The article is based on a discussions held in Sofia on 22 April, 2014 and organized by the Institute for Market Economics and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, in cooperation with the Libertarian club at the Sofia University. The text reflects the views of the author and should not be considered a summary of the discussion.
Over the last 5 years the EU has succeeded in “growing” as a political and economic union. In 2014 EU voters have a far more clear vision of what the EU is and where it is headed, than back in 2009. While this is especially true for citizens of the euro zone countries, people in other countries are also increasingly aware of the realities of their European identity.
The EU is no longer the abstraction it was in the beginning of the crisis. For many Europeans the crisis turned the Euro from a convenience into an issue, the Greek – from exotic and hospitable people into lazy parasites, and the English – from key allies into awkward partners. Many people have already even heard of the president of the EU, Herman van Rompuy. [i]
Against this background it is not surprising that the European elections, once a boring exercise, are now abused as a convenient platform to push populist ideas, both on the national and the EU level. This includes not only issues of the rank of free movement of people (which is one of the building foundations of the Union), but also attempts of some politicians to enter the Parliament by promising free internet, a Europe-wide minimum wage etc., Such ideas make the even vaguely familiar with the economic reality of the continent to look at each other in bewilderment.
What is Happening With the Liberal Vision for Europe?
According to a recent “Open Europe” study, the proportion of MEPs supporting free trade may drop from the current 32% to 27% as a result of the upcoming elections. The proportion of European MPs who are against free trade is expected to grow to 26%. The third group is the so-called “vote swingers” i.e. those whose position ultimately determines the opinion of the European parliament on a given issue, will remain unchanged – 46%.
Although similar definitions and trends are too wide to be indicative of the nature of the future European parliament, these changes in the profile of the MEPs deserve attention and shouldn’t be underestimated. It is worth considering also that even though the current relationship between the two groups seems favorable for the liberally minded voter, we haven’t enjoyed any real progress towards more freedom in EU in the past 5 years. On the contrary – many of the policies supported by current MEPs, aimed at standardization of various goods and services, result in the opposite: less competition, more bureaucracy and fewer opportunities for the individual citizen.
It seems likely that the new EP will include MEPs and parties whose positions on the European project can be directly recognized as “subversive”. But the problem lies not in the inflow of new arguments and even different doses of euroscepticism in the future parliament. To the contrary – rising eurosceptic social moods have the same right of political representation as every other ideological course. The problem is that once again the liberal vision of the Europe is the one that risks losing support at the expense of another ideological movement – be it federative or nationalist.
Then there’s the other interesting tendency that was mentioned earlier – the European debate is increasingly being simplified. Pressed by an unprecedented economic crisis and political turmoil, European politicians quickly divided themselves into two groups – those that support everything and those that are against everything. As a result the bureaucracy in Brussels recognized the terms “euro-optimism” and “federalism” as synonymous. The approach “who isn’t with us is against us” is something that should concern all European citizens, regardless of their political affiliations. The debate about the “form” gave way to the debate about the “direction”, suggesting a shallow discussion, cheap arguments and securing the already mentioned possibilities of populist sentiment.
Against the background of all this it is easy to see why many European and national politicians considered the classical liberal vision of Europe as “backward-looking”. Some of their concerns are completely understandable. Liberal Europe means:
- Less bureaucracy
- less power for Brussels
- less power for national governments
- real competition at the European level
- eliminate the possibilities of passing pan-European lobbying policies
- Europe without subsidies
- Europe without internal borders
The latter is perhaps the biggest thorn in the face of classical eurocrats. The principle of subsidiarity means that each problem is solved at the lowest level possible. This implies reducing the power and influence not only of Brussels, but also of national governments – something that few people that are headed towards the highest levels of government would recognize as personal interest.
The Future of Liberal Europe and Bulgaria
Liberal Europe is a step in the opposite direction of the federal idea, but it is not a step towards more nationalism, as is often implied by some politicians. On the contrary - the concept of voluntary initiation in any common endeavor by definition implies reduction of protectionist and nationalist attitudes among citizens and politicians.
It is no coincidence that among people with liberal views there are many opponents of the idea for a “federal” Europe. So far Brussels has not demonstrated enough commitment to basic concepts such as the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. On the contrary – the current form of the European debate shows that many European politicians are moving in the opposite direction. The new motto is “free movement of people, goods and capital”, but “when, where and how we say”. Lately Brussels ambiguously demonstrates that it is far from being a source of freedom and democracy – at least not one to whom the citizens of most European countries would unreservedly devote an increasing proportion of their sovereignty, regardless of their political affiliation or lack thereof.
For us, Bulgarian citizens, the issue is a little bit different. We continue to find ourselves in a position where EU membership is a must if we are to maintain or increase the importance of concepts such as “rule of law”, “individual freedom”, “human rights” and even “democracy” in our society. The positive attitude of many Bulgarians to EU accession is based precisely on this – a lack of faith in the willingness and ability of our own political class to ensure the existence and operation of these key institutions. In other words – Bulgaria has all but exhausted its EU membership benefits. This circumstance creates an irresolvable dilemma – Bulgarian society has a legitimate need to participate in the European political debate. Meanwhile the Bulgarian political scene is apparently unable to provide us with an adequate version of the tools intended for the purpose in the treaties– namely the election of the MEPs [ii]. Voting is important for the Bulgarians, but they have nothing to vote for. The situation becomes even more daunting when one realizes that Mr. Peevski turns out to be the second “liberal politician” in line in his country.
In recent years European integration has not only gained strength, buthas started becoming an increasingly linear process. This fact entails two inevitable consequences –decisions are becoming larger and increasingly hard to reverse. Although for the contemporaries of this process everything seems to develop slowly and sluggishly, historically the EU project is in a state of sprint. In this regard, the combination of the growing importance of upcoming decisions at European level and the expected increase of pluralism in the European Parliament (whatever its nature) suggest a slowdown of the integration process. The new EP will be less effective but then again - maybe a little more democratic than its predecessor, with all the pros and cons originating from this.
The most liberal and democratic approach to a unified Europe passes through bottom-up integration, i.e. one that starts with ordinary people and their economic and social life. This is the most natural and safest way for tackling nationalism and protectionism and strengthening what the European projects stands for. Somewhat ironically, the only prerequisite necessary for its success is the commitment to the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. But this approach will take time and a true abidance of these core principles – something that contemporary Europe can hardly boast about.
Unfortunately at the moment we are seeing more of the opposite. The approach “we got together, we decided, here’s the resolution” has never worked in societies cherishing democracy and it is not likely that a transnational structure like the EU will succeed in functioning this way for long. Especially taking into account its growing role and authority in the lives of the ordinary citizen. Functional integration may be achieved only by the will of the European citizen and voter, but never against his will. This is one of the reasons why the penalty vote which some of the EP parties would receive might be seen as something well deserved and logical. What’s frightening it its nationalist and protectionist charge.
The self-defense reflexes of many European bureaucrats pushed them off the brink of a new type of populism – “European”. Unfortunately the present institutional structure of the Union doesn’t allow its citizens to combat this transnational populism, which in most cases is inspired by the European Commission. It also means something else – such populism rarely encounters institutional resistance as it generally reflects the interest of the professional European political class – namely, more and more secure power. The latter are certainly not liberal principles.
[i] Although Rampuy took office in early 2010, it took years for most Europeans to find out who he is and what his functions are.
[ii] I must emphasize that I remain extremely skeptical about the idea that Europe-wide MEP quotas would be a good thing for a country like Bulgaria. However, the contradiction is apparent and it is curious.