Way back in 2004, the European People’s Party — the main center-right party operating in the European Parliament — won the largest number of seats. Roughly concurrently, José Manuel Barroso was inaugurated for the first of what would prove to be two terms as the president of the European Commission, the head of the European Union’s executive branch. Both of Barroso’s commissions were mostly composed of politicians from center-right parties, and so is the current commission, headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, another EPP leader. And all this time throughout two more European Parliament elections, the EPP has remained the single biggest group.
What makes this situation strange is that the continually governing party hasn’t been particularly successful. The EU slipped into the same severe economic crisis as the United States back in 2008 but has had a much weaker recovery. Nor is the EPP particularly popular.
But while economic failure and unpopularity would lead to electoral defeat and a new regime in Europe in the context of conventional national politics, the impact of the EPP’s mismanagement has been to discredit the entire institutional scheme. The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU on Thursday, and polls show voters in a number of other countries agree.
To save itself, the European Union is going to need a real opposition political party: one that can formulate a coherent alternate policy agenda and give dissatisfied voters the opportunity to “throw the bums out” without tearing down the entire institutional edifice they inhabit.
So far, Europe’s main center-left party has been too intellectually timid, too hungry for patronage, and too subordinate to local agendas to play that role. But to save the European project, someone needs to speak strongly against the people currently managing it. Excessive partisan polarization has its flaws, but Europe is currently being brought to its knees by an absence of partisanship.
The genius of a loyal opposition
The notion of a “loyal opposition” is in many ways the key innovation in the institutionalization of democracy. The idea is that an organized political movement may object stridently to the agenda of the current governing regime without being seen as disloyal to the state or the nation. This means that incumbent rulers face meaningful electoral accountability. If voters are displeased with their performance, a rival team waits in the wings ready and eager to take over.
Traditionally we think of a loyal opposition as being absent because of repression by the rulers. But the European Union suffers essentially from the opposite problem — too much consensus.
Rather than being a choice between competing teams, each successive European Commission has reflected an effort to achieve balance — doling out seats to the center-right EPP, the center-left PES, and the centrist Liberals roughly according to their weight in Parliament.
This leaves voters displeased with the status quo only the option of voting for one of a variety of fringe parties who don’t credibly propose to govern. Or, more to the point, it leaves them with the option of becoming sullen and deciding not that the specific current crop of EU policymakers are bad but that the EU itself is bad.
In practice, in other words, consensus politics is counterproductively acting to undermine consensus over the very existence of the union itself — a disaster far worse than a few rounds of contentious politics.
Make Brussels’ bureaucrats accountable
In institutional terms, developing a real opposition party would also require entrenching the idea that the European Commission should be accountable to the European Parliament in the way that a normal national cabinet is accountable to the national parliament.
This is not exactly what the EU’s existing treaties set up.
Instead they say that the commissioners should be selected by the European Council, which is a fancy name for a meeting of Europe’s various prime ministers. But there’s a catch — the Commission the Council selects needs to be approved by the Parliament. In the UK, Denmark, and other constitutional monarchies it’s generally the case that on paper it’s the king or queen who selects the prime minister, merely subject to the consent of parliament. But over time it’s become an overwhelmingly powerful norm that the monarch must pick the winner of the election because the parliament won’t confirm anyone else.
And indeed, the 2014 European Parliament election set up an embryonic version of this.
The European People’s Party members said that if they won the election, they wanted Jean-Claude Juncker to become president of the Commission. UK Prime Minister David Cameron strongly objected to this as a matter of substance, and several European heads of government objected to the process. But ultimately, Juncker was indeed picked, even though the council never formally agreed that Parliament had the right to force their hand.
Developing a real opposition party means pushing this logic a step further — claiming the right to name a full slate of commissioners in the event of an election win, in exchange for agreeing to accept no commissioners as the price of defeat.
Winning this kind of battle could be difficult and might not happen immediately. But it’s clear that voters across the continent are frustrated by the idea that Europe is run by unaccountable bureaucrats. An opposition party that demanded the right to hold them accountable would naturally have the upper hand in political arguments and could count on the implicit or explicit support of Euroskeptics as well as enthusiasts.
European social democrats need to do their job
The good news is that the opposition party Europe needs already exists — it just needs to start acting like an opposition.
It’s called the Party of European Socialists, and it groups together the main center-left parties from every European country. The UK’s Labour Party is there, as is the Democratic Party of Italy, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, France’s Socialist Party, Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party, and so on down the line.
With Europe in the hands of a primarily center-right administration pursuing a primarily center-right agenda, and largely failing to deliver prosperity to the continent, the job of the PES should be to withdraw support for the existing policy regime and propose an alternate one grounded in mainstream criticism of EU macroeconomic policy.
- A European Central Bank that is firmly committed to doing everything possible to secure full employment across the continent, even if it means somewhat higher inflation
- Countercyclical borrowing by the EU itself to finance direct cash transfers to European citizens or European Structural and Cohesion Fund spending
- Measures to raise wages in low-unemployment member states such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Czech Republic
- Steps toward the construction of a EU-wide welfare state, probably starting with a minimum old-age pension or some form of common approach to unemployment insurance
The hope, obviously, would be that this agenda would lead social democrats to electoral victory in the 2019 European Parliament elections, at which point they could seek support from the smaller Liberal, Green, and far-left blocs in Parliament to begin implementing this agenda.
The risk, of course, is that the agenda would prove unpopular and they would lose. At a moment of Euroskeptical sentiment, running with the promise of a more activist EU might be disastrous. But whether in victory or defeat, running on a clear policy platform and then treating the election result as determinative of the future course of governance would do a great favor to the European project by giving voters a way to express frustration inside the EU system. Without it, a lot of voters see their only choices as continuing the status quo or exiting the eurozone altogether.
But the risk of not entering opposition is in many ways greater. Right now, elected social democratic governments in places like France and Italy find themselves implementing a slight variant of the same agenda of austerity and deregulation that their opponents on the right favor — given the structure of EU policy, they have no choice. In country after country this means bleeding supporters to further-left populist movements. And the example of Greece’s Syriza suggests that even if these parties gain power they’ll simply be in the same trap.
Europe needs a real opposition party, and the European center left desperately needs a viable agenda. Transforming themselves into a real opposition party in Brussels could meet both needs and save both social democracy and the European project.