The euro crisis has prompted national parliaments across the continent to dump their Euro-federalist baggage
It was the political equivalent of Mother Teresa announcing that she had converted to agnosticism. Bart De Wever, the leader of Belgium’s largest political party, was such a Euro-federalist zealot that a year ago he declared he wanted his country to ‘evaporate’ into the beloved EU. But that was so 2010. A few weeks ago he shared a platform with the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, Europe’s most Eurosceptic head of state, and declared: ‘I am a Eurorealist.’ To walk the walk, De Wever’s party, the N-VA, rejected a Brussels proposal for a new Euro-tax, an act as out of character for Belgian politicians as refusing a Trappist ale. This is a new force in European politics: Belgian Euroscepticism.
There has been much discussion in the British media about how the new intake of Tory MPs, and how Eurosceptic they are. Their idea of political balance, it has been said, is a picture of Thatcher on the wall and Jacques Delors on the dartboard. Some, led by Chris Heaton-Harris and George Eustice, are agitating to entrench a ‘mainstream Euroscepticism’ into the mother of parliaments. But unnoticed from this sceptred isle, Euroscepticism has been marching rapidly through national parliaments across the EU. Used to rubber-stamping EU law, they are now standing up for national democracy. It is European parliaments, not ours, that are setting the pace.
Support for the EU is collapsing among the European public, and populist Eurosceptic parties are being elected en masse in countries from Denmark to Austria, from the Netherlands to Finland. The euro crisis has transformed European politics to the extent that even mainstream MPs, who normally lay themselves down in the cause of ever closer union, are discovering the joys of saying non, nein and nee. Whereas being Eurosceptic would until recently kill off an MP’s career in most European parliaments, it is now the making of them. It may sound perverse, but the Eurosceptics can now claim to be the modernisers.
Governments are being forced to respond. To placate a group of Eurosceptic MPs, the Danish government has just reintroduced customs controls with Germany, an act that so alarmed the European Commission that it immediately sent in a high-powered team to investigate infringements of its laws.
A few weeks ago Donald Tusk, the Polish leader, took the reins of the rotating EU presidency with a dire warning about a ‘new Euroscepticism’. This wasn’t the old blatant UK-style Euroscepticism, but a more insidious one with hypocritical European politicians spouting pro-EU rhetoric while aggressively protecting their national interests.
The pressures have been mounting for a while, as MPs from across Europe have become increasingly frustrated about their powers being harmonised off to the European Parliament in Brussels. Ministers in Britain’s coalition government are not alone in their frustration in finding out the extent to which Brussels ties their hands. The economic crisis has left many countries wishing they had tools to respond. Time was when Greece would have let the drachma plummet, and exported its way to recovery. Now they are caught in a euro vice, and the public hate it.
Rather than bringing Europeans closer together, the single currency has led to anti-austerity demonstrators in Athens denouncing the Germans as Nazis, and German tabloids denouncing the Greeks for their laziness and ingratitude. Little wonder: Greece’s nationalised assets are being disposed of by a committee of non-Greeks. The EU’s grandest project has set country against country — and, in the case of Germany, government against taxpayer.
Even before the bailouts started, public support for the EU was steadily sliding. The European Commission’s own Eurobarometer survey shows that last year there were ten member states where only a minority believe that membership of the EU is a ‘good thing’ — including not just the UK, but old stalwarts Italy and France. In only four member states did a majority have a ‘positive’ image of the EU and, across the EU as a whole, more people said they don’t trust the EU than trust it.
Since then, the euro crisis and bailout has sent what support there is into freefall. A recent opinion poll in Germany showed that two in three people had ‘little or no trust’ in the EU; a poll last month in Finland showed the anti-bailout party the True Finns were now the most popular party in the country. Polls this month show 49 per cent of the Dutch want to leave the euro, while British voters want to leave the EU altogether by two to one.
The cries of parliamentary protest have been building, for those with ears to hear them. Take, for example, the ‘yellow card’ mechanism granted to national parliaments under the Lisbon Treaty allowing them to object to EU legislation. If enough parliaments object to a Brussels law on the grounds that it is unnecessarily dabbling in national affairs, the European Commission is forced to reconsider. In 2009 alone, there was a ‘yellow card’ protest for every day of the week. The Swedish Riksdag, the German Bundestag and others recently protested against the EU’s Deposit Guarantee Scheme, which can require one country to fund another’s bank deposit scheme. The Dutch parliament has protested against the idea of harmonising the way that corporation tax is calculated. A few weeks ago, MPs from across the political spectrum in both chambers of the Austrian parliament rejected a directive aimed at harmonising mortgage credit systems.
But while the EU allows protests to be lodged, it has had no intention of heeding them. Its system has been so stacked against the national parliaments that the hundreds of submissions have not prompted the commission to change a single piece of legislation. Or as the commission says: ‘It is true that it might not always be easy to measure the concrete impact of national parliaments’ opinions on a given final legislative act.’ In their frustration, the parliaments are increasingly trying another approach — simply cutting up rough with their own governments, forcing them to take on board their concerns when they go to the smoke-free rooms of Brussels.
Plucky Slovakia, having escaped the clutches of the Czechs and Russians, is setting the pace. The Slovak government agreed to the first bailout of Greece, but the parliament had different ideas. MPs rejected the deal by an astonishing 69 votes to two, forcing the government to U-turn on its international commitments, and making Slovakia the only eurozone country not to join the bailout. They did so on the not entirely unreasonable grounds that Slovakia is poorer than Greece and they didn’t think it’s fair that poor, rule-abiding countries should bail out richer, reckless ones. The speaker of the Slovakian parliament, Richard Sulík, thundered, ‘We need to stop trusting eurozone leaders blindly, and draw up a Plan B: going back to the Slovakian koruna.’ The European Commission, shocked at the insubordination, accused Slovakia of the mortal sin of a ‘breach of solidarity’, threatening unspecified ‘political consequences’.
In Finland, the True Finn party shot to prominence campaigning that Finns’ hard earned money shouldn’t be used to bail out the feckless Greeks. They aren’t part of the government, but have managed to get the grand committee of the Finnish parliament to take a strong stance on the bailout, in turn compelling the government to insist on collateral for loans to Greece — a serious spanner in the euro-works.
Germany hasn’t been rocked by new anti-EU parties — but Angela Merkel has still been struggling to contain rampant Euroscepticism. Within a year of insisting that ‘We have a treaty under which there is no possibility of paying to bailout states in difficulty’, Frau Merkel demanded a bailout — and she hasn’t been forgiven. She has been trying to stop parliament having a say in the bailouts, but Norbert Lammert, the Bundestag president, has successfully insisted that it must be voted on by MPs, seriously hampering the Chancellor’s room for manoeuvre. German pensioners surviving on €1,000 a month are aghast at having to pay to bail out Greece, where pensioners get €2,500 a month, and there are careers to be made riding their anger. Frank Schaeffler, a German coalition MP, has shot to fame as the enfant terrible of Euroscepticism, co-ordinating rebellious opposition to the bailouts.
But perhaps the most astonishing transformation has been the Dutch parliament, the Tweede Kamer. It has been hit by Geert Wilders, a right-wing populist MP with bizarre Mozart-style hair, but Euroscepticism has become the norm even for moderate parties like the VVD liberals. Recent talk in Brussels of moving to fiscal federalism sparked the parliament to adopt a motion urging the Dutch government to ‘strongly distance themselves from any move towards a political union’. They insisted that taxes, pensions and wages policies must remain theirs to control.
The assertiveness of European parliaments has been spreading to a wide range of issues. The European Commission is taking Sweden to court because its parliament has been repeatedly deferring introducing the EU data-retention directive, which requires telecoms companies to store data on phone calls, websites visited and emails. The modern way to defend one’s national interest is to defy the EU — and to hell with the consequences.
To Mats Persson, the director of the invaluable think-tank Open Europe, which monitors hardening sentiment across Europe, an endgame has begun. ‘The EU is coming up against the full force of parliamentary democracy,’ he says.
But where will this lead? The euro crisis has shown that the EU’s founding principle of ever-closer union has been tested to destruction. Federalists won’t be able to stop themselves pushing for ever more integration, but the political tide and history is now clearly against them.
The European Parliament was set up to fulfil the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU, but despite its ever increasing powers, it has singly failed in that core mission. Its determination to centralise shows how out of touch it is with voters, who have shown their scorn by refusing to turn out at elections. Even sophisticated Europhiles like Tony Blair can’t name their MEP. The truth is that it is national parliaments that are the ultimate guardians of democracy — if they won’t stand up for it, who will? If the eurozone crisis explodes, and a new treaty is required, it will not only be British ministers who will face extraordinary pressure to negotiate a looser relationship with Europe. Ministers who put obligations to the EU ahead of the concerns of their voters will run a large risk.
Across the EU, Euroscepticism has gone mainstream. National parliaments are starting to find their voice — and deciding that they just can’t continue standing by while their powers evaporate to the EU. Once they have committed the heresy of Euroscepticism, they seem to get a taste for it. The euro crisis is a disaster for the European economy — but it could be the saviour of European democracy.