Elections to the European Parliament will be held at the end of coming May – that is to say, in only four months’ time. Their outcome will have deep, long-lasting implications – not only for democracy, but also for the practical life of Europe’s citizens. Decisions on how the institutions on which the Euro and the Union are built should continue to be reformed over the next few years will be significantly, if not decisively, influenced by the outcome of these polls – not only due to the power of the Parliament itself, but also due to the powerful signals it can send to the Council regarding how electors stand on furthering European integration in the near future.
This is especially true in the case of the Eurozone countries and, particularly, for those countries most affected by the many recent crises, subject to financial assistance programmes, such as Portugal, which – save for Italy – have very little bargaining and lobbying power in the Council.
Therefore, an in-depth, comprehensive, wide-ranging debate about Europe should currently be taking place in the Portuguese public sphere. There is a host of questions with no straightforward answer, on which electors and candidates could and should be reflecting, such as: How to continue Eurozone reform? Should the role of the ECB and its statutes be revised? How to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the Fiscal Compact? Should further powers be delegated in fair European institutions, giving them strength to correct persistent imbalances in the Euro’s idiosyncratic economies, and if not, how to do so? How to continue the construction of the banking union, what type and extent of bank regulation should be implemented?
Yet, such a debate is all but inexistent. In the media and the political agenda, the lexicon of simplistic dichotomies such as “austerity vs. anti-austerity”, “periphery vs. core”, “us vs. the Germans” is pervasive and smothers any hint of meaningful discussion about Europe. Perhaps even more worryingly, in the political discourse there seems to be a generalized aversion to overtly displaying commitment and enthusiasm for Europe. Instead, there is a strong concern for the use and abuse of the term “sovereignty” as a purported priority, even if in a vague manner. It is harder than ever to, as José Manuel Barroso once elegantly put it, “make the case for Europe”.
Neither particular end of the political spectrum can be faulted for this. In Portugal, the populist, Europhobic wave has mostly been surfed by the left – to mixed results – unlike what has been the pattern in other countries, where far-right parties have seen their influence rise markedly. However, factions of the centre and centre-right parties, notably including the central discourse that coalition partner CDS-PP has been pushing through, have also increasingly given in to the temptation of blaming the European boogeyman for the hardships a part of society went through along the adjustment programme, going as far as pompously introducing a countdown timer for “the day the Troika will leave”.
Opinion polls have never shown a true, widespread anti-European sentiment in the Portuguese, and it is safe to say we remain among the most committed to Europe, but having said that, all this «noise» drives people away from discussing and thinking about the issues of the Union. Combined with how often agenda-setters try hard to make light of the importance of the coming elections, downplaying them as a mere “opinion poll” on which to base conjectures about pointless issues such as the composition of the next government, or whether or not the opposition’s leader will be replaced, people can have a hard time seeing the point of the elections and, in the process, miss a crucial opportunity for all of us to work together towards more and better Europe.
This can be inverted, if we own the duty to put a serious discussion about Europe on the table and empower those around us to, firstly, think and, then, argue about what Europe, and our place in it, should be. It is our job to not allow the coming 25th May to be just another Sunday.
Luís Teles Morais is a student of NovaSBE’s MSc Finance (major in Banking, Financial Regulation and Supervision) and executive/research assistant at the Institute of Public Policy Thomas Jefferson-Correia da Serra. He is keen on the economics of money, finance, banking, public and welfare economics, policy and institutions.