How EU bureaucrats are destroying public life

A majority of Europeans refused to take part in the EU elections not because they don’t understand the EU, but because they do.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics World

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For the EU oligarchy, elections to the European Parliament are an administrative inconvenience that they simply have to put up with. Held every five years, these caricatures of democratic decision-making expose the contempt in which the European public holds the rulers of the EU.

This time round, in elections held at the end of last week, only 43 per cent of the EU electorate bothered to vote, down from the previous low of 45.5 per cent in 2004. Voter participation has declined in every European election since 1979. Still, that’s good enough for Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. ‘Overall, the results are an undeniable victory for those parties and candidates that support the European project and want to see the European Union delivering policy responses to their everyday concerns’, he said as he assessed the appalling spectacle.

When a leading European official describes the refusal of the majority of the public to participate in an election as an ‘undeniable victory’, you have to wonder what kind of political world he inhabits.

Voter apathy tells only part of the story, however. There is considerable evidence that disinterest in the EU elections is fuelled by a powerful sense of distrust, dissatisfaction and frustration. One German survey of 12,000 Europeans found that, for 60 per cent of respondents, one reason why they were not inclined to vote is because they are ‘being lied to in election promises’. Almost one in two respondents said they felt they ‘cannot improve anything by voting’. In Poland and Finland around two thirds of the respondents expressed this fatalistic attitude.

Typically, the EU political elite presents voter apathy as the unfortunate consequence of public misperception. Time and again they suggest that their good works are simply not appreciated by a public that doesn’t get what the EU is all about. Public disengagement is rarely seen as an indictment of EU institutions. ‘It’s not that people are staying away from these elections because they are critical of the European Union and its political process’, says Dr Hermann Schmitt of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research. No, from his perspective, and in the view of the EU oligarchs, the public’s lack of interest springs simply from the EU’s own problems of ‘presentation’. So the European Commission sought to woo young voters with cool election ads on MTV networks.

In reality, there is much evidence that public disengagement is not the unintended consequence of poor public relations, but rather the outcome of an EU project that explicitly attempts to distance political decision-making from the gaze of European citizens.

Graham Watson, one of the leading lights of the Liberal EU Parliamentary Group responded to the most recent election results by saying he couldn’t understand why the turnout was so low, and therefore ‘we need to study why people don’t go out and vote’. Sadly, Watson’s lack of understanding of the realities of political life in the EU is not just an act; he is genuinely so out touch with public sentiment that he simply doesn’t get it.

Leading EU politicians frequently look upon their electorates as exotic and incomprehensible species whose habits and sensibilities must be ‘studied’. After the unexpected rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the Irish referendum of 2008, the EU oligarchy responded with disbelief. Margaret Wallstrom, an EU commissioner, told the BBC that we must ‘analyse’ the Irish result and mount a public opinion survey to discover why the Irish rejected the sound advice of those who know best.

This language of incomprehension, with Eurocrats expressing confusion over people’s voting behaviour, gives the distinct impression that there must be some serious pathology at work in these elections. Otherwise, why don’t people bother to cast their ballot and vote to validate the legitimacy of the EU? The Eurocrats simply can’t understand. Yet if there is any pathology here, it is to be found inside the institutions of the EU itself.

The distinct feature of the EU’s political process is that it is self-consciously based on the principle of insulated decision-making. From the standpoint of the European political elites, one of the virtues of EU institutions is that it insulates them from the kind of public pressure and forms of accountability that they experience in their national parliaments. Consequently, the EU is able to adopt policies that would often prove contentious and difficult to justify in a more open national parliamentary setting. In effect, politicians can continually hide behind the EU’s invisible decision-making process and claim that such and such a policy ‘wasn’t my idea’, before adding that: ‘Unfortunately we have no choice but to go along with this Europe-wide directive.’

Insulated decision-making relies on institutions which are, in effect, outside the realm of public scrutiny. As Bruno Waterfield wrote in an important study for the Manifesto Club, ‘a unique form of twenty-first century statecraft has emerged’, which allows ‘expanding areas of public authority to retreat into a closed, private world of bureaucrats and diplomats’.

In effect the majority of EU legislation is formulated by the hundreds of secret working groups set up by the Council of the EU. Most of the sessions of the Council of Ministers are held behind closed doors and the EU’s unelected European Commission has the sole right to put forward legislation. Yet most of the decisions taken by the European Council are concerned with subjects that were previously discussed in national legislatures. These public-free institutions are designed to bypass conventional forms of democratic accountability.

The inevitable consequence of the institutionalisation of insulated decision-making is that it diminishes the capacity of European politicians to motivate and inspire their electorate. Low voter turnout doesn’t come from any problem of presentation; it is the logical conclusion to the EU’s system of behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring that is seen as unsuitable for public engagement and scrutiny. As a result of this, EU officials come across as they really are: bureaucrats rather than political leaders. Their ineptness has been exposed time and again as they have proven unable to win support for their proposed EU Constitution in national referendums. Is it any surprise that they have decided that referendums are not needed for the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, which is simply the Constitution rehashed?

When everything fails, the EU oligarchy tries to panic the electorate into voting. ‘If people don’t vote, the danger is that there will be more extremist parties or parties from outside the mainstream [in the European Parliament]’, warned Hans-Gert Poettering, president of the parliament. This is now the main message of EU rulers: people should vote to keep the extremists out, rather than voting positively for something. And it’s important to note that the word ‘extremist’ is used promiscuously today, to include not just the far right but also various kinds of Eurosceptic.

The paradox is that the culture of insulated decision-making has created an environment that is hospitable to the growth of political frustration and bitterness. The manipulative and dishonest style of rule-making confirms people’s cynicism towards conventional politics. Worse still, the insulation of decision-making directly contributes to the hollowing out of public life, which far too many people now see as pointless and irrelevant. In such circumstances, movements that are able to politicise people’s anger and dissatisfaction are able to make significant headway. So it is not surprising that right-wing nationalist parties gained some momentum in countries such as Holland, Hungary, Austria, France and Poland. Unlike the mainstream parties, these protest movements have no inhibitions about exposing the democratic deficit that afflicts the EU. The support for these parties is provoked by the cynicism of the EU elite itself.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), both published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.

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Topics World


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