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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The EU – one size fits all?

It has been a full year since the rejection of the EU constitution by France (29th May) and the Netherlands (1st June) – and still the European “political elites” (their phrase, not mine) can seemingly agree on only one thing: the failure of the constitution to connect with the people was the fault of, erm… the European political elites. They’re not wrong.

But of course, while it’s all very well to have a post-match analysis that goes on for a year, and while these constant discussions doubtless have their uses, the problem persists that as long as the EU tries to find a one size fits all solution, nothing will ever be solved through the organisation’s many committees. Nothing that actually does the job, at any rate.

There is plenty of room under the EU umbrella to incorporate both Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (recently the author of a book somewhat anachronistically entitled “The United States of Europe”) and the more nervous likes of Britain, Denmark – even Norway and Switzerland. Hell, done right, partial membership could easily be extended to the likes of Ukraine, Turkey and even some north African and central asian states – a juicy carrot promising more goodies if they behave themselves.

It is the less stable countries on the EU’s eastern and southern periphery that are currently posing the most problems for the continent as a whole, be it through criminal gangs or immigration, so it is those states on which attention needs to be focussed. Get them on board, and a lot of the EU’s problems could be solved.

To that extent, Verhofstadt is right in arguing that “The Union must continue to grow. This is the only guarantee for lasting peace and stability in Europe”, even if he goes on to make a huge logical leap in claiming that political union is the only way forward.

Of course, what Verhofstadt fails to acknowledge is that in order to grow, the EU must have somewhere suitable to expand. Currently there is nowhere. Some of the new member states who joined two years ago had not really reached the right levels of economic performance to join the club – hell, arguably France and Italy haven’t got the right levels of economic performance to join the club…

Yet expansion was allowed in 2004 at least in part to save face – a sign that the great European project is still on track and positively craved for by those countries not yet lucky enough to be members. It was as much a message to existing member states as it was an extension of friendship and hope to the new ones. With future expansions, this would become ever more the case – unless Switzerland, Norway and Iceland can be persuaded to join, the EU is fresh out of economically and socially-sound neighbours.

And so, with expansion at its current limits and with no obvious way forward, a year after the constitution was rejected it still remains the best hope of the self-same elites who approved it. The one major problem it would have provided is the one thing thaty all political leaders can agree is needed – political leadership. With 25 member states, an EU President and Foreign Minister could have provided focus in a way that the Commission simply cannot. With the constitution’s rejection, however, that is not – for the time being – to be.

Unfortunately, as the last year has shown, with not a single major European leader capable of providing guidance to their fellows, the political elites who were responsible for the constitution may be able to churn out reams and reams of text discussing the problems, but can rarely boil down the solutions to bit-sized chunks – because they can’t come up with any solutions. Many argued prior to the constitution’s rejection that what was needed was not hundreds of pages of legal jargon, but a short, snappy statement of principles – a “We, the people…”, a “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Currently the trans-continental committee is incapable of agreeing on even something as basic as what count as human rights.

Pinning all their hopes on a constitution that none of them were truly happy with, they still haven’t reached the obvious conclusion: it is time – if only temporarily – to reject the one size fits all model. The very existence of the Eurozone proves that it can be done – and add to that the complex Venn diagram of European relations that brings in the Schengen Agreement, Council of Europe, EFTA and the like, you have the beginnings of a model that everyone could be happy with. A core Europe of Eurozone states who can happily push forward with political and economic integration whenever they please, with various decreasing intensities of membership on the periphery.

The logic of this to me seems obvious. They’ve given the one size fits all approach a fair attempt, but it was already under pressure with 15 members all having to reach unanimous agreement, let along 25 – hence the introduction of “qualified majority voting” in a vain attempt to get SOMETHING done by forcing reluctant member states to accept the will of a majority.

But while EU-sceptics from all over the EU frequently complain that their contries are being pushed down a route they don’t want to take, rarely do they use the other, more subtle argument: the more sceptical countries are holding the EU back. This is an analogy I’m sure I’ve used before, but it remains true – as long as the EU is forced to go at the speed of the slowest child in the class, the brighter kids are not only going to get increasingly frustrated, but they’re never going to reach their full potential.

19 Comments

  1. The problem is that in a lot of spheres, because of the free movement of people and goods, failure to adopt common measures will strip them of their benefits.

    On the converse side, it might be possible to delimit the responsibilities and powers of the Union more precisely, so that it becomes a properly limited (quasi-)state organ, providing a proper platform for democratic reform and federalism.

  2. When Pope John Paul II called for a Europe united "from the Atlantic to the Urals", he envisaged Christendom. Whatever you want to call it, whatever you want to acknowledge, the roots of the EU are Christian, and the Vatican is the self-appointed leader of that religio-political group (if not universally acknowledged).

  3. I really can't agree with you there, cranmer. Religious belief and attendance continue to fall in Europe, while the European Communities from the beginning were founded on a secular, technocratic, and statist vision of Europe.

  4. The EU needs to find a new raison d'�tre. Peace and stability and competing with the US can no longer be the driving force of European Integration.

  5. …while the European Communities from the beginning were founded on a secular, technocratic, and statist vision of Europe

    Bizarre assertion. Have you read Papal Encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadregisimo Anno? When you have, tell me how much of this Catholic social doctrine permeates the core of the EU's raison d'etre, and you'll find that the EEC was founded on Catholic socialist corporatism. Isn't that why Monnet and Schumann were proposed for beatification?

  6. Ah yes… the EU version of 'No Child Left Behind' (in which they've failed) is now becoming 'No Child Gets Ahead' for all the others. The wonders of the one-size-fits-all!
    The problem of course is that if we dispense with this approach, the EU will be dead. The EU as it is = one-size-fits-all. Doing away with that means killing the EU.
    Does that leave a core EU? I don't think so. It will effectively be a Greater Franco-Germania, sort of Bismarck meets Napolean. Which will only make problems worse.

  7. Has it not occurred to you that the slowest child in the class happens, in this instance, to be the majority. You know, the ones that cant think for themselves and are easily led by the promised glitz acquired by the prince and princess of the fairy tale.

    oh what big ears you have grandma
    .

  8. Marcin (#1) – the benefits of Council of Europe membership may be slight for those on the fringes, but they are there. Just because they aren't major benefits, doesn't mean they should be dismissed.

    Cranmer – you forgot the Roman Empire, which somewhat predated the Catholic Church. Looking to history and original intentions is pointless – it is the future that is important. (And I say this as someone who has studied history to postgraduate level…)

    Marcin (#2) – "Statist" is a horrible term… Plus, again, the original intentions of the founders of what has become the EU need to be disregarded in their entirety. Theirs was a different world, with different concerns.

    Kiki – though I'm not so sure about the competing with the US idea, yes, a new reason for existence is vital.

    Rik – personally I have no problem with starting again from scratch. Leave the current systems in place during the interim, but the EU is not achieving all that it could. Some form of European Union I believe is definitely the way forward. This current one? Although it hasn't completely failed as of yet, it is heading down that path. And I see no reason why a political unification of France, Germany and the Benelux countries would not work. The shared history and culture there is more than adequate to allow a workable polity. (It'd be a big, big leap though, obviously…)

    Anoneumouse – of course it's occured to me. That's the whole point. If the majority of Europe DOESN'T want political unification (which, for the forseeable future, will remain the case), why should that majority prevent the minority of countries that do want closer unification from so doing?

  9. The US tried the multi-state cafeteria model. The federal government was really given very little power in the US Constitution. There was debate as to whether it could even levee taxes. This system worked to a degree as long as the country was mostly agrarian. As the Industrial Revolution brought on more interstate trade and regulation the federal state became more and more powerful.

    The last attempt at a cafeteria style state was the Confederacy, and one of the major reasons they were unsuccessful was the ineptitude of a state that acknowleges no central government with a final say in laws and taxes. I don't know if a group of disparate states could survive in some sort of loose arrangement that would allow them to protect their national identity, preserve the national treasure, protect the pensions and benefits of the workers and the elderly, and give everyone else a bite of the apple too. I think it would sour pretty quickly for many.

    But anyway, I guess it's worth a try. Good luck with the Confederacy of Europe.

  10. it is the future that is important. (And I say this as someone who has studied history to postgraduate level…)

    Oooooo. Sorry.

    I've never seen fit to somehow seek to stifle debate or put someone down by suffixing my comments with a string of letters after my name. It is not only unneccesary, it smacks of arrogance or insecurity. I may even outrank your 'postgraduate level', and it may even be in the same subject, but that wouldn't necessarily make my opinion worth more than yours, and it certainly wouldn't make me right.

  11. History is important, and so is law, which hasn't been mentioned in this context. (BTW FWIW I tend to agree with Cranmer on the relevance of catholic social doctrine to the origins of the EU, but I don't think that it has been very relevant in the post-1989 role which the EU has played in the wider Europe). What makes the EU work (for good or bad) is the role of the legal order, and the interventions of both the court of justice and the national courts. And above all the propensity of most member states most of the time to comply with EU law. Multiple geometry makes this all horribly complicated and possibly hands even more (political) power over to the lawyers. It might work. It's an interesting idea. But I remain to be convinced.

  12. Cranmer – that wasn't intended as an "I'm more qualified than you" moment. If there's one thing anyone using a pseudonym online is aware of, you never know how much better qualified other people are than you. It was merely intended to indicate that I'm not an historical ignoramus and am aware of the importance of history, but in this case reckon it's time to move on – because not only is obsessing over the past evidently getting us nowhere, but also, lest we forget, the majority of people have only a shaky grasp of European history, so events of several centuries ago really have little conscious impact on their attitudes.

    Bondwoman – the legal aspect on this sort of model would be sure to be insanely complex, no doubt about it. But if you can have states, like Britain, which have relationships with umpteen international coalitions, from NATO and the UN through the WTO, EU, Council of Europe, IMF, etc. etc. etc., it should be possible to work out where the obligations lie. And in any case, few people really understand how the current EU system works, so we wouldn't be much worse off no matter what's tried…

  13. Have to admit, I read NM's comment the exact way he intended it; the history may be important, but the future model can be based on what is, and what we want, not what was meant by the founders. The aside was meant as a "I'm not one of those idiots who ignore history" I suspect; it was Thatcher who said history mattered not after all; she was wrong ;-)

    Reforming the centralist bureacracy and allowing those that want a fully federal set up to go that far would be fine.

    Amongst other things, if the federalist core can make it work, then those of us that don't understand the objection to federalism (being, as it is, a decentralist doctrine) can use it as an example to rebut the critics; it's not like the French will ben any less French any time soon…

    Ronnie; not sure you can point to the Confederacy as an example of succh a failure, it only existed briefly, and for the period of the war was fairly centrally planned out of necessity, and never existed during a time of peace. Besides, we're not arguing for a confedaracy, we're arguing for multiple stages of association, the current set up is already significantly beyond a classically defined "confederal" model (but not yet truly federal).

    Anyway, enough skiving…

  14. Nosemonkey, most people may not know anything about EU law, but I suspect you do, and the key difference between EU law and the other international systems which you refer to is the way they take effect in the national legal order. Obviously this is simultaneously what really makes it work as it does, as well as pissing off the eurosceptics, because it is seen as an interference with national sovereignty. Working out overlapping sets of legal orders of that type is a very serious endeavour, and that's why many people who are pro-EU argue that variable geometry is just another way of dismantling the EU as we know it. I tend not to agree with that view, but it is quite prevalent in certain types of circles which I think I can say are not politically popular in the UK.

  15. Matgb…

    You're correct about the reason for the failure of the Confederacy; Gettysburg and Vicksburg had a lot to do with it. But recall that the Constitution was written 90 years before when this nation's founders were frustrated by the orginal, and ambiguous Articles of Confederation. The Confederacy was so decentralized and rife with internal discord that it would have most likely come apart soon after the Civil War no matter the result. When you join a club and can withdraw anytime you want the first time something you really don't like occurs guess what happens.

    Words like democracy, socialism, confederacy, and fascism have been used to describe so many different systems over the years that unless you specify the particular conditions you are addressing they have almost no value. Confederation as represented by the British attempt to "confederate" the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and Zululand were 180 deg opposed to the term as used to represent the 13 seceding states in 1861. In this case I use the term confederacy to describe a loose collection of separate but hopefully friendly states that bond together in this way to present a common economic and political front without losing their sovereignty, uniqueness, and authority over what they consider to be their own affairs. Federation implies the overall superiority and authority of the federal, or centralized states over the individual entities.

    What I was really addressing is the matter of a lack of a true central authority with real teeth, which means the ability to coerce (for lack of a better term) members of the union that are not behaving. Otherwise you simply have a more complicated version of the Common Market, or the Commonwealth. Economically this is very appealing but it has a more limited appeal when you deal in matters such as foreign policy, control of borders, internecine disputes, etc. I'm not saying it won't work and I wish you well but the cafeteria style has disadvantages. Often a few more favored wind up with the meat (French dip?), potatoes, and dessert, and the less favored get the brussels sprouts (no pun intended). People get tired of and resent being fed the leftovers and when you have some states who use their power outside of the union to get favored treatment it causes trouble in the family.

    So it is really the existence and powers of a strong central federal entity that you have to deal with. Eventually that is what it will come to, no matter how much dancing is done around it. It took 90 years or so to finally face up to this in the US, and in the end the power of the federal government won. The US also had the advantage of one language, no history of internecine warfare between individual states, no overweening religious hatreds, and an almost limitless ability to expand and accept immigrants (at that time). This tends to ease the pressure since the dissatisfied have other options.

    I was born where I am because of distasteful events on the continent in 1870 and 1936. I wish you luck with all of this negotiating and compromising over the next 100 or so years dealing with France, Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, etc., but if I was a bettor, I wouldn't book it.

  16. My comment to cranmer was in part to argue the toss, but I do think that the original ethos of the EEC and the related European Community projects, some of which failed to material, such as the European Political Community, help to explain the nature of the EU as we have it now. They show us why we have a federal apparatus that only half makes sense: as it was set up, it was intended to regulate coal and steel production in an intrusive manner, and to extend its tendrils into other sectors, while the Political Community worked out other pieces of integration. With the failure of political will necessary for that, the necessary steps for the EEC to function properly with the tools given could no longer be taken: positive harmonisation only makes sense when the Commission absorbs all national regulators in that area, or all national regulators work very closely to co-ordinate themselves with the aid of the commission. This never happened.

    While variable geometry presents problems of legal mechanism, more important is the question of how legislation is ever going to be passed in a sensible manner, and applied in very different legal regimes in countries that have picked only the parts of European law that they like. It would also rip a huge hole out of one of the central doctrines of the ECJ. On this, I'm curious as to how even more power can be handed to the lawyers and courts: They have for decades been the only force for European integration.

    Variable geometry then does present the problem that even if one is able to accept a non-uniform legal order, the benefits of the uniformity of law will have fallen away, and we will move away from a truly integrated single market, to 25 national markets without border controls.

    I do think that we would be better off with a single EU with very clearly defined competences, so that the proper distribution of power between federal and national organs would be well understood. Then, we could get on with democratic reforms of the federal apparatus, and prevent national governments from using it as a backdoor for their legislative ambitions. Finally, a clear split and a doctrine of purely limited powers would allow us to decide whether or not we had achieved the right split, and to have a clear discussion every time it was proposed to do something new through the federal apparatus.

  17. I dislike the comparisons with a frankly racist, American Confederacy before the Civil War in the USA.

    I find it deeply unhelpful in this debate to draw parallels between the loosely unified Confederacy and the loosely unified European Union(EU). I find it unhelpful for the reason that the states in question within the Confederacy were artificial constructs created by the colonists arriving from Europe over the decades, and, since they had no historical background in the area they found themselves, and the homogenous nature of the populations founding them, they quickly unified under, hence the USA. Et Pluribus Unum "Out of many, one", and all that.

    In direct contrast to these we have fully sovereign nations in Europe such as France, Italy, Germany and my own Ireland. We have lived in our countries for millenia and have had varying degrees of independence from each other over the centuries. This has led to us becoming distinct areas culturally and politically. This has lead the EU to resemble a multicoloured, multitextured patchwork stitched ever tighter together. This is in contrast with the American Confederacy which, continuing the patchwork analogy, was a unicolured, unitextured patchwork, quite a bland difference to our EU.

    As an appendix, the EU itself should not really be compared with anything, it is a sui generis entity, meaning it his completely unique. It resembles the US in some ways, with its semblance of Federal government. On other levels it reminds you of the UN at meetings of national governments within the EU. On other levels it seems like a pan-continental grandnanny of our union, witness EU funded anti-smoking campaigns and chemical regulations. In actuality it is both all of these things and none of these things. Just like the enlargement of the EU defies the laws of physics, so too does the organisation it expands.

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