Friday, May 16, 2014

The EU's Great Debate

Was it grand? Here for the first time, all 5 major party candidates to be the next Commission president--Europe's 'real' president--on the same stage, debating issues in 1-minute sound bites on a set drawn straight from late-night entertainment TV. Speaking three languages--English, French, and Greek--and representing the 'broad spectrum' of parties (with the glaring exception of the eurosceptic far right, which has no unified candidacy), these 5 proponents of a federal, democratic European Union did their cause a real service just by being there and enacting this ritual of presidential democracy.

But was there anything to say? The fact is, the center-right PPE, the center-left S & D, and the centrist liberal ALDE--out of which a parliamentary majority will almost certainly emerge--are pressed to identify significant points of difference. All want to relax the worst pressures of austerity to preserve some form of social safety net, yet all are interested in traditional mechanisms of growth, and the business-friendly policies that it calls for. Do they differ on particulars, such as a desired rate of inflation or a euro-bond mechanism or EU-wide labor protections? The 1-minute format, and their own bland perspectives, kept Mssrs. Juncker, Schulz, and Verhofstadt far from any such details.

Green candidate Ska Keller distinguished herself--not only because she is female, a full generation younger than the 3 party chiefs, and wore a fetching green blazer, but because she speaks with enthusiasm about changing the EU culture, indeed, bringing its politics "into the streets," as she said on one occasion. Her remarks in support of the poor and needy were not so different from Schulz's, but her tone of idealistic possibility was in striking contrast to his ironic, sometimes caustic voice of experience. Did Alexis Tsipras of the far-left GUE articulate a quite different critique of the financial and business-oriented structures of the Union? Probably, but only Greek speakers can know--there was no mechanism for interpretation into other languages, and Mr. Tsipras doesn't speak the major languages well enough to debate in them. Surely some means could have solved this problem, which otherwise suggests that the EU will soon be as monolingual as its (mostly francophone) critics complain.

In its forms the debate was nonetheless largely a success: by the standard of American presidential politics, at least, the EU is approaching a credible and important stage of direct, personalized, presidential authority (assuming the Council indeed appoints the 'winner' as President, an event which should be as much a formality as our Electoral College, but isn't yet established as such). But two great absences haunt this attempt at normalization. First, the large eurosceptic currents, which logically have no real place in the election but act as a huge drag on its authenticity. And more importantly, the projected abstention rates--perhaps 60%--which suggest that the EU, with its burgeoning powers and 5 rather earnest, talented and plausible presidential candidates, still remains marginal for most of its citizens.

The debate and the campaigns, if followed, would be a palliative of sorts to these problems. If ignored, the EU goes forward, headless, at its peril.


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