By Max Steuer
The EU is in crisis – hardly anyone could get a different impression when reading or listening to the news. From economics, through to foreign policy, up to the more recent issue of migrants/refugees, the EU is overwhelmingly judged to have failed to effectively respond to the challenges of our times.
But what does crisis, this heavily-loaded term, stand for? When does a series of developments qualify as a crisis? Are there any criteria that are distinctive to it? These questions are largely neglected in political discourse and, more surprisingly, in academic research as well.
The synthesis of some attentive analyses increasingly points to the strong evaluative dimension entailed in the crisis. The way this concept functions is far beyond its etymological origin. However, empirical research is needed to show how crisis is about labelling, framingcertain events as detrimental to progress or upholding existing values, and the attribution of responsibility for causing the crisis to concrete actors.
The media is an important forum where the rhetoric about ‘crises’ can manifest in this way. Various actors, not only journalists themselves, present their opinions there. One would expect though, that quality newspapers as opposed to tabloids will publish more in-depth analyses, approaching crisis critically and not as ready-made. This applies in the Central European context as well, where there have been discussions about the Visegrad countries possibly preferring an ‘own way’ in the EU when it comes to policies towards refugees and migrants.
Yet, a closer look at six Central European newspapers – namely, Népszabadság (before it had been shut down through the influence of the Orbán government) and Magyar Nemzet in Hungary, Sme and Pravda in Slovakia and Lidové noviny and Mladá Fronta in Czechia – invites a deal of skepticism about such a claim. Even quality newspapers (and not necessarilyonly in the countries under scrutiny) tend to take up the rhetoric of the various crises, the three major ones being the economy, Ukraine and ‘migrants/refugees’. The popularity of this rhetoric manifests itself in three ways.
First, the sheer magnitude of articles which discuss the EU, its institutions or policies or its relationship with the Member States, in the context of crises, is remarkable. From late 2008 to days after the Brexit referendum at the end of June 2016, 1347 articles were published which have been identified and fulfil the above criterion. While there are others not portraying the EU in this way, the crisis talk seems to be enormously popular.
Second, there is no unified frame in which the EU in crises is being portrayed. Yet, when it comes to attribution of responsibility, ‘European elites’, ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ and the like is undeniably a major target of blame for the causes of the ‘crises’. This is not only embodied in the rhetoric of several key current or former politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán (for instance, his claim that ‘the European political elite sits in an ideological bubble’) or former Czech President Václav Klaus, who, in his own words, ‘would not defend the EU’.
Third, there is a general preference for a ‘joint EU approach’ when it comes to dealing with the crises, but with hardly any detail of what this approach should be. Moreover, this call for joint action contrasts with opposition to EU-wide solutions, in case of the Visegrad countries particularly in the area of asylum and integration policies. In fact, such opposition seems to decrease the chance for a joint solution – whatever that may mean.
The danger entailed in the rhetoric about crises is the gradual diminishing of the EU’s positives in political discourse. More specifically, the EU institutions and their representatives come to be perceived as the originator of the ‘permanent crisis’ of the EU. A natural implication is that without the EU, or (from a Visegrad Member State’s perspective) without a particular state being an EU member, the harmful effects of the crises would disappear.
Without setting clear criteria that distinguish ‘crisis’ from everything else, the term remainsan imprecise, unscientific label that does not offer any value on its own and can be exploited for populist goals to gain support for a certain (mostly anti-EU) set of ideas. To be sure, this does not mean that all criticism of the EU as it stands (and even of EU institutions and their representatives) is invalid or detrimental to the quality of political debate. However, when ‘crisis’ is used to make a negative emotional link to the ‘European elites’ and ‘Brussels’, it becomes a tool for (predominantly anti-EU) political campaigns.
Since June 2016 developments have increasingly pointed towards the option of an EU core being formed by those Member States which wish to join it and adhere to its rules. The ‘core’ argument has been reflected in domestic political debates, for example, in Slovakia. It might yet be another consequence of the crises discourse – if there is crisis, a solution is needed which can also be constructed as a solution and presented to citizens.
It is at this point when ‘de-crisising’ comes in as a recommendation for adjusting the rhetoric of all actors involved. This strategy entails discussing the EU’s challenges, but using ‘crisis’ only when there is a clear explanation of the benchmark for it. Secondly, it implies that there is a need to talk more about the EU’s benefits, and to do so in innovative ways. In order to achieve this, quality newspapers may admittedly offer only a limited forum, and new media, including social networks, should be the focus instead.
This article draws on a chapter by the author to be submitted for the forthcoming edited volume – Bátora, J and Fossum, JE (eds): The EU and its Crises: From Resilient Ambiguity to Ambiguous Resilience.
Max Steuer is PhD Candidate in Politics at the Comenius University in Bratislava. His researh interests include political institutions in Central Europe and political rights. He is the Head of the Academic Department of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS).