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The European Union’s democratic deficit has rarely been on clearer display than on May 26, the day after polls closed for elections to the European Parliament. Despite the fact that forces hostile to the EU had made enormous gains, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced that the pro-austerity status quo had “won once again.” In a narrow sense, Barroso was correct: pro-Europeans did manage to win more than three-quarters of the seats in the parliament, the EU’s only directly elected body. In four of the union’s six largest member states -- Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain -- the country’s ruling party topped the poll. And the motley crew of europhobes who were elected to the next parliament are united only in their disunity.
However, elections are only partly about math. They are also about mood and momentum. And for Brussels backers the inescapable fact is that Europeans are turning against the project that was founded in their name. The victory of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Great Britain and of the far-right National Front in France -- and the strong showing for anti-EU parties in Austria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, and the Netherlands -- is proof that euroskepticism is no longer a British disease but is a continent-wide malaise. It also has momentum on its side. Most media reported the election results as if they were a natural disaster -- an unexpected political earthquake in a region not known for ideological fault lines. But it has been possible to sense the tremors for almost ten years -- since voters in France and the Netherlands, two of the EU’s six founding states, roundly rejected a constitution for the union in 2005.
So what should the EU do to reverse the euroskeptic surge and win back the confidence of its citizens? Better public relations would be a start. In the past, European institutions have been as lousy at paying attention to Europeans as they have been communicating with them -- which explains why two-thirds of respondents in a recent Pew poll said that the union did not understand their needs and just under three-quarters said that their voices didn’t count in Brussels. EU officials need to learn to accept criticism, admit mistakes, and hold an honest debate with opponents.
Millions of Europeans are experiencing extreme economic hardship as a result of austerity measures administered by Brussels -- almost two-thirds of European citizens describe their own country’s economic situation as “bad,” and over half of Greek and Spanish youth are on the dole. The new European Commission, which takes office in November, could show solidarity with those suffering by removing the many generous perks and privileges enjoyed by EU officials. It could start by freezing the pay of its 25,000 civil servants -- a fifth of whom take home more money each year than the British prime minister. The commission should also remove the lifetime expatriate allowance that civil servants receive for living in Brussels -- a 16 percent salary top-up -- and stop paying for private education for their 21,000 children. For its part, the new EU parliament, which meets for the first time in July, could tighten its belt by ending its absurd monthly commute to its second home in Strasbourg, which costs taxpayers 200 million euros ($272 million) each year. Finally, the heads of EU member states should have the courage to scrap a good number of the paper-pushing institutions and agencies they have rubber-stamped into existence -- such as the Committee of Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee -- which are little more than glorified think tanks.
Such shows of empathy might make the EU appear less soulless. But the only way to sustainably stem the populist tide will be by putting money in people’s pockets and offering them realistic hope of employment. For the past several years, as it imposed draconian austerity measures, the European Commission has preached the gospel of jobs and growth. It has delivered neither. Now the commission needs to deliver by making better use of its 140 billion euro ($190 billion) budget, for example by creating programs aimed at retraining European workers and funding cross-border energy and transportation projects that could create new jobs. (At present, the amount that the EU spends on training and job creation is dwarfed by the amount it hands out to farmers, who, although they constitute only five percent of Europe’s population, receive 40 percent of the EU’s budget.) The commission could also foster a better economic climate by reducing the remaining trade barriers within Europe (especially in services), completing its negotiations with the United States for a transatlantic free trade pact, and fostering innovation by mandating legally binding national targets for scientific research funding.
At the same time, Brussels needs to show more humility in its policy agenda. European officials have largely treated “more Europe” as the default answer to any question. The mark of success for countries holding the rotating EU presidency has tended to be how many directives were adopted during their six months at the union’s helm. And whenever they’re experiencing doubt about their mission, European officials have been able to point to the decidedly deterministic clause in the EU treaty that commits members to an “ever closer union.” But that attitude is becoming increasingly self-defeating. Mats Persson, the director of Open Europe, a think tank in London, argues that if European voters always face the choice between “more Europe” and “no Europe,” then “sooner or later, they will pick the latter.” The results of the European Parliament elections appear to confirm just that.
So the key to winning over the public will be doing less, but doing it better. Indeed, Brussels should be warier of creating expectations that it cannot meet. Its pretensions of having a truly common foreign and security policy, for example, seem foolish given that its members are so openly divided on important issues, including how to deal with Russian aggression. It would be better for the EU to set limited goals and then follow through on achieving them -- as it did in eliminating roaming charges on cell phone calls across the continent.
Fortunately, France and Germany, the historic motors of European integration, both seem to accept that the EU has been guilty of legislative overstretch. Sounding uncannily like British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande used a televised address to the nation on May 26 to argue that the union "must be more focused on its priorities, show more efficiency where it is needed, and not add to things where it is unnecessary.” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wrote that Brussels “shouldn’t mindlessly pursue more Europe” in an article for Die Welt on May 29.
The EU can take a few concrete steps to make Europe more flexible and less hyperactive. First, when heads of state next change the EU treaty, they should remove the “ever closer union” clause -- or at least give member states the chance to opt out of it. The EU’s rulebook should also be updated to state that the union can act only when there are demonstrable reasons for doing so at the European level. It is debatable whether doling out money to rich EU states so that they can fund projects in their poorer regions -- common practice now -- would meet this criterion. If Belgium, for example, wants to develop the run-down area near the Brussels canal, it should do so with Belgian taxpayers’ money, not the 200 million euros ($272 million) the commission awarded it in May. Likewise, there is no logical reason for French farmers to be subsidized by Finnish taxpayers, or for the EU to tell British doctors how many hours they can work each week. At the very least, the commission should stop drafting rules -- such as the aborted law requiring olive oil in restaurants to be served in individually sealed mini-bottles -- that give the impression of a nosy EU executive bent on churning out needless regulations.
Finally, the EU needs to improve its accountability. The union’s governing bodies have amassed enormous powers over the last 25 years. But this has been done largely without consulting the people -- nobody asked the Germans whether they wanted to give up their beloved deutsche mark in favor of the euro -- or ignoring them when they come up with the wrong answer. (Just ask the Irish, who voted down the current Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and were asked to vote again a year later.) The best way of ensuring that Brussels is more in tune with Europeans is to give voters a say in who heads the commission, the EU’s executive body. This is one of the fortunate innovations of the Lisbon Treaty, passed in 2009, which insists that EU leaders must “take into account” the results of the European Parliament elections when choosing the commission chief. It is now up to the heads of state to make good on that promise. Candidates from the main political parties have been stumping across Europe for the last several months, laying out their vision for the EU. The campaign may have been lackluster and the candidates largely uninspiring, but the last few months have at least represented a small step toward a more democratic and accountable EU.
The European Union has always been an elitist project. That didn’t matter very much when the union was little more than a western European trade club. But now that it has taken on many of the trappings of a sovereign state -- with its own currency, border police, and power to tinker with national budgets -- its policies will affect the lives of its citizens much more. Without their support and involvement, the union will wilt like a plant starved of water. To prevent this, the EU needs to be less intrusive and more democratic. But above all it has to show how it changes people’s lives for the better. If it can convince citizens in Seville, Sofia, and Stockholm that it keeps their bills lower, their jobs securer, their streets safer, and their environment cleaner, it will succeed. If it doesn’t, it will creak, crack, and ultimately collapse.