Europe’s Failed Mission Facilitated by Mr. Barroso & Co.

Development Policy25 Mar 2014Werner de Gruijter

How the European Union is slowly disintegrating through a lack of democracy.

Current European politics is infused with laissez-faire economic ideology despite this orientation lacking legitimacy, given the absence of a meaningful democratic debate on the subject in recent years. Consequently, there is a lack of support and widespread uneasiness among the general public. As the European Union slowly slides into a process of disintegration, that realization is still lacking among most politicians and opinion makers. Is Europe really failing in its mission?

European elections will be held in May this year. They will certainly be interesting since Europe could very well be heading towards an important crossroads in its still young history. What hints in that direction is the most recent poll by the European Commission, which showed a spectacular rise in Euroscepticism in the six largest countries of the Union. For example, nearly 60 percent of the Germans no longer have any confidence in the European Commission, compared to 36 percent six years ago. Other countries, like Spain, Italy and even ‘Europe-crazy’ Poland, showed the same tendency.

This lack of trust is self-inflicted mainly because in recent years (with its focus on laissez-faire economic logic and its rejection of referenda) the European establishment has fully contributed to erosion of the full meaning of the word ‘democracy’. The resulting democratic deficit for an institution as powerful as the European Union is nothing short of alarming.

Having said that, from a purely rational point of view, it is nonsense to suggest that the European Union is slowly disintegrating. The current financial crisis has showed that there is enough political will among European leaders to continue this project for years to come. But at the same time, the crisis has also revealed something else that rational theorists could not predict. There is another key point hidden in reality that is relevant here: the irrational human heart. Rationalists tend to oversee this aspect of human behaviour, but it is important as it fosters solidarity if it is recognized, but egoism, distrust and destruction if it is neglected. It this is taken into account, the situation for Europe becomes more dramatic.

This becomes especially clear from the work of Turkish-American psychologist Muzafer Sherif,1 who studied solidarity and conflict behaviour between groups. His ‘Robbers Cave’ experiment has become an old-time classic among social psychologists. Basically, it states that groups which live relatively isolated from each other and at the same time compete for the same food supplies, will soon find themselves on the brink of war. First stereotypes, dogmas and illusions will erupt and create a negative picture of the competing group, and, ultimately, this will lead to various forms of aggression.

However, it is not always gloom and doom. If mutual contact and cooperation are generated to solve the problems with resources, there is an opportunity for solidarity and trust to develop – even to the point that the members of one group can feel connected with those of the other group. Crucial for this to happen is the formulation of an overarching goal that crosses the group boundaries and is agreed upon by most participants.

If Sherif really found something essential (and his experiment has been confirmed), then the European Union is probably in trouble. After all, the formulation of overarching objectives is pre-eminently a task of the political process – and it is at this point that Europe grossly falls short.

Today, there is nowhere in Brussels a body of citizens or, in the classical Greek sense, a polis that serves as the heart of public debate in which the plurality of values, needs and convictions existing among the 450 million Europeans can be heard and weighed in order to formulate higher objectives.

Take for instance Europe’s three-layered power structure. The European Parliament has far too little political power as Europe’s largest countries make most of the decisions in the Union. Furthermore, the European Council, the platform where decisions between countries are pre-arranged, is currently dominated by only one country, namely economic powerhouse Germany, and this same council also determines the most influential position in Europe’s daily management, the presidency of the European Commission, currently held by Mr. José Manuel Barroso. Add to this the democratic corruption caused by the lobbying industry and the rejection of referenda, and one can seriously doubt that the European system may be labelled ‘democratic’.

That is a pity – since basically nothing in reality happens without consequences, as is the case here. Due to this situation, Europe’s political discourse is not an adequate reflection of the needs and convictions of the populations that constitute the European Union.

At this moment the most striking example of this democratic mismatch is found in Europe’s economic policy. A German-dominated Brussels is almost continuously scaring Europeans by prescribing the dogma of ‘economic confidence’. Nothing is allowed to harm this ‘confidence’, which basically means that European politics uncritically indulges the dictates of laissez-faire economics. So one austerity measure follows after another and extremely rich people are getting richer.

It is significant that virtually none of the politicians who are actually pushing the buttons in Brussels talk about historical examples that show the exact opposite orientation, and that is not a good sign for the democratic process. In this respect, it is relevant to know that more than once in history politicians have broken the power of ‘markets’ – without causing apocalyptic economic turmoil.

Take for instance Stephane Hessel,2 a famous French resistance fighter and co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He described the splitting up of big banks after World War II as follows: “A true democracy, both economically and socially, can only endure when economic and financial feudalism is put to a halt.”

From Hessel’s perspective, Europeans no longer live in a true democracy. He would see the current European project as having degenerated into one of financial repression. That a truly open debate on this very important subject matter still does not take place, says enough.

There was a time when Europe desperately wanted to learn from its destructive past. The German statesman Konrad Adenauer, together with French statesmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, the spiritual fathers of the European project, were all very aware of the forces that once pulled Europe apart. For lasting peace, their European project had to serve not only the rational mind, but also the human heart. Or, as Jean Monnet would express the European mission: “We do not form coalitions between States, we are uniting people.”

However, last month, this headline appeared in the newspaper: “Shots fired at German ambassador’s residence in Athens.” It was just a small news report. Nothing big. But recall Muzafer Sherif’s findings on group behaviour and an important, dramatic message suddenly seems hidden inside it…

This article has also been published on Truthout.


  1. Sherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, B.J., Hood, W.R. & Sherif, C. (1954). Experimental Study of Positive and Negative Intergroup Attitudes Between Experimentally Produced Groups. Norman: University of Oklahoma.
  2. Hessel, S. (2011). Time for Outrage. Hachette Book Group (English edition), New York.