Idea crisis or leadership crisis?

Commenting on the French referendum results, I wrote:

As motivating ideas behind European integration, “uniting again what had been separated” and “all men will be brothers” should be equally appealing in 2005 as they were in 1945 and in 1989. What the EU does seem to lack these days, as opposed to its early years, is leaders whose “magic” is able to unite the masses behind those ideas.

After the resounding Dutch ‘no’ to the EU Constitution and last weekend’s EU summit, I still believe this is the case. Here is why:

Polls conducted shortly after the referendum reveal that both French and Dutch voters support the general idea of EU integration. Whatever the right-wing (nation-state oriented) EU-sceptics say, no less than 72% of French voters are in favour of continued integration. Similarly, 84% of Dutch voters support the EU in some form or another, whereas only 16% could be considered EU-sceptics. Other, more extensive polls published only recently (France, Netherlands) confirm these figures. In short, the French and Dutch votes were directed against this EU, not against the EU. This is an important conclusion to begin with.

With that in mind, finding strong arguments against the contents of the Constitution becomes rather difficult. On balance, it brings progress rather than anything else relating to the objections brought up in the campaign, while most other arguments for a ‘no’ (on Turkey, the budget, net contributions) had nothing to do with it or were grossly exaggerated. If the EU is undemocratic and not transparent, the Constitution makes it more democratic and more transparent. If the EU is too complicated, the Constitution makes it a lot simpler. If the EU’s policies are too liberal or not liberal enough, the Constitution leaves plenty of room for EU politicians to take a, democratically sanctioned, different course. And if the Constitution is long, this is because detailed prescriptions are necessary in order to curtail Brussels’ power sufficiently and effectively.

Of course, one could still argue that the Constitution’s improvements do not go far enough. But the picture for most voters after the campaigns is the complete opposite: that, by adopting the Constitution, the EU would become less democratic, more (or less) liberal, more complicated and more centrist or distant. This probably explains the frustration on the yes side, which often had the impression no one was even listening to its arguments. And they were right, as in this dialogue des sourds the other side was not talking about the Constitution at all, but about a more fundamental problem.

The 2002 Fortuyn crisis in the Netherlands clearly indicated that something was wrong there with the relationship between the electorate and the political classes. And despite the fact that many Dutch politicians of the pre-Fortuyn era have been replaced by others, the crisis is still there. Public confidence in the country’s leadership is even lower than it was at the time of the Fortuyn murder. More disturbingly, confidence in the mainstream opposition parties is hardly any better. They would probably win the elections if there were any right now, but only by lack of an alternative, which, fortunately, the populist right is not providing either. Pim Fortuyn’s own party of cronies and loonies is back from 22 seats just after his death to between 0 and 1 in the current polls, and the life time cycles of various alternatives that spring up every now and again (including maverick Wilders) seem to get shorter and shorter.

But it is no different in France, where a common complaint is that the country has been ruled by the same old men and their cronies for ages. Nor is it different in the UK, where Tony Blair was re-elected thanks to the electoral system and the weak opposition, not to his popularity among voters. Or Belgium, where the rise of the extreme-right Vlaams Belang seems unstoppable. Austria (FPÖ), Italy (Alleanze Nazionale, Lega di Nord), Denmark (Dansk Folkeparti) and the anti-globalist movement are other cases in mind. In my view, the votes in France and the Netherlands against the EU Constitution as well as the now rising ‘no’ support in Luxembourg, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic fit into the same pattern.

Research shows that, even during the Fortuyn crisis, Dutch public confidence in political parties was still one of the highest in Europe. In most other countries, notably Germany, the UK, Italy and France, it is considerably lower. Therefore I see no reason to assume that public unease is limited to only a few countries. Still, it is remarkable how difficult it is for ruling parties to admit that something is the matter, even in the middle of a crisis, with polls racing down and defeat staring them in the face: “Look at this country, it is doing fine! People are more prosperous than they have ever been, they have no reason to complain! The populists are lying, fearmongering and scapegoating, they have nothing to offer!” Every time this happened, whether the issue was domestic policy or the EU, the ruling parties were absolutely right. But still they lost the voting.

The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard seems to be closer to the truth than either the ruling parties or their populist opponents, in an article entitled “L’Europe divine” published on 17 May in Libération. He writes:

Le jeu est fermé d’avance, et tout ce qu’on sollicite, c’est le consensus. Oui au oui : derrière cette formule devenue banale se cache une terrible mystification. Le oui lui-même n’est plus exactement un oui à l’Europe, ni même à Chirac ou à l’ordre libéral. Il est devenu un oui au oui, à l’ordre consensuel, un oui qui n’est plus une réponse, mais le contenu même de la question.


Car ce non en profondeur n’est pas du tout l’effet d’un «travail du négatif» ou d’une pensée critique. C’est une réponse en forme de défi pur et simple à un principe hégémonique venu d’en haut, et pour lequel la volonté des peuples n’est qu’un paramètre indifférent, voire un obstacle à franchir.

As I understand him, the problem for voters is not so much with the issue at stake or with anything else that is factually or reasonably connected to it, but, on a meta-level with not being in control of events. There is a link here with Baudrillard’s own work on hyperreality and other critiques of the influence of mass media on public opinion. The idea here is that the picture people have of the society they live in is shaped by the mass media which, as a result of market pressures, have to come up with news that sells: sensational crimes, corruption scandals, political crises. Tabloids have no incentive to add nuance to this picture, for instance by pointing out that crime statistics stay the same or improve, or how favourably living standards in Western Europe compare to those in countries to the east or the south. According to Belgian sociologist Mark Elchardus this also influences the way our democratic systems function: Even when the media themselves are diverse, with newspapers ranging from the Sun to the Financial Times, media consumption for most people is not. The result a social divide which is not, as in the past, between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ but between ‘knows’ and ‘know nots’: between a small group that is well-educated, well-informed and confident about the future on the one hand, and a large, scared and cynical, group whose idea of political reality is shaped by a constant flow of horrifying crimes and political scandals on the other. This, combined with the individualisation and de-ideologisation of society, leads to a democracy that is more person and less idea oriented, and in which politicians only survive by running from one incident to the next media hype, instead of developing long-term visions for the future (which, in turn, only reinforces the idea that the tabloids are right). We live, as Elchardus puts it, in a “drama democracy”.

It is probable that the same social divide pictured here for public views on crime, politics in general and immigration, to a large extent applies to public views of the EU as well. In this case, we not only have an extremely low basic level of information among the public and the press, but also an incentive for national politicians to use “Brussels” as a scapegoat for their own and nobody’s failures. These two factors combined for many years to create the ideal starting point for an anti-Constitution campaign with all the characteristics of Elchardus’ “drama democracy”. The result is easier to see in France than in the Netherlands, but visible in both: In France, the groups voting ‘yes’ were the higher executives, the higher educated and the higher incomes. In the Netherlands, these groups voted against the Constitution, but with smaller margins than average.

But however much I think this analysis is correct, I do not agree with solutions (proposed by Elchardus, for instance) that try to turn the clock back, by moving decision-making away from the whimsical electorate and back to the organisations that “really” represent them. Because doing so would imply that, somehow, the message sent by voters was “wrong” and had better be ignored. Although I certainly believe that voters in France and the Netherlands were wrong as far as the Constitution text is concerned, in the sense that voting ‘no’ moved them further away from the constitutional arrangement they probably want, the idea to push through a project without winning the confidence and support of citizens first, not only seems disrespectful and arrogant but rather counter-productive as well.

People do indeed resent choosing between ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. However, this resentment does not stem from “keeping to be told” that there is no other option, as the populists phrase it, but from feeling out of control, realising that there is in fact no other option yet not feeling very comfortable about its implications. And in our modern societies with their emphasis on the value of individual autonomy, there is little that makes people feel less human than the idea of not being in control of their own destiny. We saw this in the massive anti-globalisation protests a few years ago, in the general anti-political cynicism found in many countries and its culmination in anti-establishment populism, and in the wave of anti-EU-ism that now seems to be going through Europe. In each of these cases, protests were directed against the opaque, seemingly limitless powers (of the corporations, the political elite, and “Brussels”, respectively) that supposedly rule our lives. In short, people feel they have lost control, and they want it back, badly.

But what does control mean? First of all, individual choice conceived as the result of rational considerations by a detached individual, in the confinement of his own mind, is of course an illusion. Individual choices occur in a social context. They tend to be much less unique and individual than modern dogma makes us want to believe, and are more likely to be the result of complicated historical, sociological and psychological processes. This should affect the way we think about democracy as well. Rather than seeing it as the arithmetic summation of as many individual choices as there are voters, democratic decision-making too is a largely collective process in which we all influence each other. The key question here, which determines if we feel in control on an individual level, is to what degree we are prepared to accept the outcomes of that process, especially when we are on the “losing end” of a vote.

My favourite philosopher, the Canadian Charles Taylor, seeks the answer in collective identity (emphasis mine):

To see why, consider such a regime from an individual’s standpoint. Say that I am outvoted on some important issue. I must abide by an outcome I oppose. My will is thwarted, so why should I consider myself free? Why does it matter that it is the majority of my fellow citizens, rather than the decisions of a monarch, that is overriding my will?

[…] This question is not merely theoretical. It is rarely put on behalf of individuals, but it regularly arises for sub-groups, such as national minorities, who see themselves as oppressed by majorities. Perhaps no answer can satisfy them. Whatever one says or does, they may be unable to see themselves as part of a larger sovereign people. They therefore see its rule over them as illegitimate, which is precisely the point: the logic of popular sovereignty requires an idea of collective agency based on a sense of individual belonging that is much stronger than in our lecture audience.

[…] The crucial point is that regardless of who is right philosophically, it is only insofar as people accept some such appeal that the legitimacy principle underlying popular sovereignty can work to secure their consent. If identification with the community is rejected, the government will be illegitimate in the eyes of the rejecters. In short, there can be no democracy without a shared identity as participants in a common agency.

In the same article on Sovereignty in Europe and Iraq, he concludes:

In some ways, [compared to Iraq] much less is at stake in building a new democratic community out of the already free and prosperous European countries. But whether the “democratic deficit” on the European level be remedied also depends on whether a shared European identity can be forged out of the 25 nations that will soon make up the European Union.

I agree with this in principle, although the next question to solve then is what constitutes a shared identity. Does it have to be explicit? Europeans travelling to other continents often have the experience that they feel more “European” there than at home. Not only because they suddenly realise how much, in terms of culture and values, they have in common with fellow Europeans compared to the local people they meet, but also because local people in their contacts affirm them in that European identity. At home in Europe, though, where it matters for our discussion of European democracy, that European identity feeling is very weak and seldomly made explicit.

The question is if it has to be: do you feel European because you keep being told you are – like American schoolkids have to salute the flag and sing the national anthem every day? Or is it a more implicit process, is “European identity” the right word for the feeling of “belonging” that emerges as you gradually become aware that you are part of a European, rather than a purely national context? It may not come as a surprise that my preference is for the latter interpretation.

The problem with this process in Europe right now, is that the European context of our lives is already there (and I think it would be even if the EU had not existed), but our awareness of it has only just set in. And because it is all so new, we do not trust the process yet: we do not know how it works, which arguments are taken into account before decisions are taken, or what to expect next. This becomes markedly clear in a poll conducted after the ‘no’ vote in the Netherlands, which showed that with 32% the most common reason for people to vote ‘no’ was not loss of sovereignty, the economy or the accession of Turkey, but simply that they felt uninformed. As far as the Netherlands were concerned, this discovery during the referendum campaign must have come as a shock to many people: according to Eurobarometer 58 of 2003, Dutch people had one of the highest opinions of their own knowledge of the EU, yet they scored lowest among the old EU-15 in a simple knowledge test.

Add to this a general feeling of distrust towards anything political that our societies seem to be going through, and you find that people feel they neither know what is going on, nor trust those who do know and who are taking the decisions for them. Those are, in fact, good reasons for a ‘no’ vote.

Overseeing all this, in order to restore confidence in European cooperation (whatever future form that takes), it looks like we have to make sure that people:

  • feel they know what is going on,
  • trust those involved in the actual decision-making, and
  • have confidence in the general direction things are taking

To begin with the latter: it is striking that a confidence crisis never arose when the economy was doing well, during most of the nineteen nineties. So for a large part of the population, fear of the future must be part of the story. These days, with terrorism, the lagging economy, aging populations and its effects on health costs and pensions every day in the newspaper, there is much to be fearful about. Recent EU developments blend in perfectly in order to confirm that impression:

  • the introduction of Euro coins coincided with record inflation, especially in the Netherlands as a result of a pro-cyclical tax policy (note that the Euro had been around for several years already; it was the introduction of tangible coins that mattered)
  • Enlargement with ten relatively poor countries in Central and Eastern Europe is easily perceived as a threat to the labour markets and economies of the old Member States (the famous Polish plumber), even though most serious economic analyses point to the opposite
  • talk of Turkish EU accession may have fed into popular fears of Enlargement in general and of muslims in particular (although, to be fair, this element was far less pervasive than expected in both France and the Netherlands)

Much of this is, perhaps, a matter of perception, but most of all of how you put it into words. But words are dangerous things, especially in politics: Once someone has captured something (a problem, a feeling) into words, and those words fail to do justice to the complexity or full extent of the feeling or problem, the danger is that the words and what they represent, rather than the phenomenon they are trying to describe, become the focus of public debate. This is what populists do, whether advertedly or (more often, I suspect) inadvertedly: capturing justified feelings into the wrong words, thereby diverting the debate from the real problem, and ending up with the wrong solution – sometimes with destructive results.

Clearly, societies with low knowledge levels of the issue at hand are more likely to fall victim to (opinion) leaders believing in the narrowness of their analyses. This is why it is so important in the first place that the media finally start to provide informed coverage of EU decision-making. Not more pro-EU coverage, no, just informed criticism written by journalists whose work ethics are about wanting to inform people, to challenge rather than to confirm them in their beliefs. That would be a nice change of the present situation.

But the worst problem of all, in my opinion, is that Europe’s leaders are no better than their populist challengers and, for years, just went along with parroting the tabloid press. They followed, instead of led. They could have presented vision, truth, and hope for the future. They could have presented Enlargement as an oppurtunity, rather than a threat. They could have conceded that inflation was so high because of tax breaks pumped into an overheated economy, instead of blaming the Euro. They could have presented Turkey as a successful muslim democracy, the regional example Iraq failed to become. They could have taken the blame for failing to reform France’s and Germany’s sluggish economies, rather than putting it on globalisation. They could have used Europe’s weak performance during the wars in former Yugoslavia and in the run-up to the Iraq war as arguments for more, rather than less, integration of foreign policy. And they could have admitted that their own backroom deals are the cause of lopsided distributions of subsidies and of Czechs paying for Irish incomes, and use that as an argument against national vetoes and for transparency, instead of the reverse.

If voters in Europe are to regain trust in its decision-making, they need new and better leaders. Leaders with the intellectual capacity to understand their own decisions and to develop visions that look further than the next elections. Leaders who also have the communication skills to convince people of their views and to inspire confidence in their decisions. Leaders who are not afraid of democracy, but who know that voters can be reasonable and are prepared to bring sacrifices if necessary, and that if they are not, it is because they, the leaders, have failed to convince.

When the French and Dutch people voted ‘no’ to the European Constitution, this was most of all a vote of no-confidence in, not only their own national leaders, but the entire European leadership including that of other countries. Voters did not believe that Schröder, Chirac, Blair, Balkenende and the others, as a collective, would be able to put their squabbles aside and get Europe and its economy on track again. The last European summit only proved them right. Again.

4 Responses to “Idea crisis or leadership crisis?”

  1. Says:

    The Drama Democracy

    Look into the mirror: the problem for voters is not so much with the issue at stake or with anything else that is factually or reasonably connected to it, but, on a meta-level with not being in control of events…

  2. Elaib Says:

    Interesting and cogently argued, but I have sympathy with Perfect’s point.
    The problem is with ‘this’ Europe not with Europe per se.But of course, but that is the Europe that we have, and the Europe offered by the Constitution was no better, and to many minds even worse.
    Your point about both Europe and its leaders reminds me of the position held by the returning soldier in Kipling’s Return – and I paraphrase
    “If Europe was what Europe seems
    An’ not the Europe of our dreams,
    But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
    ‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!”

    The problem you face is to convince even a significant minority of the population that it is more than putty, brass and paint.

  3. European Democracy » The Blair of reform Says:

    […] European Democracy EUlogical reflections « Idea crisis or leadership crisis? The Blair […]

  4. PatCo Says:

    I generally agree with the analysis (incompetence, lack of true european spirit of the european leaders of the day; the general economic gloom) and concerns. I have, however, a SCORE of nuances to express:

    – i don’t think it’s accurate to equate the recent right-wing populist parties and the anti- or alter-globalist movement, even though they, indeed, feed on the same ground and, sometimes, the same communicational methods. Wilders, de Villiers, Haider, A. Mussolini and the like reshape the bad-old xenophobic, protectionist, gross and violent speech of the nineteen-thirties in the guise of smiling, well-dressed executives. But the underlying ideology remains at best very conservative, at worse implicitly fascist. Anti-globalist movement are really very diverse (marxists and ecologists being an important devide), but many among them would agree that they do not seek the extinction of trade and international exchange in general: rather, a change in the purposes, methods, agenda of internationalism.

    – on euro and inflation: Prices were actually marked up in France following the introduction of coins and notes in euros. Inflation statistics remained low, due to the coincidence of the (initially) deflationist effect of telecoms liberalisation. The new money was, in itself, a source of inflationist practices by shopkeepers.

    On the real issue of what the ‘no’ meant:

    – i truly think there was a problem with labelling “constitution” a text that not only described constitutional arrangements, but policy decisions, details, details of the details, to the detail of how the word “euro” should be orthographed in certain countries.

    – more profoundly, i do not agree that, just because some recipes of free-trade and competition were agreed upon in 1957 and 1987, that they must have remained, unchanged, relevant in 2005. I actually think that French voters had enough experience of theirs effects on their own life to vote relevantly AGAINST their permanent upholding, their being carved in the stone of a constitution. A ride accross the french countryside or former industrial areas (or, for that sake, the British midlands and Wallonie and many a suburban neighborhood anywhere in Europe) demonstrate easily that Europe as it is doesn’t deliver; or, not at all for everyone.

    In that sense, the analysis of Baudrillard on a self-serving, almost Brechtian behaviour of the elite (“if the people vote wrong, let’s just dissolve them”) makes sense: indeed, though people voted ‘no’, only a small measure of their concern is taken onboard in the “modificating treaty”, and business-as-usual still has good days in front of it.

Leave a Reply