Introduction: A Moment for European Sturm und Drang?




Guest editor Damian Chalmers introduces the special issue by highlighting three themes raised by Lord Dahrendorf in a 2003 article: ‘the processes which have led to the Union being a space for technical cooperation rather than vigorous political contestation, the resilience of the characterisation of Europe as a Utopia, and finally Europe’s need to build a common and democratic social space.’

In a 2003 article Lord Dahrendorf made three striking observations about democracy in Europe (Dahrendorf, 2003, p. 101). The first was that the European Union was increasingly occupying the space of technical cooperation while national democracies were reinforcing their hegemony over issues of emotion and affect. The boundary between the technical and the emotional might move significantly over time so that money might become a matter for international technical cooperation and cease to be a strong national symbol. Dahrendorf lamented this dichotomy. He noted that it was associated with a world in which the technisation of important issues made them less susceptible to common sense and less comprehensible to ordinary people.

Secondly, independently of this, Europe had generated a peculiar cleavage. It had become associated with a utopia for the centre left. The centre right was increasingly identified with scepticism towards the European Union and in some cases it replaced the Soviet Union, as the political enemy around which the Centre Right organised itself. Thirdly, Dahrendorf was concerned about the quality of democracy in the European Union. For him, democracy was a political process that placed checks and balances on political power, allowed all citizens voice and brought about significant nonviolent change in our societies. He saw the European Union as an organisation in which administrative power was insufficiently checked and in which it was difficult to conceive of popular voice at a supranational level ‘except through street demonstrations or the media’ (Dahrendorf, 2003, p. 107).

Since 2009 this has, of course, ceased to be characteristic of the Union. Conflict and instability within political institutions and popular protest on the streets have become leitmotivs of the European Union. Alongside this, the demarcation between the technical and emotional, unstable at the best of times, has broken down. The arcane language of inter-bank lending rates, mutualisation of risk, annual structural balances, troika meetings and European stability mechanism processes has become not merely the object of protest and anger but the obsession of blogs and newspaper front pages across the Union.

It is to be wondered what Dahrendorf would make of this. He saw popular protest as desirable and necessary; a sign that people realised something was wrong and were sufficiently engaged to exercise voice about it, often at some risk. However, the direction of all this protest is very unclear. The turmoil may, indeed, lead to the political creativity, vibrant debate, curbs on power and mutual engagement that Dahrendorf and others saw as productive consequences of conflict. They saw this, however, as a consequence of bounded processes in which the terms of engagement prevented its abuse and in which there was a certain level of clarity about what lay at the heart of the conflict. The meaning of these features in the current crisis is unclear. Conflicts have fluidly spilled from one arena to the other and the central refrain has been anger and protest rather than clear political agendas. If one concern is that this might lead to extremism or authoritarianism, another is that nothing will be left unchanged. There might be disruption and political change but the central dynamos leading to the current predicament remain fundamentally untouched.

This issue looks at three of these: the processes that have led to the Union being a space for technical cooperation rather than vigorous political contestation, the resilience of the characterisation of Europe as a utopia and finally, Europe’s need to build a common and democratic social space.

Three elements are identified as contributing to the first of these. The first is the presence of a politically attractive consensus, noted in Schelkle and Hassel’s article about economic policy-making, which emphasises the pre-eminence of monetary policy, in particular the setting of short-term interest rates by independent central banks, to anticipate and correct shocks in the economic cycle. The authors ask why this model has remained so popular notwithstanding its treatment of the foundations of microeconomics as an empty space and its tendency to neglect asset or debt bubbles. Their conclusion is that by pressurising policymakers to make labour market reforms to respond to the pressure from interest rate policy, it leads to a preference for cheap labour over higher unemployment: an electorally attractive idea for both centre left and centre right political parties.

However, it might be observed that pan-Union political parties do not exist and the levels of political contestation in Union institutions are limited. How did this consensus, therefore, enter the Union’s policy space? The second feature of the Union institution settlement accounts for this policy diffusion. Schwarzer’s article points out how, even during the period of intense legislative activity and political engagement during the crisis, the Union institutional settlement has been marked by incrementalism. This incrementalism is present in the policies put forward: be it the increased commitment to the principles of the excessive deficit procedure or the commitment to labour market reform, first present in the EU programme on flexicurity and now in the Euro-Plus Pact. In all cases there is a sense of permeation rather than the debate of ideas. This is also present with institutional reform. Schwarzer claims there has been a move towards greater intergovernmentalism as a result of the crisis. Yet, in all cases, it has developed around and latched itself onto pre-existing structures. She concludes that this incrementalism is insufficient to generate the reforms necessary for the current challenges.

This brings us on to the third characteristic of Union policy-making, leadership. Strong leadership could, after all, break this mould. In their study of the backgrounds of prime ministers, economic ministers and central bankers since 1973, Hallerberg and Wehner discover that these are significantly more likely to have a legal background in EU states than in other OECD states. There is only a strong shift to leaders with an economic background at moments of economic crisis. They do not speculate about the implications of this. However, if the qualities associated with lawyers include training in adversarial argument, mastering briefs and public communication, they also include an interest in rules. And the conduct of economic policy through the development and application of rules is very much what the Union is about! Furthermore, there is little evidence that the shift to economists during moments of crisis is borne of a desire to generate a paradigm shift in economic policy-making: rather, it is associated with the careful deployment of existing economic models undeflected by political opposition.

There is a good chance that Dahrendorf would have been critical of all three of these dynamics. Troublingly, the first two, at least, have been reinforced by the crisis. The European Union still retains the power, however, to be the receptacle for normative re-imagination. In her contribution, Kaldor argues that many of the concerns about loss of sovereignty or centralisation of administrative power are misplaced. The Union, for her, is a new form of political authority different from that of the nation-state that could be a model for global governance more generally. To make this point, she analyses the Common Security and Defence Policy through the prism of the human security template, and argues that this led the European intervention in Libya to be different in quality from that if NATO had taken the lead.

Risse’s piece considers the extent of the hold of this vision on policymakers. He notes that foreign policy is much more Europeanised than many realise and that this Europeanisation rests strongly on the language of human rights and democracy. However, below the surface, he notes deep challenges, and it is unclear how strongly this language informs policy-making. Risse notes that, on the one hand, it is used in areas such as defence at the levels of the Europeanisation of elites. He also notes, in his study of attitudes to Turkish membership of the Union, that there are deep disagreements about how widely it is to be deployed. This is taken further in the two pieces by Arne Westad and Michael Cox, respectively, on this issue, which look at the two central partners, the USA and the Union, and the two central competitors in foreign policy, the USA and China. Cox notes that if resort to the language of common values and ideas of the ‘West’ may have allowed European states to be some of the more reliable allies of the USA, it has insufficient hold alone to deal with a relationship which is fast changing simply by dint of Europe moving from being a predominant partner in US foreign policy to its becoming an important part of a wider jigsaw. By contrast, Westad observes that there is a sense of the growing importance of Sino-European relations in both Europe and China. If, in China, this is marked in part by the Union being seen as a counterweight to the USA, Westad observes a deep failure on the Union to develop or communicate a clear policy on China. He observes that, paradoxically, the central determinant for relations between the European Union and China likely to be how United States foreign policy develops.

Beyond policy-making within the European Union and the Union as a global actor, a third dimension attracted Dahrendorf’s attention: the complex relation between Europe and its citizens. In their piece, Anheier and Falkenhain observe that a number of mechanisms (both bottom-up and top-down) has been developed to make people cross borders and identify as Europeans. They find, however, that most of these mechanisms have a social bias and neglect large parts of the population, most notably the new precariat and less educated people.

This issue suggests that, both within its own territory and more broadly in the world, if the Union retains its ability to be associated with a sense of vision, it has a limited capacity, for all that, to think the unthinkable, as Dahrendorf would have urged, and revisit received wisdom. It is both ironic and a tragedy that it is the machinations and failures of global finance that have led the Union to a position at the December European Council, where it will have to make hard choices about what sort of Europe it wants for its citizens and to be projected more widely. Dahrendorf would have urged ambitious, fractious and creative debate where nothing is treated as untouchable and where a premium is placed on popular engagement. We shall wait and see if that happens.

Author Information

R. Damian Chalmers is Professor of European Union Law of the London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.