The Impact of Politicization on EU Governance

18 May, 2020

The concept of European integration emerged after the Second World War and was designed to promote prosperity and peace among member states. However, considering the series of crises the EU has been facing over the past few years, the European project is in jeopardy. The repercussions of the Eurozone crisis and the migration crisis culminated in the Brexit referendum in June 2016, which triggered a new cleavage between elites and masses, catalyzing the rise of identity politics and politicization across Europe. Politicization can be defined as making something subject to public choice, depending on issue salience, polarization, and actor expansion. The most striking example of something being politized in the EU is probably the Vote Leave campaign – the driving force behind Brexit that advocated for a “Leave” vote in the 2016 UK EU membership referendum. The campaign was mainly supported by the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), which rapidly gained momentum over the past decade. Given a stagnated economy, many British citizens started to link the poor economic performance to large-scale immigration as a result from EU membership, which was of advantage to UKIP. The ‘left behind’ of British society were dissatisfied with democracy and believed that the government was not treating them fairly. Those who experienced economic deprivation and deep frustration over social injustice were especially attracted by UKIP and shared a strong desire to reduce immigration in the UK. Soon UKIP became a top priority of media attention, which gave the party the large audience it needed. By the time of the referendum, UKIP had become a strong force and its Eurosceptic message had a large and compassionate audience [1]. Thus, Brexit has clearly emphasized the negative effects of politicization and sheds light on disintegrative trends within the EU.

The politicization of European integration is a relatively new phenomenon that arose with the expansion of the integration process beyond economics. It stems largely from growing heterogeneity among EU citizens and increasing issue salience of EU policies combined with increasing mobilization and actor expansion in the public realm. The future of EU governance in a politicized context is uncertain. In light of the current situation that the EU finds itself in, it is crucial to explore and understand the possible ways forward for the EU. The COVID-19 crisis has tested the EU like never before. Both the serious medical situation as well as the expected social and economic repercussions of this crisis challenge European solidarity to a great degree. In view of the budget negotiations, the EU must unite on the best way forward for its citizens. The single market can only be protected when all EU member states overcome this crisis jointly.

There are three different views on politicization in the EU. The first perspective refers to a transition from ‘permissive consensus’ to ‘constraining dissensus’ and considers politicization as an obstacle to European integration. It is based on the aforementioned rise of identity politics and the emergence of a new cleavage in European society. This new cleavage refers to a shift in conflict structure – from the traditional left versus right dispute that has shaped political competition for large parts of history to a growing division between elites and masses. The significance of collective identities and the highly divisive effects of identity politics reinforce nationalist movements, of which Brexit can be seen as an example par excellence. This is mainly because of the repercussions of both the Eurozone crisis and the migration crisis, which led to an anti-European sentiment and a significant rise of Eurosceptic and populist movements across Europe. In light of the challenges the EU is currently facing, support for deepening European integration can no longer be taken as granted. This post-functionalist approach views politicization as a threatening danger for EU governance since Euroscepticism seems to be gain momentum, leading to a vicious cycle of diminishing effectiveness and support. Therefore, politicization is for the predominant part viewed as a countermovement to the integration process and an obstacle to efficient decision-making, which might eventually lead to European disintegration, accompanied by a vision of a ‘never closer union’.

The second argument views politicization of European integration as a temporary phenomenon without any long-term effects on EU governance at all. It considers the politicization of European integration as a temporary phenomenon that hardly affects EU governance. Politicization should rather encourage politicians to preserve the technocratic basis on which the EU is built. Viewed in this light, political executives should respond to large-scale politicization by actively depoliticizing public matters. Considering the example of the Eurozone crisis, EU leaders reacted by establishing Euro-supportive governments, eschewing referenda, and delegating major competences and responsibilities to supranational organizations as for instance the European Central Bank or the European Commission. Thus, politicization may be understood as a short-term phenomenon without any lasting effects on EU governance at all.

The third line of reasoning describes politicization as an important phase in the integration process that allows for reform and democratic responsiveness. Politicization is seen as an inevitable phase in the process of European integration, allowing for the modernization of EU governance. From this point of view, politicization is understood as an opportunity for transformation and even deeper integration of the EU. Politicization may be a way to help the EU tackle its legitimacy crisis. In fact, politicization not only makes issue areas more salient but also citizens more aware of and acquainted with EU decision-making, leading to an increase in both control and democratic responsiveness. In light of the growing cleavage between masses and elite, the rise of Euroscepticism and public debates in general is crucial for responsiveness as it urges policymakers to respond to these challenges. EU politicization can be seen as a prerequisite for responsiveness. In order to achieve responsiveness, three criteria need to be met. First, only if policies are publicly salient and get a certain level of public attention, citizens’ demands can be communicated to political executives. A second precondition for responsiveness is the mobilization of societal groups who express citizens’ demands and interests. Third, a high degree of political controversy is necessary in order to increase the likelihood of the policy issue being adequately addressed by policymakers. Therefore, all previously mentioned key characteristics of politicization (salience, polarization and actor expansion) are indispensable catalyzers for public and policy responsiveness. This logic differs from the expectation that politicization inhibits European integration and suggests that crises symbolize opportunities to change for the better. Based on this argument, the concept of differentiated integration has been introduced as an approach to reforming EU governance as a response to politicization.

The Future of EU Governance in a Politicized Context

Even though this article has drawn attention to disintegrative trajectories of EU governance, it has clearly pointed out that politicization could potentially lead to reformation. Issue salience, polarization and actor expansion not only echo public opinion but also put policymakers under pressure to respond and initiate change. Regaining citizens’ trust and support for the European project is crucial for the future of EU governance. This trust can only be regained by listening to the people and responding to their voice. Taking a longer perspective, politicization should be viewed as a chance to initiate change. I believe that politicization becomes increasingly important for EU governance as it triggers inevitable reform activities, allowing for deeper integration. Why predict a ‘never closer union’ when politicization may lead to an ‘ever closer union’? There is no doubt that public discontent and Eurosceptic movements result from both the rise of identity politics and inflexible decision-making by extremely bureaucratic EU institutions. EU advocates are therefore seeking institutional modernization in order to transform the EU into a more cohesive and efficient unity. Europe has to adapt to our fast-changing world and can no longer muddle through.

Considering the complex challenges the EU has to deal with, many supporters of the European project have recognized the need for a more flexible framework. The concept of differentiated integration can be a way to effectively overcome the flaws of EU governance. Differentiated integration is a process of integration in which some member states are not subject to the same rules as the others. In fact, there have already been various exceptions and opt-outs among EU member states. In view of the increasing importance of identity politics and widespread Euroscepticism, however, the idea of differentiated integration needs to be extended. In terms of future trends in differentiated integration-style EU governance, the prevailing concepts are ‘multi speed Europe’, ‘core Europe’, ‘variable geometries’ and ‘Europe à la Carte’. ‘Multi speed Europe’ refers to a situation in which policies and objectives are determined for all EU members but only some make progress while other member states might follow at a later time. This could easily transition into a ‘core Europe’, if only a group of core states would be responsible for decision-making. The theory of ‘variable geometries’ assumes that those member states in favor of deeper integration go ahead without the consent of other EU members, meaning that no predetermined integration objectives exist at all. Thus, different groups with variable affiliations would be available for all member states anytime. While the previously introduced concepts build on the already established EU framework, the idea of ‘Europe à la carte’ resolves the traditional structure of European integration. It refers to a hypothetical situation in which all member states are offered a range of initiatives from which each member state can assemble their preferred menu, which is often referred to as ‘cherry picking’. Applying the aforementioned concepts or possibly even a combination of these concepts can be an effective approach to overcoming drawbacks of increasing heterogeneity by eliminating the one size fits all approach to European integration, which does not please all countries and is no longer suitable.

The overall theory of differentiated integration represents a helpful strategy to ease tensions between member states and provides a basis for managing increasing diversity. Whereas the concepts of ‘multi speed Europe’, ‘core Europe’, and ‘variable geometries’ intend to deepen integration among certain EU countries, the idea of ‘Europe à la carte’ focuses on the individual preferences of member states. Therefore, it should be noted that this approach challenges the traditional concepts of solidarity and multilateralism. At the same time, the debate on differentiated integration shows that politicization can trigger reform and thus serves as an essential prerequisite for rethinking integration. As Ursula von der Leyen has emphasized in her agenda for Europe, the linkages between European citizens, nations, and institutions must be strengthened. Europe can only ‘strive for more’ by bringing people together and allowing for more democratic responsiveness. With that said, politicization may ultimately represent an opportunity to rethink how the EU is governed.

[1] Clarke, H. D., Goodwin, M. and Whiteley, P. (2017) Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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