Quo vadis, Europa? Post-politics and Leadership Default

Article by Clara Volintiru, PhD

Heavily concerned with debt defaults in the European periphery, over the past years, we have paid much too little attention to leadership defaults!

One by one the major political parties in Europe have lost the trust of their traditional voters, steadily declining in polls. Consequently, contenders have emerged both from outside their organisations—new political parties, and from within—challengers to the party leadership. While new political parties seem to survive in power much harder than we are inclined to think (Bolleyer and Bytzek 2016). There is much hype about Podemos, Syritza or Movimento 5 Stelle, but the European political system as a whole is still dominated by mainstream parties. It is within these political organisations that we must struggle to find governance solutions.

Tensions grew between and within political parties to the extent that the „narrowing policy space” seems to be a redundant matter. Nowadays we see more of a „radicalized policy space”, whether we are talking about refugee quota, fiscal spending, foreign affairs with bordering countries, internal affairs regarding security and information sharing, and any other contentious contemporary issue that the EU is struggling to manage

As the news of the Brexit has covered the world, the main challenge for Europe remained largely the same as the day before the Referendum: what political form will it hold in the years to come? The European Union seems to contain either too much, or too little democracy. Eurosceptic invoke too little democracy in the governing forum of the EU, while the S&D and the EEP political families point to a too tenuous decision-making process given the due process of democratic representation (not to mention serious risks of derailing in such cases as the Brexit).

The containment strategy seems to be to showcase unity between the executive and legislative leadership of the European Union, with daily calls between Martin Schultz and Jean-Claude Junker. This consensual decision-making process is driven by a common vision of further integration. Whether it is called „enhanced cooperation” or „political union” the Brussels elites are heavily mobilised towards creating a new institutional balance of power. It is meant to deal with the multiple crisis the continent is facing, but it is not always perceived as being legitimate. A compromise has been reached in recent years with the plan for a „Two-Speed Europe”, but that differentiating project in itself seems to raise more problems than it solves.

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EU Accomplishment: Benchmarking Administrative Practices

The future direction of Europe depends on how well the variations within it are understood and integrated. The majority of the member states of the European Union are new democracies. Countries from the Southern Europe, and from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have had a vastly different political landscape then Western democracies. Because of the simultaneous development of the party system and the democratic state, the checks and balances have often been missing.

A more pervasive corruption, and a weaker institutional capacity has often been sanctioned by Brussels in postcommunist countries, as well as Mediterranean new democracies. In the case of European new democracies, one of the distinctive elements of the political system is the persistence of informal networks of rule. Whether it is the clientelistic personalistic system in more traditional settings, or the private interest oriented state capture, corruption and familism dominate the formal institutional setting.

Recent studies show how important the sequencing of institutional development is, as democratizing after the state has acquired high levels of state capacity leads to a more efficient social order than the opposite sequence (D’Arcy and Nistotskaya 2016). The integration process helped iron out many of these administrative failures. EU changed most of these weaknesses through a rigorous set of rules and reforms. Still, quite predictably, the logic of the social contract, and citizens’ engagement towards their representatives are still weak social vectors in these countries.


A much heavier emphasis will fall on Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) in the coming years, as these post-communist countries will be makers or breakers of the Union. Whether they adhere and support the common project, or remain a buffer zone of geopoloticial interest will be entirely in the hands of their leaders. It is here, given the historical context of institutional weaknesses and personalistic politics, that leadership default is at its highest risk!

EU Failure: Legitimate System of Representation

The European Union seems to have become a driver of a post-politics era. On one hand there is a widespread criticism on the selection mechanisms and the quality of representation. While scholars clearly point to the mechanisms of institutional control behind the European Commission, it is still widely regarded by the public as a discretionary government of “unelected bureaucrats”. The legitimacy of the system of supranational representation in Europe is at the front of most of the national political debates. At the same time, national institutional failures tentatively suggest that the complexity of multi-level governance might overcome electorally minded political elites. Some scholars, like Bo Rothstein, point to the need for a system of rule by the most knowledgeable, which is what the EU bureaucracy largely is.


Social-democracy is at the core of the European Values, but no one seemed to be left in its corner to defend it for a long time. Significant leadership failures emerged within the S&D family across Europe. Such internal party failures can be attributed to the poor defense of the Remain campaign in the UK by the Labour Party. Social-democratic political parties have fallen out of grace, while social values remain as strong as ever. All Social-Democratic political parties had a well developed territorial networks (unmatched by any populist alternative) with formal, as well as informal presence and roots in society. Nowadays, national leaders like Matteo Renzi in Italy, or Sigmar Gabriel in Germany seem to be more and more engaged in EU level political games. Whether the European Commission is a place where “political parties go to die” or will become the epicenter of continental governance, remains to be proven in the coming electoral cycles.

The revival of the S&D is paramount to its survival as a dominant political family, as the most powerful post-political alternatives belong to the left wing spectrum. It is on the left that we find urban, internationally interconnected, youth dominated movements (right wing aggregation of alternatives has been mostly dominated by Eurosceptic groups so far). The growing attachment of the precariat (especially after the economic crisis) with social movements and political involvement points to an alternative path of representation. The youth, predominantly trapped in such socio-economic categories as the NEETs, is particularly involved in these grass-root European political projects. Identity shifts are more forceful than any of the social movements we have been witnessing across Europe so far!

In fact, it is not the results of various voting rounds that are surprising, but rather the steadily increasing disparities across regions, and across generations. From a deeply divided European population, comes a deeply divided European project.

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