This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to access the full article.
EU discourse and its economic policy instruments limit democratic debate by marginalising anti-capitalist arguments. This is problematic as democracy benefits from and is constituted by open deliberation. It is even more problematic when we consider the current political climate in many EU member states where being critical of the EU is associated with nationalist, racist parties. I showcase these dynamics using the example of France. The binary character of the debate delegitimises critique targeted at the EU but limits the potential for transformation of the EU into another, better Europe.
As Brexit is on many people’s minds, the possibility of European disintegration seems nearer. Even more so, considering many right-wing parties in other member states have announced similar plans if they get into power. These debates seem to overshadow the question of ‘what kind of Europe do we want?’ as they reduce the debate to being either for or against the EU. Even European leaders seem unimaginative about the future of Europe and focus on military cooperation rather than better societies. In my research, I therefore criticise the EU as it is now – with the intent of supporting forces trying to change it from within.
Debates on the quality of democracy at European level and imbalances between economic and social integration are not new. Rather, it is established that the EU places more emphasis on market-making integration than on setting social standards or providing a social safety net. This is not a coincidence or an unintended consequence but goes hand-in-hand with a belief in technocratic management that limits democratic debate about socio-economic development.
As many member states are still licking their wounds from the financial and economic crisis a decade ago, political change is needed more than ever. This is visible in France, where commentators have highlighted the recent electoral success of the Front National (FN, now renamed as Rassemblement National) as a ‘political crisis’. In my research, I investigate the FN’s social policy positions. This analysis highlights that the FN is opposed to neoliberal reforms – as are several other actors, including smaller left-wing parties and trade unions.
The European Commission, however, demands neoliberal reforms and limits democratic debate over other reform programmes. This happens on a discursive level; that is, the European Commission tells the French government and public in official documents (mainly so-called Country Specific Recommendations) what reforms they should undertake. But it is further enshrined in many of the aims, mechanisms, and rules set in the Maastricht Treaty, the Lisbon Agenda, and the new economic governance. To name just one example: the latter allows for the European Commission to levy fines for member states whose public deficit exceeds 60%, thus limiting the scope for public spending.
Looking at the public debate around economic and social development in France, the EU thus sides with the employers’ organisations and centrist parties. This is visible with positions about the economic system (including who owns and decides in firms) as well as economic policy (including indicators on internal demand, public investment, and competitiveness understood as labour costs).
More than just siding with employers, the EU presents any diverting position as partial interest while its own is constructed as neutral. This claim is hard to challenge for the French public, as the intervention of the EU into the debate is made through formal documents rather than more interactively taking part in political debates.
My key argument therefore is that the European Union skews democratic debate about socio-economic development. To understand political crises in member states, it is therefore not enough to look at the rise of right-wing parties and see it as an unfortunate by-product of increased migration and societal progress. Rather, we should look at the democratic quality of public debates and the positions about socio-economic developments that are marginalised. In contrast to racist or misogynistic positions, anti-capitalist positions are not oppressive and should therefore be part of any democratic debate.
To consider democracy not as a purely institutional setting but focus on the practice of democratic deliberation as an indicator for crisis therefore leads me to conclude that the political crisis in France goes beyond the success of the FN. The FN is an expression of a deeper crisis resulting from decades of marginalising democratic debate about socio-economic development, even in a time when the crises of capitalist development have been more palpable than ever. France can be seen as a representative case for many other member states that have shown symptoms of political crises, including Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, or Poland. The EU therefore should avoid distracting from socio-economic issues through a focus on military cooperation, or ‘punishing’ the UK for leaving. When European elites refuse to accept that criticism of the European Union is not equal to a nationalist rejection of Europe, they limit the EU’s potential for fundamental change. It is time for a renewal of democracy in Europe through a more open debate about alternative socio-economic development at both national and supranational level.
About the author
Julia Lux is Lecturer in Social Policy at Liverpool Hope University.