On June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Nigel Farage was the leader of the Brexit movement, and he addressed the European Parliament less than a week after the historic vote. He proclaimed, “You know, I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me. Well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?”. Farage’s speech was emblematic of the challenge that populism poses to a technocratic European Union. In her book What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller states, “the architects of the postwar Western European order viewed the ideal of popular sovereignty with a great deal of mistrust” . Müller defines technocracy and populism in similar terms, for “each holds that there is only one correct policy solution and only one authentic popular will respectively” . The maelstrom of violence that consumed the first half of the 20th century was precipitated by populist leaders. According to Müller, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were populists due to their anti-elitist and anti-pluralist policies . The European Union is a technocracy because the popular wills of its constituent nations is constrained for the sake of integration . The European Union must reach out to populist parties if it wants to continue as a political project.
“I know that virtually none of you have ever worked a proper job in your lives” – Nigel Farage addressing the European Parliament 6/23/16
Understanding the inner mechanisms of the E.U. is essential for reviewing the challenges it faces. Unlike the United States, where laws are proposed by the legislative branch, laws within the E.U. are proposed by the European Commission. The European Commission is the “politically independent executive arm” of government, and it has the sole authority to propose laws. The institutional independence of the European Commission provides a common framework for the countries within the European Union, yet gives the European Parliament limited sovereignty. The European Parliament is the only directly elected body within the European Union’s government, but can only approve or amend laws already proposed by the Commission. The suppression of popular will discussed by Müller has ostracized Eurosceptic parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party. Nigel Farage led U.K.I.P. during the Brexit campaign on a platform of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. He specifically targeted the European bureaucracy and immigration, and stated that Brexit would allow the U.K. to be “free and able to act in our own national interest”.
The historic Brexit vote was a testament to the inability of E.U. institutions to cope with populism. Forming a durable and inclusive political union must give more independence to the European Parliament to propose legislation that would bring government closer to the people. On December 10, 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Brexit referendum could be reversed through a “democratic process,” although this process was left vague. Ozan Varol proposes in his article Stealth Authoritarianism that persistent judicial opposition to incumbent regimes is rare. The incumbent regime in the case of the E.U. is the European Commission, with the ultimate goal of further European integration. Varol points out that electoral barriers, such as a 3% thresholds to be on a political ticket in Greece, are used to constrain opposition . The technocratic nature of the current European regime has alienated outside political parties to its own detriment . The European Union can only persist through respecting pluralist opinions by granting greater sovereignty to European Parliament.
Photo from European Commission