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Opinion The growth of Euroscepticism shows Europes's problems are deeper than its pockets

Euroscepticism is undoubtedly connected to the economic crisis – but it is not the whole story: the problem is that the EU is not a democracy.

THE EUROPEAN ECONOMY is once again on its knees. Policy-makers engage in esoteric arguments about the merits of austerity and fiscal stimulus, while citizens lose their jobs. As a result of policy failures, Euroscepticism is on the rise and now poses an existential threat to the European Union…

This is a narrative that we have all come to accept. There is admittedly quite a bit of truth in it – the rise of Euroscepticism is undoubtedly connected to the economic crisis – but it is not the whole story. The USA too has experienced recession. Democrats and Republicans are divided along ideological lines on budgetary policy, which prompted the dramatic shutdown of the Federal Government last year.

This has not triggered calls for the dismantling of the Union or the scrapping of the dollar. Fringe parties have remained on the fringe, and a general disenchantment with politics has not led to a legitimacy crisis. Contrast this with the blossoming of Eurosceptic parties all over the EU, and it becomes clear that Europe’s problems go far deeper than its economic woes.

The US is a democracy, the EU is not

The crucial difference is that the United States is a democracy, while the European Union is not. While the EU can claim a directly elected parliament, a plural executive, checks and balances, a human rights charter and an independent judiciary, it does not have a democratically ratified constitution. Although European Citizenship exists on paper, this is still a far cry from demos – a people – who are able to grant legitimacy to this sprawling supranational political system. This was not a huge problem in the past, but it is increasingly problematic today.

To date, the EU has achieved legitimacy largely because its decisions benefited each and every one of us. The right to go on holidays and even work in any EU member state without requiring a visa has been tremendously popular. Not even mobile phone companies dared to complain when Europe slashed mobile phone roaming tariffs. The Single Market allows manufacturers and producers to export their goods anywhere within the EU, increasing consumer choice and turning local businesses into continental players. Of course radical free-marketeers complain about EU regulations, which in the vast majority of cases exist to protect consumers. The radical left also objects to any kind of market economy on principle. However, in the eyes of most citizens the EU had until five years ago been a complete success story. Even the euro had its day in the sun.

The global financial crisis triggered an EU-wide systems failure, which depressingly is still ongoing. The EU is starting to resemble an expensive car that has broken down, with mechanics unsure as to how to fix it. The car owners are debating whether to commit money to fixing it, or to accept their loss and buy a new car of uncertain quality. Most Europeans only support EU-membership because leaving the EU seems akin to hopping from the frying pan into the fire. Whereas on a member-state level, we would expect poor economic performance to foreshadow the defeat of the governing party/coalition in a subsequent election. Calls to abolish the nation-state would be considered unpatriotic. This contrast provides an important lesson for Europe’s leaders – if the EU is to survive this political and economic crisis, it will need to do more than to meet its economic targets. It will need democracy in the sense of the Greek word.

The Juncker nomination saga: an important lesson to Europe’s voters

In fairness, Europe’s leaders do appear to appreciate this fact. The appointment of the Juncker commission last week is a unique event, because Jean Claude Juncker was nominated by the European People’s Party, which won the most seats in the European Parliament elections. Nonetheless his nomination was not a smooth ride. The European Council, under pressure from David Cameron, hesitated to approve him.

The Juncker nomination saga is an important lesson to Europe’s voters. Real power in the EU rests with the member state government’s, and this power is in direct proportion to the size of the country’s economy. Had Angela Merkel not faced a domestic backlash when her support for Juncker wavered, the odds on his appointment would have been very different.

The Juncker nomination saga exposed one weakness in the procedure for appointing the Commission president, but it isn’t the only one. It is worth questioning, for instance, how many Fine Gael voters knew that by voting for a Fine Gael candidate they were also voting for Juncker? How many Fine Gael voters read his manifesto and gave it serious consideration? In political science, we consider European elections to be second order national elections. This means that even if most Fine Gael voters were aware of Junker, it is unlikely that they would have given much weight to his platform. Rather, they would have used their vote to express their support for Fine Gael’s performance in government.

A continent-wide election campaign

Perhaps things would have been different had Juncker and his fellow candidates sought his mandate from we-the-people. A popular mandate would leave the European Council with neither the legal nor the political authority to unseat the victor. A continent-wide election campaign would serve to force candidates to engage with the issues faced by ordinary Europeans, and the ensuing the election drama would also encourage media outlets to pay more attention to EU Politics.

For once, a human face recognisable to everyone, would preside over the European Commission. For once, the Commission would have a mandate to act in the interests of citizens rather than in the interests of the governments of the largest member states. Europe’s leaders need to realise the fundamental importance of democracy. Regardless of whether the European Economy recovers from its malaise over the coming year, the time when we can be confident in endless economic growth is over.

The connection between citizens and leaders must be improved, so that when the system breaks down again, we will have a good reason to rebuild it rather than to throw it out.

Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh is a student and political activist. He blogs at TheReillyWriter and tweets at @thereillywriter.

Opinion: What does the rise of anti-EU MEPs mean for European politics?

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