Democracy at work?

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Europe's Big Opportunity for a New Start

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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An overwhelming majority of respondents in a recent Pew Research poll, 70 percent, believe that Britain leaving the EU would be bad for Europe. It's not that hard, however, to make the opposite case -- that Brexit would open up opportunities that would drive the bloc's popularity back up in the remaining member states.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

The French daily La Liberation recently called on British voters to leave, arguing that it would ultimately be good for the union. If the U.K. stays, the editorial argued, it will continue demanding concessions and exceptions and threatening the EU with disintegration, undermining its leaders' resolve to move forward with the federalist dream. If it leaves, however, it would shake the EU out of its "catatonia" and encourage its leaders act to avoid a deadly fragmentation. The cri de coeur:

So courage, English friends! Let yourself be convinced by brilliant leaders such as Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, who, at heart, only wish Europeans well. And, it's a promise, you'll be allowed to come back in 20 years. Our terms, of course, with a rope around your necks and in penitents' robes -- a small price to pay for saving the European dream.

There are two problems with this argument, though. One is that poll results don't appear to provide any basis for more European federalism. Everyone knows that Britons are tortured over Europe; but so are many of those on the Continent, according to the Pew poll.

An Ever Looser Union
Percentage of Europeans who agreee with the following statements about the EU
 
Source: Pew Reasearch Center

The other problem is that when politicians such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy talk about the Brexit debate creating the opportunity for the "refounding" of Europe, it's unclear why the renovated union would be much better than the old one. Sarkozy's vision -- and that of some other "refoundation" proponents -- is of increased security and less free movement of people. That appears politically expedient: The Pew poll shows overwhelming majorities in most European countries are unhappy with the EU's handling of last year's refugee crisis. But people are bound to wonder what the EU can do in that area that national governments can't.

Others who see Brexit as an opportunity still talk of a "multi-speed Europe" or "concentric" circles -- not a coherent or compelling vision to anyone beyond a small circle of wonks.

The opportunity that Brexit creates is on a different order of magnitude. It's for a radical rethink of the EU and the whole rationale for cooperation. It's clear from a recent Eurobarometer survey that EU patriotism is not strong -- but people in most of the bloc's countries do feel European. 

Patriotic but European
Percentage of respondents who say they are attached to their own countries, the EU and Europe
 
Source: Eurobarometer

Support for the European project is more nuanced than the simplistic "in" and "out" campaigns in the U.K. would suggest. Firstly, in most countries, a majority doesn't support the transfer of powers back to national governments. Secondly, affinity for Europe is higher than for the Brussels institutions that represent the continent. This suggests that while most Europeans still consider it adequate rather than an unqualified disaster, the current EU doesn't fully represent their European identity. There's probably room in their hearts for a better design of the union, with all the advantages of the current EU, the greatest of which, according to Eurobarometer, are peace and the free movement of people.

The current EU's biggest problem is that it's seen as a bureaucratic behemoth bent on regulating every aspect of life in the member states, from the height of a hairdresser's heels (not quite true) to the power of vacuum cleaners (true, despite the EU's well-meaning attempts to explain this away). In Greece, probably the most EU-phobic country in the bloc today, the bloc is also seen as undemocratic.

There is something to the idea that the U.K.'s exit would create an opening for a bold vision that would make the union workable. The purpose of that vision would be to make sure Europeans understand how any union represents them and stands up for their interests. The European Parliament is the only elected institution of the union; its power is too limited for most Europeans to take notice. Turnout is much lower for European elections than for national ones, and voters care much less who wins, handing victories to populist forces such as the National Front in France. 

The European Commission, which proposes most EU law, is unelected, and the process through which it is formed is arcane to the people of Europe. They find it hard to understand why they pay taxes to an entity they didn't directly empower -- it's one of the issues in the Brexit campaign.

If the U.K. left, it would be an occasion for the national leaders of the remaining countries to affirm their power-sharing arrangement. Candidates for the Commission's leadership, and their supranational parties, should stand for election throughout the bloc. An arrangement like the U.S. Electoral College would make sure smaller countries' votes are not disregarded. The parliament could be reorganized and re-empowered along the lines of the U.S. Congress to ensure proper representation. There might be a senate giving equal representation to all member states and a house of representatives where seats could be distributed to countries according to their population. The U.S., essentially a union of states, runs on this system -- why shouldn't Europe?

This, of course, is a utopian vision, but so was Winston Churchill's "United States of Europe." In his 1946 Zurich speech, the British statesman proposed a crazy idea -- a union of France and Germany that would serve as the nucleus of a European union of states. It doesn't sound so crazy anymore. But Churchill did point out: "In order that this should be accomplished, there must be an act of faith in which millions of families speaking many languages must consciously take part." That Europe's citizens don't elect its government structures is perhaps the EU's biggest problem. Solving it would make sure Italians, Germans, Spaniards and Dutch would all feel the bloc represents the Europe with which they feel affinity, not just itself.

The failure of Brexit would probably freeze the current stalemate. But if Brexit does happen and the EU needs a salvation plan, democracy may be just the thing it needs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net