The last 10 years of political crises in the European Union take the form of a play in Luuk van Middelaar’s De nieuwe politiek van Europa. Through the dramas of recent years, this interview with the Dutch historian carries us from the EU’s postwar foundation to the year 2049, sketching out what the return of European politics could mean for the decades to come.

Laurent Standaert: In contrast to the dominant views of Europe as either a federalist or an intergovernmental project, you distinguish three approaches to the EU’s construction. What are these approaches and how to do they relate to today’s EU institutions?

Luuk van Middelaar: Three approaches to how a future Europe should be built have been around ever since 1945 and each is reflected in its favourite institutions. One could be described as a functionalist and technocratic approach and forms to some extent the DNA of the European Commission, the Court of Justice, and even the Council of Ministers. This was the Jean Monnet method and really it laid the foundations of what became the European Economic Community. This approach claims that we need to take the political out of politics and transforms conflicts into technical problems to be solved. It worked wonders in the second half of the 20th century for issues like coal, steel, and building a common market. The second, federalist approach has been rather centred around the European Parliament. It bet on a European Parliament to create a European public sphere and saw it as a step towards more supranational competences. The third more confederal approach is embodied by the European Council – which I clearly distinguish from the Council of Ministers – involving national leaders and governments. This approach Europeanises national spheres and brings a different sort of authority to European affairs. The European Council has taken on a more prominent role in the past 10 years, not because of personalities or any kind of conspiracy, but because Europe had to deal with certain existential shocks and crisis moments. These moments required a different kind of political action. 

This is what you call “events politics” rather than “rules politics”? A phase of re-politicisation of the European project in which the European Council has what you call the “authority”? 

Yes. Rules politics is the old classic of the politics of European construction – an excellent technocratic approach to making decisions, patiently weaving socio-economic interests together in negotiations between stakeholders and member states. But that method is not suitable for political urgency or delicate situations. It takes weeks, months, even years, to arrive at clear and binding rules. What the EU has been faced with required events politics, the political art of improvisation as a way of taking quick and controversial decisions. Think of the financial and Eurozone crises – over one weekend in May 2010, there were 48 hours to find 750 billion euros. Think of the Russian invasion of Crimea with just a few days to decide on sanctions and act on a matter of war and peace. The same goes for the crisis moments on migration, Brexit, and Donald Trump. There’s a difference in speed but also in political sensitivity. Controversial issues like migration are no longer dealt with solely on the basis of expertise and technocratic approaches. You need a strong narrative and a means of political conviction to convince public opinion.

For this, the European Council is the locus of power and authority. It is clearly not an expert body and its members do not pretend, unlike the current American president, to be experts in everything. But they are elected and have a relatively close link with voters, the press, and their national interests. In other words, they bring authority rather than only formal legitimacy. Swift and controversial decisions need authority, which had been the missing element in the EU decision-making machinery. Most analysts and practitioners focused on the machinery, the treaties and processes, but before any of that you need an agreement on principle to take such decisions – although the press always grasped that the summits were where power and stories were to be found. 

2049: Open Future
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In your book you designate the period from 1945-1989 as a sort of slumber, if not coma, from which European politics only really reawakens in 2008-2018 [1]. Why did it take so long?

I really consider 1989, or the period from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 until the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, as a turning point or even as a second foundation of the European project. Many of the metamorphoses we have seen in the past 10 years were ‘being prepared’ back then. It was the first time that member states realised they would also have to deal, perhaps not immediately but at some point, with security and questions of sovereignty and that the American Cold War umbrella would not last forever. Some back then, and not only the French, even called for European defence. Today we see this shift with Trump and the US government no longer giving security guarantees to Europe. Of course it was also when the creation of the euro was decided.

There was a moment of panic that other member states would follow the same path and that the UK’s departure would be the beginning of the end

None of this was really acted upon in 1989 because the end of the Cold War was for the European continent a moment of politicisation that was immediately captured by Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the ‘end of history’, which became dominant in the West and to some extent paralysed Brussels for years. This idea that the world would follow the path of capitalist liberal democracies to the end stage of world history, with transitions in Eastern Europe, China joining the World Trade Organization, and the US fighting for democracy in the rest of the world, was a political sleeping pill and a delusion.

Of course, in the intermediate period from 1993 to 2008 there were conflicts, there was rivalry, but the end of the history idea was dominant. But in the light of recent years and crises, this moment has shown itself to be the return of history rather than the end of history. Europe’s relations with Russia and even with the United States are deteriorating, its global role contested, and its rules politics are not helping the continent address its position in the 21st century. 

The European Council has been the main character of the different acts from the past 10 years of political crises. What are what you call ‘Machiavellian moments’ and which were the most remarkable for you?

A Machiavellian moment is a term I take from historian John Pocock. In a famous 1975 book, he explains that Machiavelli and his Renaissance contemporaries realised that any political order is mortal and finite, and that politics is playing out in history and in time. The EU had its own kind of eternity thinking and is now coming to terms with the fact that it too can die. 

One such Machiavellian moment was expressed in May 2010, with the famous Angela Merkel line that “When the euro fails, Europe fails.” This was when the pressure of the markets was high and when then US President Barack Obama made phone calls saying, “For Christ’s sake, save the euro”. Another moment would be at the end of 2015-early 2016, during the refugee crisis, with dramatic images and a sense that member states were losing control with hundreds of thousands of people entering the EU through the Balkan route. Another core European project – Schengen and free movement within the EU – was at stake. My third moment would be the day after the Brexit referendum, 24 June 2016. There was a moment of panic that other member states would follow the same path and that the UK’s departure would be the beginning of the end. It was palpable within the institutions. That was then aggravated with the election of Trump, a president who encouraged eurosceptic forces to follow suit. 

Where do you think the European Union will be in 2049? 

I’m a historian and 30 years is a long time. Looking at 2049 requires looking at which world Europe could find itself in. It will be the centenary of communist China and the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has made it China’s objective to be the number one country in the world in precisely 2049. An important question for Europe as a continent is where to stand between China and America. It is a key question which should underpin our policies and political decisions. Stakes are high as to whether Europe can become one of the poles in a multipolar world or whether it becomes a battleground for America and China, at least economically not to mention – dread the thought – militarily. 

During the refugee crisis, it is clear that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán played an important role by opposing the EU approach driven by Brussels and Berlin

You can already see the Chinese influence in Eastern and Southern Europe and nervousness about the US’s mental retreat from Europe. Both the Chinese and the Americans aim to be leaders in artificial intelligence and big data, technologies that will shape our future, whereas the Europeans are lagging behind (including for good reasons, such as our privacy regulations). When Chancellor Merkel says, “We, Europeans, have to take our fate into our own hands” and President Macron talks about “European sovereignty”, what they are really talking about is exactly that: how Europe is to become capable of defending its own interests within 30 years’ time. Whether it’s regarding digital economy, climate change, defence, or the euro as a global reserve currency, they are referring to Europe’s capacity to act and shape its own future. 

What could that mean for the EU’s institutions and structure?

In the first place, it would certainly mean getting a better sense of the priorities and the bigger picture, rather than the usual squabbles over technical and financial details of larger policy questions, or worse over relatively minor EU competences. Before answering strictly about institutions, a prerequisite is to develop and strengthen a sense of European identity, of ‘we’ as Europeans, as a community of destiny in the world which is different from the Americans, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and China. Without such a sense of identity, real and projected, the claim to take decisions on behalf of European citizens is not credible, either to citizens or, importantly, to other masters in the arts of politics such as presidents Putin or Xi who exploit a weak sense of identity.

The executive power of the EU should evolve towards an improved and clearer understanding between the European Commission and the European Council. The European Council is the body you need for some of these far-reaching, controversial long-term decisions and the European Commission brings the thinking power and executive follow up, together with its capacity to think for Europe as a whole. This is what Jacques Delors did brilliantly between 1985 and 1995. He did not need to be a Spitzenkandidat to be a very effective and respected European leader, an embodiment of the European project. He also smartly used the European Council for its authority. Authority and visibility are essential qualities that national leaders bring to make sure decisions are credible and can be acted upon. But of course this requires political commitment from national leaders who should see themselves as part of Europe and Europe as the common good, and for them to say this back home. 

From the legislative side, the European Parliament is of course an important player. It is more powerful than many national parliaments in the sense that it has a strong say as a co-legislator. But its weak spot is its link with the voters and public opinion, which one would have hoped to improve over time. The Parliament’s problem is that it has not really allowed opposition to emerge. For too long, it has been divided between a very large alliance expressing the Brussels consensus on what Europe and a more federal and supranational approach should be, and a few anti-European MEPs such as Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage. But that is not a healthy democratic situation because it doesn’t reflect the variety of views held across Europe. This is a big challenge for an institution that claims to directly represent voters and, for starters, we will see what improvement the May 2019 elections will bring.

Could the 2019 European elections be a turning point, with those who oppose the way things are run but that do not want to destroy Europe finally getting their say in Parliament?

Maybe. I think that what political leaders like Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega or Jarosław Kaczyński of Poland’s Law and Justice party want to do is not to kill or leave Europe, but to change it. As an analyst, I can only say that on Schengen or migration it’s good that such parties and politicians bring a different and (also) representative view that nourishes the debates and the public sphere both at the European and national levels. During the refugee crisis it is clear that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán played an important role by opposing the usual EU approach. Without excusing his undermining of democracy at home, proposing policy alternatives on migration and identity was important, whether I like it or not. A genuine opposition within the theatre of European politics had never existed in the past.

Looking 30 years ahead is about talking about dilemmas and choices frankly because the 440 million Europeans remaining in the EU are not crazy or stupid – they’re voters

The weakness of the EU as it developed over time is that it did not know and envisage how to deal with opposition. The technocratic approach, usually juiced up with a little bit of moral superiority from Brussels, meant that whoever did not agree was either stupid or bad, and in the end ignored. This way of functioning feeds what political scientists call ‘opposition of principle’, that is political opposition which rejects the political order as such. ‘Classical opposition’, by contrast, recognises the political system but wants to change its policies or its personnel. Because the EU has not allowed space for such classical opposition, it is the radical opposition of principle which gained strength. The political forces criticising the EU today, all the way from the Brexit campaigners to the nationalist forces in Italy or Poland, are a witness to an opposition that for lack of space has developed a radical anti or alter-EU project. So it’s important to create that political space for debate.

Values such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law underpin the foundation of the EU. Could the EU disintegrate or split over such values in the next 30 years?

Yes, I think it could. What you describe as values are part and parcel of Europe’s identity and image of itself. A club of democracies. These days you can see a potential division between the EU as a space of values such as democracy, rule of law, and freedom and the geographical as the political expression of the European continent. Imagine an exit referendum in Hungary or Poland where exit won. It would be as disruptive as Brexit and it would go against the post-1989 European vocation to heal the wounds of the Cold War and bring the continent together. I think these kinds of tragic dilemmas will arise in the coming decades and cause many political headaches. Looking 30 years ahead is about talking about these dilemmas and choices frankly in the public debate because the 440 million Europeans remaining in EU are not crazy or stupid – they’re voters. They know the world is changing, they know about climate change, about China, about migration, about welfare state reforms. People are ready for the choices, provided they are set out in this wider geopolitical landscape. That requires a real politicisation of Europe and political courage and energy.

[1] Luuk van Middelaar (2017). De nieuwe politiek van Europa. The Netherlands: Historische Uitgeverij.  Also available in French (Quand l’Europe improvise. Dix ans de crises politiques. Gallimard 2018) and coming soon in English (Alarums and Excursions. Improvising Politics on the European Stage. Agenda Publishing 2019)

2049: Open Future
2049: Open Future

The politics of tomorrow start with the politics of today. Beyond any one theme, this collection of essays, stories, and interviews, complemented by infographics and amazing illustrations, looks forward to imagine the Europe(s) to be in 2049.

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