Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris and founder of the civic startup The Good Lobby.
By Michel Barnier recent attack about the power of the European courts took many by surprise. How is it that the former EU chief negotiator for Brexit transformed from being the most energetic defender of the integrity of the EU into a patriotic champion of French self-interest against the Union?
Simple. Re-entering the French political arena as a presidential hopeful, Barnier, the great European, blatantly played the last national political card: attacking the EU.
This long-standing practice of shifting the blame for internal problems of national politics to the Union through inaccurate statements has long been rewarding from an electoral point of view. Tacit collusion between national politicians, combined with a mutually profitable alignment with the mainstream media, has entrenched attacks on the EU in political systems across the continent.
Brexit is the most spectacular and tangible expression of this phenomenon, unforgettably symbolized by the inaccurate statement that the UK sends to Brussels £ 350 million a week, stamped on the Vote Leave bus. Not to mention the endless series of factually inaccurate and / or distorted stories on migration, terrorism and border control, according to a Brexit dossier compiled by In facts.
Unfortunately this practice is not just limited to the UK or a few other EU countries. Nor, as Barnier’s story shows, has it been purely the prerogative of anti-EU or Eurosceptic voices. Rather, it has established itself in a bipartisan tradition within the national political systems of each of the 27 EU countries.
Think of former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hiding his EU flag in an effort to gain popularity before a self-imposed constitutional referendum, which proved fatal to his political career. Or think of the tension of Euroscepticism of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte during the last election campaign, during which lashed out the Union for interfering in national affairs.
By now, Euroscepticism is also clearly ingrained in the political DNA of the ruling Hungarian and Polish parties.
Attacks on the EU have long shaped the Union as we know it. And vice versa.
Because behind the often false Eurosceptic claims lies an uncomfortable truth: After 70 years of unprecedented socio-economic integration, the EU lacks a specific political system that is accountable and representative of its more than 445 million citizens.
Instead, EU representatives, whether they are heads of state and government in the European Council or MEPs in Parliament, are selected through 27 parallel national political processes. These processes are not only national in nature (you can only vote for representatives of your own country), but remain mostly unintelligible to most EU citizens, even when they jointly define the European electoral game.
Over the years, this opacity and lack of direct accountability has largely insulated European political systems from scrutiny. There have been major political failures; think that the Dieselgate scandal, the lack of a unified EU migration policy or the implementation of costly austerity measures, without anyone paying a political price.
This lack of political intelligibility fuels great political incoherence between the national and EU levels. It has allowed the European People’s Party, with the complicity from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to benefit from the support of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, despite the fact that her party, Fidesz, systematically violates the fundamental values of the EU. It has also allowed the Spanish political party Ciudadanos, a member of the EU liberal family, to snuggle to the far-right party Vox at home, while siding with French President Emmanuel Macron in Europe.
The good news is that Europe is increasing its resistance to rhetoric that criticizes the EU, as actions that once would have gone unnoticed attract unexpected attention. Despite the absence of a genuine European political space, a growing number of Europeans, with the help of the media, seem increasingly capable of criticizing their politicians when they engage in cheap and factually inaccurate attacks on the EU.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was caught red handedFor example, trying to blame the vaccine shortage with Eurosceptic rhetoric. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was being prosecuted for misconduct in public office based on an alleged lie to the public about his faulty bus declaration, a world first.
Returning to Barnier, the response to your comments within his own country he already suggests that his cheap talk might have backfired. How credible can he remain after nonchalantly disavowing his EU credentials for purely domestic electoral purposes?
There is other good news too. A proposal US Election Law to govern the upcoming 2024 EU parliamentary elections is set to Europeanize the EU electoral competition. If adopted and ratified by all 27 member countries, it will create a pan-European college and transnational electoral lists and require all national parties to disclose their party affiliations at the European level.
As pan-European electoral competition heats up and EU citizens continue their scrutiny of flawed rhetoric against the EU, national politicians will have to realize that while attacking the EU could win them support at home, it could cost them. in the end.