Populism and the Crisis of European Integration: An Interview with Erik Jones
Dr. Erik Jones has written widely on issues regarding international and comparative political economy, the European Union, and the Economic and Monetary Union. He is a frequent commentator on European politics and political economy whose contributions have been published in, among others, the Financial Times, New York Times, USA Today, as well as numerous newspapers and magazines across Europe.
As he explains in his article with R. Daniel Kelemen and Sophie Meunier, “Failing Forward? The Euro Crisis and the Incomplete Nature of European Integration,” the integration process is in a decline as member states continue to agree on the lowest common denominator solutions. The main consequence of this intergovernmental approach to integration is that the member states prefer too-little-too-late policies, which undermine the effectiveness of policy-making, and, in the long run, a never-ending perspective of crisis is gradually reducing the popular support for European projects.
—Matteo Laruffa for EuropeNow
EuropeNow Different models of liberal democracy have long-dominated the world since the end of the regime of the Estado Novo. Its expansion seemed without borders after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Samuel Huntington explained, at the beginning of the third wave of democratization, there were about forty-six democracies in the world, but soon “democracy seemed to take on the character of an almost irresistible global tide moving on from one triumph to the next.”  Today we observe the resurgence of authoritarianism and a condition of crisis in many democracies. Why are our democracies in crisis? What is the main problem in their functioning? Is there a political responsibility of our institutions, or are there other reasons which concern the lack of trust by citizens? What are the new causal dynamics behind these processes?
Erik Jones I think that people change a lot more quickly than institutions do. We have democracies now, some of them very young, some of which have lived for as long as 200-225 years, so the oldest democracy operating at the moment is the US. In the course of that time, the society of the US has changed quite dramatically, but the constitution has changed very little. The ability of that constitution to accurately and adequately reflect the interests of the people is a question. It could be simply that the people who are staffing the constitution, or the people who are managing the government, are no longer so responsive as they should be, but it could also be that we need some institutional changes.
EuropeNow In some cases, populism and challenger parties are gaining more power. Do you believe that our democracies are in a gradual descent towards illiberalism? What would be the effect of a populist generation of leaders on our democratic institutions, for example, on the European integration?
Erik Jones Populism is when political leaders try to disintermediate political institutions by trying to speak directly with the people. That tends to happen when institutions and the people no longer come into line, when institutions do not represent the people or the people do not perceive the institutions as legitimate, so it is unsurprising that we have a resurgence of populism at the moment. The danger, of course, is that populism has to bring some kind of change. We have to look at the institutions that populists are proposing, and consider if it is a better situation or a worse one.
EuropeNow Moving from theory to a specific case — the European project is in crisis and it is attacked by many radical leaders as a bureaucratic machine without democratic participation, nor control by its citizens. Do you think the power of technical institutions is too big in comparison with the political ones? How do you evaluate the EU from the point of view of its democratic conditions?
Erik Jones Well, I don’t think the technical institutions are more powerful than political institutions. We should look at what happened in the United Kingdom last summer, for example. The real question becomes: why is the European Union struggling at the moment? The answer is that the EU has only ever been as strong as its weakest member states. It has only ever been as democratic as its least democratic member states, and so the member states are struggling to restructure and recover certain elements of their own democratic performance. Therefore, the crisis is coming from the states to the Union, not from the Union to the states. The EU did not create this crisis. The crisis was created outside the EU by domestic political forces.
EuropeNow Many national political systems in Europe are going through a period of great renewal. In this framework, emerging parties’ powers embody both anti-European and pro-European forces. The former creates a populist wave, while the latter (for example Macron’s En marce!) seems engendering an unexpected positive feedback of the crisis. Can we expect the revenge of the pro-European politics? Will we witness a clash between these opposite emerging political spirits and views on the EU? Which could be the main implications?
Erik Jones I think it is too much to expect pro-European forces to move to the forefront. I would be satisfied if we had more pro-democracy forces. And I am worried about the damage that is being done to traditional political parties. The mainstream parties have made a lot of mistakes and new political movements are bringing new voices into the democratic process. This change is good. But European democracy depends upon having strong political parties to help people interact with state institutions. Where political parties are weak, legitimacy suffers. That is a problem for national democracy. It is also a problem for European integration. Europe had few if any direct connections to the people. Even contact with the European parliament is mediated through political parties. The other institutions work through national governments or with national assent. Hence Europeans can only be satisfied with “Europe” as a political project to the extent to which they believe in their national governments and political parties. If we take away or weaken those domestic supports, Europe suffers as well. What this means in concrete terms is that I am more interested in what Macron can do for France than what France can do for Europe. If Macron fails to consolidate his relationship both with the voters and with state institutions, then he will create opportunities for someone more unsavory to take his place in 2022. That would be bad for France and for Europe.
EuropeNow It seems that the EU is kept together by the common reactions of many European leaders to various crises (migration, terrorism, etc.), Brexit, and the new American president. These conditions could be favorable to the protection of the European integration. Is this the time for many leaders to push further the process of integration beyond the current political impasse?
Erik Jones There is a popular myth that Europe grows through crisis and that it strengthens in the face of adversity. I don’t buy it. European integration progresses despite these things. And the European project can fail. That is what we learned in the 1950s just before the start of the common market. It is what we are relearning through Brexit. Hence rather than hoping that European politicians will take advantage of “a good crisis” to pull themselves together, I am hoping to see some more constructive leadership through which Europe’s heads of state and government announce a strategic objective, explain why it is important, and then show us how we are going to get there through consistent, determined effort. If Europe needs a common defense, then it should build one. Saying that Europeans will do this because they can no longer rely on the United States is too flimsy a foundation for such an edifice. American political leaders change a lot more quickly than large-scale political projects can develop. Such projects only succeed by dint of commitment. I remember all too well when European leaders gathered during the first George W. Bush administration to talk about how they were going to move forward with defence integration. This latest round of discussions is going to end up the same way unless we see something more constructive and less reactive behind it.
EuropeNow What is the main root of the citizens’ dissatisfaction towards the process of integration? Is it a political problem related to limits to the capacity of the current institutional system to combine different sovereignties? Or are there some basic mistakes that force the union in a never ending crisis?
Erik Jones We can imagine that people have a clear idea of what the European integration is all about, but they do not. People have a clearer impression of what their personal situation is like, and when they see something they don’t like, they are looking for something to blame. The EU is a convenient target made by the fact that their national politicians insist on accusing the EU of doing things for which they themselves are responsible. At that point, I am not surprised the European integration is suffering, but it is not suffering because of many things the European integration does or did, it is suffering because of the conditions on the ground inside the Member states.
Erik Jones is the Director of European and Eurasian Studies and a Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford, United Kingdom. His most recent book is The Year the European Crisis Ended (2014).
Matteo Laruffa is a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a PhD candidate at LUISS University (Rome). He is also a member of the Council for European Studies (CES) at Columbia University and the founder of World Nexus.
Photo: Erik Jones, Private
Published on July 6, 2017.