In the EU, the latest political changes show that voters are more eager to lend their support to nationalistic rather than pro-European parties. These are the people who Brussels needs to address through concrete, people-focused narratives.
The ten-year internal EU crisis has led to a deepening of the split between more liberal and progressive political groups and their conservative and populistic opponents. The divides concern not only the economic or social well-being but also value and identity issues.
The upcoming elections and next EP term will require from EU officials and politicians clear decisions on how to communicate EU values and politics to the public without antagonising different groups of citizens or discouraging voters.
However, successful communication with citizens may not be easy as the Brussels elites rarely represent mixed and contradictory attitudes which may be found among the EU citizenry.
Their pro-European, mostly liberal stance provides a very limited perspective when it comes to understanding the political situation in the continent. This is why they need to find facilitators and messengers who will bring these contradictory European voices into the Brussels bubble.
The EP is the only arena in the EU where different attitudes can have a voice. Hearing the MEPs who represent various backgrounds and political attitudes may be the very first step in creating a convincing and varied message for EU citizens.
Learning from the Polish example
One of the regions where the political trends in the EU should be rigorously observed is Central Europe. The political situation in Hungary and Poland proves that one of the biggest concerns of the EU should not only be economic and labour market crises or immigration but also the anti-democratic and eurosceptic attitudes of their own members.
One of the most important lessons from the latest conflicts between Law and Justice (PiS) and Fidesz on one side and Brussels on the other is that CE politicians, no matter their political background, are reluctant to condemn the deeds of their neighbours because of their strong beliefs in the sovereignty of the state. This attitude has been explicitly presented by the Hungarian MEPs from Fidesz during the debate regarding Poland in 2016.
The V4 MEPs – especially from Slovakia, Poland and Hungary – weren’t strong supporters of the EU intervening in the internal affairs of the member states, even if fundamental rights included in Article 2 might be in danger.
In two cases (Polish and Hungarian), the Article 7 procedure has been finally triggered. However, the V4 MEPs weren’t vocal proponents of the resolutions calling for the EU to monitor their neighbours and intervene in their internal affairs if necessary. Only 26 out of 106 V4 MEPs supported triggering the Article 7 procedure against Poland and 39 in the Hungarian case.
Polish MEPs from the conservative and eurosceptic ECR and more liberal, pro-EU EPP had mixed opinions about sanctions against Poland. This was mostly due to the fact they were either not supporters of sanctions from the EU or did not agree with the EU’s argument about the situation in Poland.
However, all sides of the Polish political scene respect state sovereignty and perceive it as a groundwork of their political agenda; the parties differ considerably in how they understand the role of the EU in protecting this value.
EPP politicians, like Danuta Hübner (PO) or Jan Olbrycht (PO), see the European collaboration as the way to save Polish sovereignty, whereas for Czesław Hoc (ECR, PiS) sovereignty is something the country sacrifices in the EU.
When the ECR politicians speak about sovereignty they mean independence and self-reliance, which they consider more important than international cooperation. They are driven by the conviction that a sovereign country decides on its own and its interest should always be put first.
Ryszard Czarnecki (ECR, PiS) explains it simply: “I do not want the European Union to impose on us. The union, Brussels or larger individual states like Germany and France [should not dictate] what is to happen in our internal affairs.”
For Polish conservative politicians, mostly from the ECR, their political purposes are subject to such values like the nation, freedom and Christianity.
Kazimierz Ujazdowski, a former PiS and ECR member, sees a specific Polish attitude towards Christianity as a part of European diversity: “Just as there were differences between Germany and Italy, we bring a certain specific character to the history of Europe and the EU. There is definitely a closer bond between Christianity and freedom, closer than in other countries. In many European countries these two concepts are contradictory, in Poland Christianity inspired resistance under the totalitarian regime; it was not the main force but an important one. This is certainly one of the distinguishing features of Poland.”
Although PiS is associated with a force reluctant to integration and maybe even the EU itself, Polish conservative MEPs from the ECR aren’t openly anti-EU and deny that their party thinks seriously of a Polexit. What they do not agree with, however, is the vision of a federation that would limit the self-reliance of Poland. Their political stance is kind of a Realpolitik – they want to concentrate on solving issues like security or energy but aren’t that much interested in exchanging ideas or values.
Kosma Złotowski (ECR, PiS), generally a pro-EU politician, demands a more pragmatic policy as does Ryszard Czarnecki.
In Czarnecki’s opinion, the EU is dominated by strong countries and Poland will always need to be a fighter, ready to defend itself against the ambitions of France or Germany. For him, it is the current political struggle between the member states that define the EU, not their past common experiences, even though they shouldn’t be forgotten.
When it comes to the EP, the aforementioned political divides are rather a regular aspect of a deliberative democracy than a threat to the EU as such.
MEPs from various political backgrounds are successful in achieving their political goals. Generally speaking, as long as the discussion isn’t about values or historical experiences but concerns contradictory European interests, CE MEPs quite easily find compromises or alliances. Although not always successful, they can be influential and make their job in the EP very concrete. What differs is the way the parties understand the EP democratic standards.
The conservative MEPs think of the EP democracy as of a fight, without swords or pistols, but a confrontation nonetheless. In the eyes of the EPP and S&D members, negotiations and compromise become not only a rational political strategy but also a specific modus operandi of European democracy.
“The work here is primarily about listening to others, drawing conclusions, building a full picture, the fullest possible” says Danuta Jazłowiecka (EPP, PO).
For Czesław Hoc (ECR, PiS), negotiations can be only a façade behind which real political interests are hidden. This attitude is partially shared by the extreme right-wing politicians.
Finding compromise becomes the very essence of the EU, made up of various political and national interests. Jan Olbrycht, himself a clearly pro-European politician, makes a fair point on the EU as a paradox: “The member states want to be together and pursue common interests, and at the same time, they ensure they want to be independent.”
Various sides of the political scene have their understanding of the European community: either a supranational force aimed at reducing the role of the nations for the sake of a common good, or a voluntary international alliance strengthening national interests on the common market. Both arguments have existed in the European Union from its very beginning.
Time for the bottom up EU
Although aware of the different approaches towards EU integration, Polish MEPs, no matter their political background, understand that sharing certain values and discourse is something indispensable for building the European community.
The European community – and how it is interpreted – is probably the main notion that steers MEPs work in the constituencies. Pro-European politicians from the EPP or S&D often present the EU as if it was a value itself. Although aware of the fact that the EU is business, they claim that the European community is something based on common ideas, values and mutual respect.
In Róża Thun’s (EPP, PO) opinion, few people truly comprehend its meaning: “People really do not understand that there can be a community that shares the same values, concepts, the same sensibilities – not in all areas, of course. Even in your own country, you do not share everything.” It seems, however, that this “community” has trouble accepting people who understand some values differently.
The conservatives are less concentrated on the commonality, more on the particular goals. The Polish ECR MEPs understand community as an arena of common interest, which should be defined by the nation states. For the conservatives, it is a value if it can be beneficiary to the Polish state. “[The EU is] a valuable community, provided it is a voluntary cooperation of nation states, the clash of interests, and not an attempt to dominate this community by the largest states” – claims Ryszard Czarnecki.
Jan Olbrycht declares that these two ways of speaking about the EU should be combined in order to affect people’s emotions: “Brexit clearly showed that today’s politics is mainly emotional. Facts are not necessary. We need to avoid a shallow ‘European story’ and…make it concrete.”
In Kazimierz Ujazdowski’s opinion, some EU politicians have already noticed that Europe needs more pragmatic, national- and regional-oriented politics that would be potentially more engaging than the federalist narratives of the last decade: “This is a phenomenon that is visible all over Europe, a realistic reorientation… If Martin Weber is the candidate for the head of the European Commission, then this is a signal that the EPP chooses a pro-European yet very realistic policy. He is anchored in his region and knows the specificity of Bavaria. I believe that a proper and effective reaction to populism and nationalism will not be European federalism but European-oriented patriotism”.
This patriotism is, in his opinion, a golden mean between a belief in sovereignty above all on one side and the federation on the other.
The aforementioned “realistic” turn in the EU could be a solution pursued by face-to-face, concrete interactions between citizens and their representatives.
Although the EU began as a community of independent countries, based on decisions made by the governments, it has evolved into an organisation with ambitions to engage the people as well – with the most significant example of this evolution, the EU citizenship and strengthening the role of the parliament. The elections are the best moment to remind us of the role the EP could play in European democracy.
Whether they are conservative or liberal, the MEPs’ intention is to inform their constituents about their work. By doing so, they will not focus on the negatives only. Their rational attitude towards the EU membership combined with concrete examples from the “field” are an interesting counterbalance to the national politics, in which the EU plays the role of the guilty party.
When it comes to Central Europe, the MEPs should be one of the most important actors and facilitators, communicating European values and benefits to the people. Many of them were national or local politicians, quite well known to their constituents and sometimes to all citizens. The political experience of MEPs from CE countries is often different than their colleagues from western Europe as they rarely planned their careers focusing on EU institutions (see EPRG MEP Survey from 2010 and 2015). Their local popularity can be an asset when the strength of their democratic mandate is considered.
MEPs play the most significant role in creating the link between Brussels and the people, but not only them. The whole EU administration, think tanks, NGOs and media – current and previous – all have responsibilities to act in that matter. Firstly, however, before starting a conversation with people from their home towns and cities, the Brussels elites should spend more time talking to each other, not just the people from their own political faction.
They should take an example from the EP – after all, what unites its members and employees is the belief in the EP as a cornerstone of intercultural and pan-European communication. This solution is also best if used to address the media crisis, media literacy and simple lack of credible, regular broadcasts from the EP.
The community of values and respect the federalists have talked about for the last few years is something yet not real, but it could happen if people understood the benefits and the obligations coming from it.
What this community, truly discussed and shared by the citizens from the east, west or south, will look like, is yet unknown. However, it is very probable it will be much more European than we think – nation-oriented, dispersed in many cultures, meanings and experiences.