Do You Hear The People Sing?

11/18/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

- Or, The Great European Democratic Deficit

Henry Kissinger once famously asked who he had to call if he wanted to speak to Europe.

For Americans, and perhaps much of the rest of the world, the clarity and simplicity provided by a single, united European voice has its attractions.

Europeans might also see the benefits, at least as an abstract idea. But right now, the vast majority can only see it through the lens of the European Union as is, today.

And that lens is looking increasingly dirty, if not cracked.

Over the weekend, one of the Spanish national dailies, El Pais, dedicated it first few pages to 'el futuro de la UE': the future of the EU. Like its counterparts in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and elsewhere, this respected title is perplexed by the pan-continental surge in support for populist, anti EU parties.

From Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party, to Italy's Five Star Movement and Spain's Podemos, there can be no doubt that an anti-EU tide is rising. And fast. These populist parties are regularly capturing up to a quarter of the popular vote at European elections, and sometimes even at national elections too.

Why? Well, this is precisely what causes a good deal of hand-wringing in the traditional European parties and intelligent press. This is not least because the 'new' parties are the political equivalent of cartoon gorillas - clumsy, unsophisticated and a-not-so welcome reminder of Europe's not-so-distant (and not-so-great) past.

But beware overdoing the historical parallels What is happening today is far from the uniform, crypto-fascist craze a la 1930s. Au contraire, the new parties confound the European political establishment by refusing to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Podemos, for example, is seemingly bent on bringing to Spain its own version of the insane Chavismo polity that has done for Venezuela. In France, meanwhile, Marine LePen's Front National is very much anti-immigration. In Italy, comedian-turned-demogogue Beppe Grillo is spoiling for a fight with the European Central Bank whilst in England, Nigel Farage's UKIP is trying to work out if it wants to have an American style 'Tea Party' or to get into bed with Labour, the British socialists.

Confused? You're not alone. The intellectual incoherence and contradictions frighten the life out of the European political establishment. The disparateness makes it harder for them to engage their new enemy, to say nothing of their popular appeal. So what tends to emerge is a classic European high-handed dismissiveness; the political equivalent of the snooty Parisian waiter. Needless to say, this is not well received.

Nor is it necessary. Because the connective tissue, the red thread, that links all these popular movements, is in fact obvious. It is the increasing powerlessness that ordinary Europeans feel over their ability to make a difference to their own lives, let alone anyone elses.

What is not always evident on this side of the ocean is that the European Union is not, in fact, a terribly democratic affair. Platitudes are, of course, uttered, and Members of the European Parliament are rolled out as examples of citizen power, but the reality is that the heart of the European project is deeply undemocratic.

And that is because real power sits not with anyone who has been elected, but with an unelected commissariat, a bureaucracy: the European Commission.

This body is, in reality, at least as powerful in Europe as Congress is in the United States, but that is where the parallel ends. Because European Commissioners are in effect latter day prefects; civil servants-cum-governors, with budgets and staffs to match. Unlike members of Congress, their only real legitimacy stems from their nomination by the Prime Minister of their home country (most of whom themselves, of course, are only indirectly elected). What's more, by the time initial Prime Ministerial nominations have been horse-traded behind the scenes (to an extent that would make a US Senator blush), the depressing hand of the Lowest Common Denominator is all-too-often visible.

Given the width, depth and breadth of the European Union's (largely self-awarded) remit, and notwithstanding the existence of the European Parliament (ask a European to name their MEP......), the ability of the average European to effect any meaningful political change to their own lives is exceedingly limited.

Americans, for historical and cultural reasons, have a much keener and well-formed sense of 'freedom' than most Europeans. They can, typically, articulate what 'freedom' means to them with a much greater degree of precision that the average European. But this does not mean that Europeans do not treasure democracy. Political freedom might have been perfected (and sloganized) in the United States, but we cannot forget that its origins are indisputably Old World.

People know when freedom is being taken away, or reduced. And universally, they do not like it. Some kick, some bite, some shout , some merely grumble - but all resist. And this is precisely what is happening across the continent now. The reactions are different; the cause is the same.

The real debate is not, or should not be, about immigration, or employment law or tax, or inflationary policy. Not yet, at least. Those topics, whilst hugely important in their own right, are, consciously or otherwise, manifestations of a far greater challenge: the Great European Democratic Deficit.

This is the primal challenge, and the one that needs to be met, head-on, if the European Union is to survive. It is, indeed, bold to assert that it is this issue, and not Islamic State or Putin's putative Soviet Union 2.0, that presents Europe's greatest existential threat. Bold, but not fanciful.

There is a fabulous Banksy piece that features a chimpanzee wearing a billboard. On the billboard is written:

'Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge'

Given that lots of Europeans think that they already are, we might forgive them for throwing in their lot with the gorillas.