Electoral Fragmentation: A European Village

An interesting article published in Zeit Online presents a full map of European electoral decisions analysing the most recent European election results across EU member states, ranging from municipal to national elections[1]. This map presents the full gamut of European fragmentation, split not just regionally but also non-contiguously as populist political parties that come from multiple ideological angles are able to win in different electoral swaths. The transformation of Lega Nord from a separatist party to a generic Italian populist party that is able to (partially) govern Italy and from there question EU edicts and attempt to create new European factions is a primary example of this European fragmentation brought about by populist parties.

Generally European electoral populism is non-geographic, cutting across national borders and regional separations in its electoral developments. Equally, the development of the Brexit Party for the UK’s recent European elections presents this non-geographic essence, as the party aimed at wide appeal through simplistic narratives and failing to present cogent policies. This could be described as a negative electoralism, whereby feelings of anger and dissociation with wider institutions feeds a perspective that encourages voting for parties based on their rhetoric against the establishment. This goes beyond the cynicism of tactical voting, as one is not voting tactically but on the basis of hitting the establishment where it hurts. It isn’t a thought-out perspective that suggests negotiating with establishment figures or putting forth reform proposals. Instead it is a lashing out due to the fact that things for large sections of the European population are not working, whether due to economic stagnation, cultural malaise, combinations of these two, or other systemic issues.

Brexit presents the most advanced stage of this, where a form of conflictual sovereignty is playing out between those who back a negotiated withdrawal agreement to leave the EU, those who want to remain no matter what, and those who want to leave as soon as possible come what may. For the latter two, the EU isn’t treated as a supranational, complex entity with different factions and varied levels of sovereign power, but rather is imbued with utopian or dystopian characteristics that suggest forthright actions to deal with it. The Withdrawal Agreement, in imbuing Northern Ireland with different sovereign and socio-economic capabilities and ceding ambiguous power to the ECJ and other EU institutions, is anathema to those who hold a cultural understanding of sovereignty, as something whole and disavowable. This perspective collides against an economic view of sovereignty, that sees it as variable and scalar in its application. There is no map that allows one to see where these perspectives begin to meet or border against each other[2], and this is arguably the issue at hand when looking at this wider European electoral map. All it shows is the dividing lines and how new forms of electoral power perforate established party and geographic bases.

There is no clear institutional nexus that can cohere these cultural and economic perspectives into one arena. When you add in the issues of regional separatism, the Visegrad group, and the commitology processes inherent to EU governance which encourage dialogue and political decision-making beyond and below the level of nation-states, you have a highly complex picture with no direct answers. The electoral fragmentation only adds to this highly-charged complexity as populist movements encourage a non-complex politics that provides easy answers to complicated questions, and regional movements that suggest by simply pushing power downwards one or two levels, economic and social problems can better be solved.

One of the supposed advantages to EU enlargement was that it encouraged a kind of deliberative supranationalism that allowed for dialogic mechanisms that would produce bipartisan results, encouraging cooperation and negotiation rather than collective action and free rider problems. “Enlargement is a two-track process: on one track, there are compromises reached through interest-based negotiations; on the other track, there is a rational deliberation based on truth and impartiality which results in a set of norms and principles collectively agreed”[3]. This two-track system was advantageous as the EU developed in a situation where “authority is scattered, power relations are often horizontal instead of vertical and policies are the outcome of ‘governance’ rather than ‘government'”[4]. The EU then was a “dynamic entity, ‘permanently unsettled'” along dimensions of “constitutional order, geographical boundaries, institutional balance, decision rules and functional scope”[5]. With increasing enlargement, these five dimensions were consistently transformed due to: new competences being centralised at EU levels; new powers being developed for the interactions of ECJ jurisdiction with private and national legal systems; and commitology processes that provided greater voice for stakeholders, municipalities and regions. Further, with the development of qualified-majority voting, power was not so much centralised at an EU level as it was brought to bear by particular nations setting the agenda so as “to gain relative and absolute voting power, compared to unanimity”[6]. This brought into question the deliberative nature of these institutions as QMV allows for greater political arbitrage and the ability to game the system.

There is a paradox here as enlargement of competence created not just integration, but also fragmentation as particular nations developed specific policy tracks for EU governance, and new stakeholders gained voice at a supranational level, undermining and complicating the field of sovereign power. This develops into forms of nodal politics, where new constituencies attempt to enter the networks of and game against the intra-competitive nodes of political power[7]. The electoral fragmentation wrought by populism, regionalism and other nodal outgrowths create the growth of new political parties that rail against “the entrenched system and as a result, they tend not to reflect the traditional lines of conflict that produced the political parties of the 20th century”[8]. This then brings into question the systematic governance of the EU, as it increasingly looks like the permanently unsettled institution that it developed from.

These developments of conflictual sovereignty that fester within the networks of politics suggest the need to cohere new directions for governance lest everything fall into argumentative nonsense where the only agreement is disagreement. As the EU Commission has already suggested, there may well be a need for a multi-speed Europe[9], where different competencies lie at different scalar levels depending on the level of integration one nation or stakeholder has with the EU and its jurisdiction. Some of the scenarios the Commission presents for dealing with ongoing developments of continental populism, Brexit and socio-technical evolutions[10] include provisions for: re-centring the EU around the single market exclusively (thereby by limiting socio-cultural power); encouraging member states to actively push their own policy agendas in specific areas in concert with other states and/or stakeholders; and limiting competency to specific areas for greater efficiency gains[11]. These three future directions specifically inculcate a European polity that is flexible, and exists across multiple scales of political power rather than just enlarging its areas of socio-economic competency. This would be akin to a European village, where different village members have differential levels of involvement in the activities of the governing whole. Already, the variability of Euro membership and the Schengen area, as well as organisations like EFTA and the bilateralism of Switzerland-EU relations, presents precedent for a multi-speed or multi-tier EU. The electoral fragmentation and the festering issue of Brexit only make these directions more pressing.

It’s interesting that Guy Verhofstadt’s defence of the EU came from his Manichean view of modern geopolitics, where the world is developing into multiple empires (the US, Russia and China being but three of them) as well as contending with non-geographic terrorist and security threats. The EU for Verhofstadt should position itself as one of these imperial powers, allowing itself to have a competitive foothold in this geopolitical arena. However, imperial power has always been defined by its ability to deal with communities and sub-central interests that inhabit it. An empire “needs a law that transcends its individual communities. Empires have to consider not only how to rule over the various tribes and states but also how to secure their “in- between”—in other words, how to ensure the safety of the intercourse and commerce that occur between an empire’s various tribes and states”[12]. In other words an imperial power requires an ability to map its constituent elements, thereby understanding their demands and linguistic outputs. In that scenario, the EU as empire would not simply be a centralised set of competencies, but a multi-scalar political unit that builds infrastructure and political organisation arounds its multiple bases. If this is the direction of geopolitical order, the EU itself will be transformed from something that exists between a permanent unsettledness and a supranational government. Whether this is the direction it goes remains to be seen, but the fragmentation that this electoral map presents appears to only be growing into new political outgrowths which may be uncontrollable.

[1] https://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2019-05/elections-in-europe-eu-countries-results-map-english

[2] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/conversational-maps/

[3] Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, “Arguing About Enlargement”, Enlargement in Perspective

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2019/01/27/politics-of-nodes/

[8] https://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2019-05/elections-in-europe-eu-countries-results-map-english

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-speed_Europe

[10] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/future-europe/white-paper-future-europe/white-paper-future-europe-drivers-europes-future_en

[11] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/future-europe/white-paper-future-europe/white-paper-future-europe-five-scenarios_en

[12] Kojin Karatani, The Structure of World History

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