“The technocratic approach is not credible anymore” – real debate is needed

In his recent book Luuk van Middelaar analyses how a decade of crises have shaped a new way of doing politics on the European stage.


In his recent book, ‘Alarums and Excursions – improvising politics on the European stage’, the Dutch historian Luuk van Middelaar analyses how a decade of crises – from the financial chaos of the euro and the Greek sovereign debt, the conflicts with Russia over Ukraine, unprecedented levels of refugees from across the Mediterranean and the turmoil created by Brexit – have shaped new ways of doing politics on the European stage.

Progressive Post: Your recent book, first published in Dutch under the straightforward title ‘De nieuwe politiek van Europa’ (The newpolitics of Europe), has in the English translation become ‘Alarums and Excursions – improvising politics on the European stage’. Admittedly, I had to look up ‘Alarums’ in the dictionary!

Luuk van Middelaar: I wanted to underline the importance of the theatre and theatricality in politics. One of the key things we’ve seen in the past years is that more and more, politics in the EU is being played out on stage, in public view, in the limelight. Whereas historically, a lot of EU politics took place more backstage. Then my English publisher came up with this expression ‘Alarums and Excursions’, which is in fact a stage direction from the Shakespearean theatre, meaning that the actors have to prepare for imminent action and hectic scenes and perhaps a battle. It evokes that moment right before action which I found appropriate for the 10 years of EU crisis politics, which I try to describe in the book.

PP: And then you open with a quote from somebody who has been on stage quite a lot – Miles Davis: ‘I will play it first and tell you what it is later’.

LvM: With this quote I wanted to underline the other important aspect, that of improvisation: for 10 years, EU leaders and institutions had to rush, improvise and invent things on the spot. Nobody quite knew what they were doing. It was as if we were running breathlessly from one crisis to the next. And I thought, perhaps now, after 10 years, if you start with the financial crisis in 2008, it’s time to take a step back and to see what we collectively, as the EU, have been doing in this time. Hence this Miles Davis quote: let’s now take a look at the improvisation and see if we can make some sense of all of this.

PP: The one actor that was centre stage during these improvisations is the European Council. When analysing how the European Union function, it’s often described as being in conflict with a rival actor: the Parliament, which has just been newly elected. Analytically, it’s a’ supranational’ versus a ‘federal’ approach. But you distinguish three approaches for the EU construction.

LvM: Indeed. Historically, the first approach which I call the ‘backstage approach’ was the idea to depoliticise conflicts. It’s basically a technocratic-functionalist approach, where the commission as a technocratic, impartial expert body is centre stage, together with the Court of Justice. The strategy of depoliticisation is pretty much the DNA of the EU. Back in the 1950s, it was obviously a brilliant idea: the founding EU members realised that we, as countries, do not necessarily have conflicts, we rather have problems together. This was the idea of Jean Monnet and Schumann and the founding fathers. And problems, you can solve. Either legally, or procedurally, to make them disappear or to… – sweep them under the carpet.

What you see then is that there are two rather political approaches of how to do your politics and these could be described as the federalists and the confederalist approach: the federalist approach embodied institutionally by the European Parliament, representing EU citizens, and the confederalist approach embodied by the European Council, as the body of national leaders.

And it shows you that these two institutions – Council and Parliament – even if they may be at odds sometimes, also share something: they both thrive under the public eye, they both look for visibility, they look for contact with citizens, unlike the Commission, the Court and the Council of Ministers.

More and more, politics in the EU is being played out on stage, in public view, in the limelight. Historically, a lot of EU politics rather took place backstage.

PP: Does the increased participation in the European elections indicate a powershift between these institutions?

LvM: I think the European Parliament is a clear winner of the election and in particular because of the high turnout. In terms of competence, the European Parliament is of course a very powerful parliament. Even if you compare it to many national parliaments, it has nothing to be jealous of. But been to be seen and to be found credible as a public arena, speaking on behalf of all European citizens. And I think that is changing now. The turnout, above the symbolic threshold of 50 percent, is very important and also the fact that there are more diverse voices within that parliament than the old monopoly – or ‘duopoly’ as some say – of the Christian Democrats, EPP, and the Social Democrats, S&D, which has been broken down by stronger voices of new players which are also needed for majorities: the Greens the Liberals.

PP: How about the nationalists?

LvM: Even their presence, I would argue – although many in Brussels are worried about them – paradoxically could strengthen the parliament. Why? Because it makes the European Parliament a more credible body where all voices, the plurality of pub- lic opinion in the EU, is represented, and where ideas are fought out, rhetorically and politically. And that makes the European Parliament less of a ‘Brussels Parliament’ and more of a real ‘European Parliament’. And it will also make it stronger vis-à-vis the other two institutions.

PP: With this more fractured EP, we are not only going to have a ‘grand coalition’ but an even bigger one, which not only includes the Social Democrats and the European People’s Party, but also at least the Liberals. Isn’t there a risk that all these majority groups become indistinguishable? 

LvM: I think it’s not the main risk. And it was already present before: the eternal grand coalition with the traditional right and the traditional left-wing parties has been in place in the European Parliament since 1979. And as a consequence, the main political cleavage which has structured political debate in almost all EU Member States, between left and right, was becoming blurred and invisible. But I’m not sure it is getting worse now when you need to add two other parties. Because these new parties may weigh on some of the political priorities. It will perhaps be more interesting now – with a more visible opposition, a right-wing eurosceptic opposition.

And I think that this generation of anti-European nationalists will behave differently from the previous generation. If you look at Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, who have been both MEPs for almost 20 years, they basically used the European Parliament for two reasons: one is as background for their YouTube films, for their public communication, and secondly, I’m sad to say, they used the EP as a source of money, because domestically they were ill-represented and they needed these cash flows.

PP: And the new generation?

LvM: The Salvini-Orban generation of anti-European populists, I think they want to do business; they want to have an impact on decision making, in particular in the field of migration, asylum and related issues. And don’t forget that Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban are in government at home. They are not opposition-clowns, if I may say, like Farage. They know what it’s like to make decisions and they want to weight on decisions in Brussels.

So, the key question is whether these kind of opposition movements will only make fools of themselves, or play a purely anti-European destruction or ‘leave’ card – like UKIP, or the previous Front National – or whether more so they want to be a legitimate opposition within the system, saying ‘we don’t want to destroy it, we want to be part of it and we want to change some of the policies’. And that’s an important distinction between these two kinds of opposition.

PP: …because it shifts from an opposition of principle against the whole ‘theatre’, to becoming an actor on that very stage.

LvM: An actor on the stage and perhaps with a dissonant voice. But not one willing to bring down the whole theatre, and that is the key difference. And it means that again, paradoxically, they may strengthen the legitimacy of the project as a whole, because they’re buying into it with their dissonance.

PP: A way to handle dissonant voices on that European stage has always been the technocratic approach:’You are against this or that part of the European Union: you probably don’t understand it’. How do we confront these groups without falling into the trap of the technocratic answer?

LvM: I think this technocratic approach is indeed no longer credible, for all the issues the EU is dealing with today. The same is true for the approach of the moral high ground, which often came second. First people said: ‘you don’t like it, well, probably you don’t understand it and I’ll explain it again’. And then they said: ‘if you still don’t like it, probably you’re not a good European!’ This was part of a longstanding tendency to put outside the order any critical voice. Voters are becoming a little bit allergic to these approaches now. There must be a possibility to disagree with policies within the system!

What is needed is political narrative of why certain decisions are taken, in the name of a certain view of the future, or appealing to certain values, which can unite a majority of parties and public opinion to follow a certain approach.

And I think that is more important now than in the past. Because even if I’m critical in the book of the technocratic approach, it was fair enough for large parts of building an EU market for example. It is rather technical stuff to harmonise, for example VAT rates or to invent rules for food hygiene!

For a lot of the key issues that are dealt with today by European states and institutions together this no longer works: the refugee crisis, the euro, what to do with Russia, with China… – these are fundamental issues, involving not only matters of expertise, but really values. Take the refugee crisis, it’s values of solidarity versus perhaps security and identity. For these kind of issues, the technocratic approach is not credible anymore: it is not by bringing together 28 national experts and people from the commission that you can then decide what to do with 1.2 million refugees. There, you need a political story and also political compromise or a way to work with different values to appeal to public opinion to say, OK this is perhaps what we want to do, but this is what we can do and what we will do and where we show that we also have some capacity to act.

PP: Which also means: bringing complex issues front stage.

LvM:Exactly. And that is also what voters are expecting. They have clearly expressed with the high turn-out and with how they voted that the EU matters to them, that they have come to realise in the last 10 years that the EU affects their daily lives, their values, their interests. But they also have expressed the wish for change, by voting for new parties. And I think, between now and in 5 years, voters will want to see results on these issues, like climate, migration and the big challenges for the future like AI and China. And they will look to the most visible institutions: the Parliament, the Commission, and especially its new President. But also, to their national leaders in the European Council. And they will use all occasions, all elections in the EU, including national elections, when it is about their own leaders not making the right decisions in the European arena to make their voices heard, so it’s not that we have to wait five years to see how the voters will react to the play as it will be improvised and hopefully even better prepared in the next five years. Voters will also use national elections – even regional elections sometimes – to make their voices heard. This really makes the EU a fascinating democratic system at large to watch, to analyse and also to be active in as a citizen!

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