America First, China First, Russia First, Great Britain First, Hungary First, Italy First: In Europe and beyond, the “my nation first” slogans with their nativist roots have become a common phenomenon that challenges the rule of law for implementing the nationalist will of the people. Considering the increasing public support of populist movements and the electoral success of nationalist parties, I argue that “my nation first” slogans are particularly successful in ineffective party systems that do not internalize the common costs of nationalist non-compliance with the rule of law. Because the institutional architecture of the EU fails to promote an effective European-wide party system, the forthcoming European election provides another testing ground for “my nation first” campaigns.
On the global map, the rise of “my nation first” proponents will logically increase global tensions among nations, which may ironically reduce their success in the forthcoming European election. The more “America First” and “China First” dispute compliance with the rule of law and enter into a trade conflict, the more “America First” and “Russia First” violate their military agreements and enter into an arms race, the more this trend will backfire on the welfare of all citizens, including those of member states. This is also true for a chaotic entering into Brexit due to Great Britain First, which is likely to reduce support for the United Kingdom Independence Party.
Apart from this irony, it would be too simple to attribute the success and failure of “my nation first” campaigns and nationalist parties in the forthcoming European election to external threats and challenges only. Rather, the institutional architecture of the EU, including the veto role of the EP in the implementation of the rule of law and the electoral system for European elections, discloses several deficits, which can be overcome by “Europe First” reforms. In contrast to “my nation first” of individual nations, Europe First emphasizes the collective gains of citizens from the implementation of the rule of law, which can be improved by the promotion of a European-wide party system. This promotion aims to increase the responsiveness of the implementation of the rule of law to the concerns of the citizens, which is currently suffering from a technocratic overemphasis of responsibility for the economic goals of European integration.
Conventionally, the success of “my nation first” is explained by a loss of national sovereignty through the transfer of policy competences to technocratic institutions and agencies, which is firstly criticised by populist movements, and which secondly allows nationalist parties to polarise masses in times of crisis, in which the insecurity fears of the citizens are revealed. Compared to this conventional insight of globalisation studies, which attribute the rise of populist movements and nationalist parties to global shocks and economic grievances that mobilise national identities, little attention has been paid to the causal factors that can explain the transfer of such competences and how this transforms the existing party systems. In the EU, this transformation not only polarises between pro- and anti-integrationist party camps, which affects how the political parties form (coalition) governments. The polarization between pro- and anti-integrationist parties also changes how the EU implements the rule of law by overemphasizing responsibility for the economic goals of European integration at the expense of citizens’ concerns about insecurity.
Put differently: ask yourself why turnout in European elections – in spite of the empowerment of the EP – decreased from 65% in 1979, to 45% in 2014? In this period, the EU has established an economic union with the single market and the EP has become a co-legislator with veto right on Commission proposals and will nominate the president of the Commission, which has an agenda-setting monopoly and plays a guardian role for the implementation of the rule of law in Europe. However, this development has not in- but rather decreased the citizens’ willingness to participate in European elections on the so-called demand side of the party system, while the cohesiveness on the supply side, such as among the members of the dominant European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists, is decreasing after years of European collaboration. Under these conditions “my nation first” slogans can mobilise citizens to participate in elections and to vote for newcomers on the supply side of the party system when an external shock, such as the financial and economic crisis in 2007 or the refugee crisis in 2015, reveals the inefficiencies of the institutional architecture of the EU for the public.
In the EU, one causal explanation for the inefficiencies of the institutional architecture is that the member states agreed on economic union and transferred important competences from the national to the EU level, while they were unable to overcome the inherent political conflict between small and larger member states about governance design for the implementation of the rule of law. Larger member states favour a distribution of power and resources according to population size, while smaller member states prefer a one-state, one-vote principle with equal distribution of offices and voting weights. Due to the accession of smaller and mostly poorer member states at the beginning of the 21st century, Franco-German dominance lost momentum for intergovernmental conflict resolution, in which modest changes in governance design for political integration need to be compensated with further transfers of policy competences for economic integration from the national to the EU level.
On governance design, the most important feasible change has been the empowering of the EP, which however operates without a European-wide party system. Because an effective party system is a necessary condition for the electoral connection to the citizens, this lack has important implications for the public’s evaluation of the EU in particular in times of crisis as the deliberations about the different costs of European integration take place within the boundaries of the national party systems with electoral incentives for “my nation first” campaigns.
Until the financial and economic crisis in 2007, the implication of this ineffective party system raised little concern as the implementation of the rule of law hardly affected the daily life of the citizens, which continued to align with the established parties of their national party system. Because the European Commission has monopoly for making proposals, neither the political groups of the EP nor the governments of the member states could strengthen the electoral connection by initiating own proposals, which would signal pluralist competition to the voters in the implementation of the rule of law. Instead, the governments and the political groups of the EP have only the right to block proposals of the Commission, which fosters a polarization between pro- and anti-integrationist camps. At the same time, the polarization between pro- and anti-integrationist parties in the Council and the EP reduces the ability of the legislature to act, which empowers the experts from the judiciary and the executive without an electoral mandate. As a result, these experts became the dominant players due to the blocking situation in the legislature of 28 member states, which makes the implementation of the rule of law more technocratic.
Empirically, the divide between the pro- and anti-integrationist camps has already been documented before the financial and economic crisis in 2007 in the voting behaviour of the Council and the EP. This is not surprising as both chambers of the legislature formally mirror the divide between large and smaller member states by applying a descriptive representation principle that assigns voting weights and seats according to population size. In addition to promoting a blocked legislature, this descriptive principle nationalizes party competition, which – similar to the dominance of the experts from the judiciary and executive – reduces responsiveness to the concerns of the citizens by overemphasising the representatives’ loyalty to (national) party leadership and their fit into their (national) party’s electoral strategy. In contrast to a descriptive principle, an active principle in European elections would reflect the European-wide electoral success of political parties, increase responsiveness to the citizens and reduce the (national) incentives of “my nation first” campaigns.
All of this suggests that external and internal factors explain the success of “my nation first” slogans in- and outside of Europe. Compared to external factors, the causal identification of the internal factors suggests a reform of the institutional architecture of the EU that strengthens the electoral connection of the political groups of the EP and their responsiveness to the concerns of the citizens. In addition to reducing technocratic dominance by pluralist agenda-setting with proposal right for the political groups of the EP and the governments of the Council, the introduction of an active representation principle would increase responsiveness to the concerns of the citizens and foster a common European party system, which will reduce “my nation first” campaigning by internalizing the different costs of European integration from the national into the European party level.
This will not only increase responsiveness to the concerns of the citizens and improve the accountability for the implementation of the rule of law, but also enable the establishment of responsible party government, in which both the president and the commissioners can be nominated by the ruling parties.