Tuesday, 18 February 2014

José Ignacio Torreblanca: “The elections will be a test of how large disaffection with the EU is”

Voters disoriented by the European Union's social and political crisis will cast the ballots in May's European elections. However, the vote will have a crucial vote in shaping tomorrow's Europe, says Spanish political scientist José Ignacio Torreblanca.

Why is 2014 so important for the EU and the European citizens?

All European elections are important, but these one specially so as they take place under the shadow of the euro crisis, deep divisions between elites and citizens, North-South, euro-ins and euro-outs, and the rise of europhobe / populist forces. The elections will be a test of how large disaffection with the EU is.

European citizens are called to elect the members of the European Parliament. How would you define this election compared to the 2009 election?

2009 elections were already a disaster in terms of turnout, but anti-EU forces did not make significant gains. We need a strong and legitimate Parliament to provide democratic legitimacy to the roadmap leading to a closer union (banking, fiscal and economic) but we risk replicating at the EU level the process seen at the national level: technocratic politics giving the back to the citizens and arguing there is no alternative.

One of the consequences of the crisis has been to increase citizens' mistrust of the EU and its institutions. The election of the MEPs could be an opportunity to recreate some trust, but on the contrary it is expected to be an opportunity for euro skeptics to gain more influence. How do you explain that?

The Parliament can only regain citizen's trust if it manages to become the place where people choose between alternatives, elect governments, sanction policies or hold politicians accountable for their decisions during the eurocrisis. However, it is still quite away from that. Eurosceptics are quite talented to manipulate European politics at the service of their anti-European ideas. Pro-European forces should learn from them: they are lagging behind and are incapable to appeal to peoples's values, emotions or even interests.

The last five years have been dominated by economic issues and their social consequences. On the same time, programs like Erasmus or the freedom of circulation have been threatened. Do you think the European project has lost its direction or that it is a temporary consequence of the crisis? 

The EU has stepped into national politics far beyond what it was ever envisaged: now it deals with labour markets, pensions and fiscal issues. The ECB, together with the Commission and the IMF have crossed all the lines traditionally dividing the work between national governments and the EU. Either they step back or they find a way to manage these new competences in a democratic way. The old European project, the single market, is not anymore the reference for citizens.

Does the protests in Ukraine say something about who we are, as Europeans?

These protest awake contradictory feelings: many Europeans are flattered by the European flags on the barricades, but at the same time they know we can´t put up a fight with Russia over Ukraine. It's too important for them and not so much for us. The proof of this is that we are not willing to give Ukraine an EU membership perspective. It´s not on the table. Kiev is not Warsaw.

What Europe will we be talking about in 2019, for the next election ?

My hope: is that we will be talking political union, but I doubt it will happen.

Lire la version française de cet entretien dans le spécial Elections européennes 2014 sur le site de Courrier international.

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