The past year has been a very rough one for the European Union. Most dramatically, the referendum vote taken June 23 by the United Kingdom over membership in the EU represents a startling departure from the EU’s seemingly inevitable path toward an “ever-closer union.” At the same time, the waves of Middle Eastern refugees washing up on the beaches of Italy and Greece have produced a humanitarian crisis of heart-wrenching proportions.

Meanwhile, tensions within the eurozone continue, with cutbacks and austerity programs resulting in a grinding recession in Greece and much of Southern Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin remains a menacing shadow over Europe. Finally, the EU has seen the rise of autocratic regimes within its own borders. Backsliding by EU members Hungary and Poland seems to be eroding democratic consolidation in the former Soviet sphere, creating a fundamental challenge to the EU as a liberal, democratic order.

All these crises have been met with seemingly ineffectual responses by the EU and national leaders, generating frustration and anger across European publics. Unsurprisingly, euroskeptic parties have grown exponentially and have fanned demands for the renationalization of sovereign control over borders and markets. While the EU has stumbled badly at various points in its half century of existence, the seriousness and multiplicity of challenges it faces today are unprecedented.

There are many different roots of the EU’s problems, including incomplete institutions and ill-conceived policies. But blame also lies in the fact that, while the EU has risen to become a powerful, innovative political entity, it remains depoliticized by design, intentionally framed by elites as banal and unremarkable. The EU’s political culture — that is, the symbols and practices surrounding EU governance — continuously shapes the everyday lives of Europeans and redraws the boundaries of legitimate authority beyond the nation-state. But it does so in subtle ways that never directly engage political passions, prompt partisan debates or create deep attachments to the EU as a political community.

Consider the following. The euro displays abstracted bridges and windows instead of heroic images. Rather than building one monumental national capital in Brussels, European institutions and their mostly unremarkable buildings are flung far across the 28 member states. And Europe’s top diplomat is called the symbolically watered down “high representative for foreign and security policy” rather than a European foreign minister.

Why is deliberate depoliticization a problem? Political systems cohere better if they are made up of people who feel a sense of deeply knit, emotional attachment to the larger political community. The EU has evolved to govern rather than democratically represent, even as the ever-deeper penetration of the EU into its citizens’ lives creates a greater need to open up to debate the distributional consequences of its policies and the values those policies promote.

In some ways, the overt politicization that has risen from Europe’s migrant crisis, eurozone problems and Brexit shock is a good thing, as it emphasizes the real issues at stake.
In addition to euroskepticism, it has also prompted some surprising displays of solidarity, such as the protestors marching in London after the Brexit vote, fervently waving signs that read: “We love the EU.” But the crises have also shown how far Europe has to go to forge a robust and viable sense of political identity for all its citizens as well as to build the capacity for an overtly political but healthily partisan engagement.

Western democracies across the globe today face backlash against elite rule, expert delegation and conventional party politics. However, the EU faces an even more challenging situation than the United States or European nation-states. The absence of a political culture that provides real public engagement over the EU’s ever-increasing powers has created a democratic vacuum, one that must be overcome if the EU is to survive.

Kathleen McNamara is a professor of government and foreign service in the department of government. She is the author of “The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union.”

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