At the tail end of the past week a rather curious event took place in Madrid. Under the title “Project Europe”, it featured talks by a host of prominent Spanish, Portuguese and Italian speakers, including the current prime ministers of Spain and Portugal, Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Passos Coelho, and the recently deposed Italian premier Enrico Letta.
The message from Southern Europe’s political elite was as clear as it was unified: the growth in “populism” — that is, any political movement that opposes the continued expansion of centralised power in Europe — represents a serious threat to the Union’s future. To stymie its influence, concerted efforts must be made to accelerate Europe’s march towards political union.
“We pro-Europeans are lacking a dream,” said Letta. “Others have one — to end the euro, to break up the Union… We have lost ours. Before we had one. In 1984, we had the four freedoms; in 1994, the euro; in 2004, Eastward expansion. But what about now? Today we haven’t built any long-term project of this kind. The dream must be political union.”
Letta’s sentiments were echoed by many of his fellow speakers, including the event’s organiser, Nicolas Berggruen. A dual American and German citizen, Berrgruen is the billionaire founder and president of the private investment company Berggruen Holdings and the Berggruen Institute on Governance, a think tank that works on addressing governance issues.
Berrgruen is perhaps most famous for refusing to buy or rent a house, instead choosing to divide his time between some of the world’s most luxurious hotels as he trots the globe snapping up companies to add to his impressive and highly lucrative business empire.
He is a major shareholder and sits on the board of Grupo Prisa, the holding group of El País, Spain’s most widely read daily newspaper (a subject I wrote about here). He is also a member of the grand-daddy of U.S. political think tanks, the Council of Foreign Relations.
Shaping Events in Europe
In recent years Berggruen has carved out an influential role in European politics, principally through his creation of the Council for the Future of Europe, a think tank whose membership list reads like a veritable Who’s Who of transatlantic politics, business and finance.
Members include Tony Blair (for whom obviously no introduction is needed); Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission; Mohamed Al Erian, the former CEO of global investment management firm PIMCO; Pascal Lamy, a one-time director general of the World Trade Organization; Romani Prodi, former Italian prime minister and 10th president of the European Commission; Gerard Schroeder, a former chancellor of Germany and current global manager for Rothschild investment bank; Peter Sutherland, a former attorney general of Ireland and long-standing chairman of Goldman Sachs International; and Axel Weber, a former president of the Deutsche Bundesbank and now chairman of the board of Swiss mega-bank UBS.
A more impressive group of luminaries you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in the world, with the obvious exception of the CFR itself. To lead them in their noble cause, Berggruen appointed none other than Mario “Three Card” Monti, Goldman Sachs’ former representative in Europe who all but admitted in a recent television interview that his nomination to replace Berlusconi as Italian prime-minister in 2011 amounted to a presidentially-blessed government coup — one whose execution, as Zero Hedge reports, stretched far beyond any constitutional powers awarded to the president and which involved numerous foreign and financial interests and conflicts thereof.
So, now that a clear picture is forming of the caliber of personnel behind the Council for the Future of Europe, what about its agenda? To that end, we must turn to an article Berggruen recently co-wrote with Nathan Gardels for the CFR’s flagship publication Foreign Affairs:
The key to creating a federal Europe with legitimate governing institutions is appropriate implementation of the principle that Europeans already know as “subsidiarity,” with higher levels of government taking on only those functions and responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled at a lower level. The Berggruen Institute on Governance’s Council for the Future of Europe has sought to address these issues by gathering a small group of Europe’s most eminent and experienced political figures to debate and design the institutions that would govern a federal Europe and then plot a path forward, step by step.
Granted, Berggruen and Gardels make a number of interesting proposals for enhancing the democratic legitimacy of Europe’s institutions — something that is clearly much needed. These include the direct election of the president of the European Commission by European citizens at large; the holding of parliamentary elections based on Europe-wide lists instead of national party lists; the transformation of the current European Council into the upper house of the union’s legislature; and the strengthening of the competencies of the European parliament by allowing it to initiate legislation — a power currently enjoyed only by the unelected Commission.
However, they ignore one niggling little detail: namely, that democracy does not work by designing new structures neither demanded nor accepted by the public. And there is nothing to indicate that most EU publics support the idea of being integrated into a fully federal EU political entity.
On the contrary, as a recent poll by Pew Global has shown, support for and trust in the EU is declining precipitously across both core and peripheral EU Member States. In austerity-hit Spain and Greece, support is now well below 50 percent. In Britain, only 43 percent of the population view the EU favourably, while in France it’s even lower, at 41 percent — down from 60 percent in 2012.
The Rise of “Populism”
This trend has predictably fuelled growing nationalism and euro scepticism in many countries. The result has been a surge in support of formerly fringe political parties, such as Marie Le Pen’s Front National, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party.
It is these parties whom the European elite scornfully label as “populists”. In a recent interview with the Catalan daily La Vanguardia, the European Commissioner Vivianne Reding played down fears of their potential impact in Brussels:
After these elections 30 percent of parliament may be held by groups on the extreme left or right. But they will only make lots of fragmented noise. Those on the extreme right hate each other anyway. Meanwhile, in the middle the big core of christian democrats, socialists, social democrats and greens will continue working discretely to build Europe.
And they wonder why we, the people, are disenchanted with European politics. Among many other things, it is this blatant disregard for plurality — an essential cornerstone of any self-respecting democracy — that continues to erode trust in European institutions.
That’s not to defend in any way the more rabidly right-wing movements that are popping up, once again, throughout Europe; rather, it is to highlight the vital need to understand the causes of the anger and indignation that are providing such fertile ground for their growth — before they become a genuine threat.
Unfortunately, the European elite is, as always, in little mood for soul-searching or listening to the “little people” of Europe. It will instead fire out salvo after salvo of empty words and slogans, as it retreats further and further behind the protective screen of Europe’s mainstream political parties — the bought-and-paid-for center left and center right parties to which Reding referred. After the bitter experience of France, Holland and Ireland there will no more referendums or other forms of popular consultation.
With or without the consent of the people of Europe, Europe’s elite seeks to completely redraw the continent’s political and economic map. And as they take the countries of Europe, both ancient and young, closer and closer towards an arranged political marriage of their convenience, the old continent’s centuries-old tradition of representative democracy lies precariously in the balance.
If political union is consummated, power will be further concentrated and shifted upwards and away from the common man, as the core essence of democracy is mercilessly gutted. Its outward appearance will no doubt be preserved for posterity, as happened in tyrannical regimes throughout modern history. Elections will still be held, votes will be cast, some may even be counted, but as UK conservative MEP and leading populist Daniel Hannan recently said in this stirring speech, democracy is not just “a periodic right to mark a cross on a ballot paper”:
[It] depends on an affinity between the governing and the governed; a sense of common identity, of allegiance, of nationhood. You need a demos, a unit with which we identify when we use the word “We”. We have that sense as Britons, as Germans, as Portuguese. We do not have it as Europeans, and when you take the demos out of democracy, you are left only with the kratos; with the power of a system that must compel by law what it dare not ask in the name of civic patriotism.