“We, the people”: the European Constitutional Treaty has often been criticised for overlooking this inspiring opening sentence of the U.S. Constitution. What that appears to suggest is a lack of democracy in the European Union. Today, the people are speaking out, and their message is a hard one for Europe’s leaders to hear.
On April 17, nearly 20 percent of Finns voted for a eurosceptic party opposed to financial support for Eurozone countries in difficulty. A year before the presidential election in France, the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, has every chance of making it through to the second round. Her programme: dumping the euro, protectionism and closing the borders. In the Netherlands, under pressure from the popular Geert Wilders, the government is going after tougher conditions for residency for foreigners, including nationals of the European Union. And it is partly to limit electoral damage that Angela Merkel has tightened up the conditions for German participation in stabilising the euro zone.
For the last fifteen or twenty years the anti-Europeans have been on the margins and extremist parties were a problem primarily within national borders; even the crisis caused by the Jörg Haider party taking seats in Austria’s government had few ripples across Europe. But today, in contending for power or as players that cannot be shut out from national governments, these groups, which are attracting more and more voters, are weighing heavily on the overall functioning of the European Union.
Not federal enough to act in a coordinated manner or to remain independent of the political calculations of member states, and yet too federal to build close links to citizens, the EU finds itself in an unprecedented bind: the political trend that is developing flies in the face of what, ever since the Second World War, it has considered its values – and what seemed to be the inevitable course of history. For our national and European leaders, the challenge is an immense one.