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Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris and the founder of the civic startup The Good Lobby. 

Michel Barnier’s recent attack on the power of the European courts caught many by surprise. How is it that the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator transformed himself from the most strenuous defender of EU integrity into a patriotic champion of French self-interest against the Union? 

Simple. Upon reentering the French political arena as a presidential hopeful, Barnier — the great European — unabashedly played the ultimate domestic political card: EU-bashing. 

This longstanding practice of shifting the blame for domestic problems from national politics to the Union via inaccurate statements has long been electorally rewarding. Tacit collusion among national politicians, combined with a mutually profitable alignment with mainstream media, has entrenched EU-bashing into political systems across the Continent. 

Brexit is the most spectacular and tangible expression of this phenomenon — unforgettably symbolized by the inaccurate statement that the U.K. sends Brussels £350 million a week, emblazoned on Vote Leave’s bus. Not to mention the endless string of factually inaccurate and/or distorted stories on migration, terrorism and control of borders, according to a Brexit dossier compiled by InFacts. 

Sadly, this practice is not restricted to just the U.K. or a few other EU countries. Nor — as Barnier’s story demonstrates — has it remained purely the prerogative of anti-EU or Euroskeptic voices. Rather, it has consolidated into a bipartisan tradition within the national political systems of each of the 27 EU countries. 

Think of former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hiding his EU flag in an effort to gain popularity ahead of a self-imposed constitutional referendum, which turned out to be fatal for his political career. Or think of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s strain of Euroskepticism during the latest election campaign, during which he lambasted the Union for interfering in national matters.  

By now, Euroskepticism is clearly embedded in the political DNA of the Hungarian and Polish ruling parties as well.  

EU-bashing has long been shaping the Union as we know it. And vice versa. 

Because behind the often-false Euroskeptic claims lies an inconvenient truth: After 70 years of unprecedented socioeconomic integration, the EU lacks a dedicated political system that is accountable to — and representative of — its over 445 million citizens. 

Instead, EU representatives — whether heads of state and government in the European Council or MEPs in the Parliament — are selected through 27 parallel national political processes. Not only are these processes national in nature (you can only vote for representatives from your own country), they remain mostly unintelligible to most EU citizens, even as they jointly define the European electoral game. 

Over the years, this opaqueness and lack of direct accountability has largely insulated the European political systems from scrutiny. Major political failures have taken place — think the Dieselgate scandal, the lack of a unified EU migration policy or the implementation of costly austerity measures — without anyone paying a political price.  

This lack of political intelligibility nurtures major political incoherence between the national and EU levels. It has allowed the European People’s Party —with the complicity of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — to benefit from the support of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán despite his party, Fidesz, systematically breaching core EU values. It has also permitted the Spanish political party Ciudadanos — a member of the EU liberal family — to cozy up to the ultra-right party Vox at home, while siding with French President Emmanuel Macron in Europe.  

The good news is that Europe is growing its resistance to EU-bashing rhetoric, as actions that once would have gone unnoticed attract unexpected attention. Despite the absence of a genuine European political space, a growing number of Europeans — aided by the media — seem increasingly capable of calling their politicians out when they engage in cheap, factually inaccurate EU-bashing.  

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was caught red-handed, for example, trying to shift the blame for vaccine shortages with Euroskeptic rhetoric. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson was being prosecuted for misconduct in public office based on alleged lying to the public over his faulty bus statement — a world first.  

Returning to Barnier, the response to his remarks within his own country already suggests that his cheap talk might have backfired. How credible can he still be after nonchalantly disavowing his EU credentials for purely domestic electoral purposes?  

There’s other good news too. A proposed EU electoral law to govern the next 2024 EU Parliamentary election is set to Europeanize the EU electoral competition. If adopted and ratified by all 27 member countries, it will create a Pan-EU college and transnational electoral lists and require that all national parties disclose their party affiliations on the European level. 

As the Pan-EU electoral competition heats up and EU citizens continue their scrutiny of faulty anti-EU rhetoric, national politicians will have to realize that while EU-bashing might win them support at home, it just might cost them in the end.

Fact File

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