they say, when its role is to constrain popular sovereignty and democracy, and to separate the seat of power and control in Europe from any expression of the popular will?
How should we see the future of the EU and the nations within it? Can a case be made for the idea of ‘remain and reform’ and for an evolved, more democratic EU where nation states function democratically, taking account of the will of their national population? Or does the EU remain an empire in decay – one that will undermine the desires expressed through popular sovereignty?