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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

EU problems and priorities

A few more post-Irish Referendum thoughts – because the EU really, really needs to know what it is that it should be doing if it’s to work out what is the best way forward from its ongoing Constitutional/Lisbon Treaty navel-gazing. More suggestions for priorities gratefully received in the comments.

Two starting assumptions for this list:

1) Institutional reform remains necessary (largely thanks to the short-sightedness of the earlier treaties: it is, after all, entirely possible to have rules for a club of 6 or 15 that also work for a club of 27 – it’s just that the people drawing up those rules made them inflexible), but it’s not essential for the EU to continue to function

2) Neither the Lisbon Treaty nor the Constitution really dealt with what I see as the EU’s two biggest problems (the Common Agricultural Project and the dominance of Russia in the continent’s energy supply) anyway

So, on with a few vague thoughts on the main problems and priorities, in approximate order of importance:

The Common Agricultural Policy
– if anything, more of a priority than institutional reform
– Since expansion to 25/27 the balance of economic power within the EU has shifted yet again, making the current balance of CAP payments (with wealthy France getting 22% of all CAP payments in 2004, despite having only 17% of the EU’s agricultural land, while EU countries with 35% of agricultural land between them received only 18%) ever more indefensible.
– The concurrent rise of a global food shortage further heightens the inanity of a system that sees (to oversimplify) farmers paid for producing nothing and good food go to waste, while simultaneously diminishing the ability of third world countries to compete effectively.
– The CAP also eats up around 44% of the EU’s annual budget, and accounts for the majority of the accounting dodginess that keeps leading to the EU’s accounts not being signed off year after year

Energy supply
– With the current “fuel crisis” only likely to worsen (peak oil, anyone? Even if you don’t buy that argument, it doesn’t take a genius economist to work out that finite resource + increasing demand = rising prices)
– Europe’s own energy resources are, shall we say, inadequate for the long-term stability of a continent with the best part of half a billion people
– Russia is increasingly gaining a monopoly on the supply of natural gas to Europe, and this dominance is only going to increase. Russia (or, more accurately, state energy company Gazprom, whose former Chairman is, erm… the current President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev, and likely to be replaced by, erm… Vladimir Putin) has also shown herself quite happy to withhold supply to gain concessions
– Stability of energy supply is essential for the European economy – short-term that means security of supply from Russia (and Central Asia and the Middle East), medium to long-term it means finding viaible alternatives, be that nuclear, wind, wave, solar or whatever

An ageing population
– Average life expectancy in the EU may have dropped a bit with the accession of economically less well-off eastern European states over the last few years, but the general trend is clear: Europeans are living longer than ever before
– Whether encouraging the reform of pensions, retirement ages, working hours and the rest should be an EU competence is an area of much controversy (myself? Not convinced it should be) – but one of the few indisputable findings of that Tomorrow’s Europe deliberative poll event I attended in Brussels last year was that the people of Europe feel that their governments/the EU should do more to ensure that its citizens are provided for in old age
(As a semi-related aside – though one that’s utterly unrelated to the main point – why are we limiting the amount of time people can legally work? If people want to work more, let them – they have more to put into their own pensions and savings, taking pressure off the state, and end up paying more taxes, taking pressure off the state. Why should anyone ever be prevented from working if they want to?)

The lack of agreement on the EU’s core purpose
– Is it primarily a trading union, or should the EU be pushing for a “Social Europe” – those strike me as the two extremes, though there’s any number of additional disagreements. Are they incompatible?

The lack of consultation with the people
– Whether you’re a believer in the EU’s “democratic deficit” or not (and it’s certainly not as clear cut a case of a lack of democracy as some claim), one of the few similarities between the French, Dutch and Irish referenda on the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty on which most commentators have been agreed is the sense that the “No” votes came in part due to disillusionment with the political class
– Europe is a continent with more than its fair share of experience of dictatorship and absolutism, with a large majority of EU member states having experienced periods of military/undemocratic rule within living memory, during which time literally millions of Europeans have been killed and murdered by the self-same nation states who have now banded together for the good of the continent – to now deny the citizens of Europe a say in their future smacks of taking the piss; and yet the people have never been asked what they want from the EU

The lack of knowledge of the people
– The one point of agreement from those who voted “No” in the Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum was that they didn’t really know what the Lisbon Treaty was all about – but I’d wager it’s not just the Lisbon Treaty that’s a mystery. I’d put at least a tenner on there being a majority of EU citizens who similarly couldn’t tell you the difference between the Council of Europe, the European Council and the Council of the European Union, another tenner on their not being able to tell you the difference between an EU resolution and an EU directive, another tenner on them not being able to explain the powers of the European Parliament, another tenner on a majority not being able to pick either European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering or European Commission President José Manuel Barroso out of a line-up, and yet another tenner on a majority thinking that the European Court of Human Rights is an EU institution (clue: it isn’t).
– Without some understanding of how the EU functions and what its competences are the people will not – by definition – be able to make sensible choices. (For example, that poll finding on pensions I mentioned above? The one problem with that is that I’m not convinced that the participants were made sufficiently aware that pensions are not an EU competence; nor was there a question asking whether they thought pensions should be an EU competence)
– This is certainly related to the old arguments about the lack of a European demos, but even more fundamental – because a demos cannot emerge until the base level of public knowledge is sufficient to support one; if there is no demand for EU information and discussion, there will be no supply
– This is not something the EU can easily tackle without being accused of propagandising

Possible others included for completeness’ sake (though I’m not necessarily convinced about either):
Climate Change (the argument runs: if the world is warming the food crisis will worsen and Russian dominance increase as the steppes become viable agricultural land; it may also lead to infrastructure damage and increased migration)
Migration/Immigration to the EU (the argument runs: non-European immigration is on the rise, and this is threatening to overwhelm European public services and/or European culture)

15 Comments

  1. Nosemonkey,

    Good of you to try to sort out the EU mess. Just a few comments.

    Potentially the EU’s most important objectives are the security and prosperity of its citizens.

    In practice the EU is going to underperform on both fronts. Call it institutional navel-gazing or whatever, but two crucial preconditions are missing:

    a) effective decision-making regarding all subjects, including treaty reform, and

    b) democratic legitimacy and accountability.

    The member states’ governments set themselves up to be picked off one by one, like quarrelling fiefdoms of old.

    Security is a much wider concept than the mutual military defence clause of NATO. The gridlocked Lisbon Treaty would enhance internal efficiency, but not necessarily external effectiveness.

    Given the means, the EU could possibly make a real impact in the world, and sort out its priorities, but in anything resembling democratic governance I would have to accept that many of the policy decisions were wrong from my point of view.

  2. I will make a point about the lack of knowledge of the people.

    I believe the problem is not that much that people do not (or would not) demand information about the EU, but the presence of incentives for manipulation by member states.

    It is very common for governments to report EU decisions in line with their policy as their own achievement. Other decisions, or those that are potentially unpopular, are domestically blamed on to the EU. In a sense, many governments use the EU as an external device to push policies they would not directly defend at home.

    This has several effects. It allows unpopular but long term beneficial policies, such as deregulation, to be implemented at a reduced political cost. But it also skews the population’s perception of the EU. And at some point down the road, this can justify an EU voice in the media.

  3. Ralf is spot on with his succinct summary of the EU’s fundamental flaws:

    a) effective decision-making regarding all subjects, including treaty reform,

    b) democratic legitimacy and accountability

    Actually these two themes are directly connected because if the EU boasted legitimate and democratically accountable institutions of governance they would, by default, be more effective decision making bodies.

    The problem is that these more efficient institutions would have to be much simpler and more direct (in terms of their relevance to Europeans via a ballot box; that legitimacy thing again) affairs and the only way that can be achieved is by politicising the European arena.

    In this manner a recognisable form of European government might emerge, for example, current National political parties align themselves ideologically as true pan-European parties, contest European Parliament elections with exclusively European policy agendas and the winning party (or coalition of parties) forms an executive drawn from the ranks of elected MEP’s.

    National administrations, particularly those of the large and powerful kind within Europe, so we are talking in particular about the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Poland and Sweden, all have a vested interest in ensuring that such constitutional (r)evolution never even gets past the concept stage, let alone sees the light of day as a serious proposal.

    If they did heaven knows what we might see happen next? Effective decisions might actually get taken in an open, democratic and accountable fashion and individual member state governments might start to look like they have passed their sell-by date; NO-NO-NO, we can’t possibly have any nasty surprises like that!

  4. Peter Davidson,

    Do you really mean that European leaders, reared in parties with democratic ideals, active in European states built on representative democracy and pledging the European Union to democratic principles, are going to opt for the system of the Holy Alliance permanently, in the face of growing popular indifference, disillusionment and outright hostility?

    If so, would it be wrong if their project fails and if Europe fades into insignificance?

  5. Ralf

    Please explain in more detail what you mean by Holy Alliance?

    What I am saying is that I believe the only effective means to democratising the European arena is through its politicisation.

    When I say politicisation I mean the emergence of an arena of exclusively European import, limited to policy areas boasting specific pan-European resonance, so we are talking about very broad issues such as climate change, macroeconomic management, the impact of immigration, defence and foreign affairs.

    At present we have the dogs dinner approach to many of these challenges faced by Europe (and indeed the entire global community) as it tries to develop a common policy but, largely due to the fundamentally fragmented nature of the EU’s foundation – i.e. the emphasis upon a union constructed from member (nation) state elements, such attempts often (very publicly) fail utterly, leading to yet further alienation and cynicism on the part of a increasingly sceptical European public. These events in turn spawn the very valid question; what exactly is the purpose of the EU?

    This does not mean that I am advocating a European super-state template, in fact more or less the opposite. I would like to see Europe gradually (with emphasis on the pace of change) develop democratically accountable institutions of governance acting in quite specific and clearly limited policy areas; hence the desperate need for a radical overhaul of the EU’s insitutional architecture but for this to even begin to happen would require a level of political will on the part of individual member states, signally absent at present.

    I suppose what I am arguing for is the application of federalist principles i.e. a (very gradual) realigning of political power across the union. The point here is that if this were to happen (hypothetically speaking) this would begin to expose the inherent weakness of many (particularly the larger type) current European member (nation) states.

    If certain policy areas were naturally gravitating upwards to a democratically accountable European level (because logically that is a more appropriate level to manage them) and publics generally were pressing (as they undoubtedly are) for increased levels of control over policy fields with more immediate day to day impact, i.e. Healthcare, Education, Law&Order, Housing, Intra-Regional transport, this pincer movement begins to make larger states with a unitary basis, like the UK, rather superfluous to requirements in the longer (25-50 years) term.

    This trend is an emerging feature of the political landscape that certain member state adminstrations are petrified to acknowledge the existence of because they realise it means their eventual (many years from now) demise.

  6. Peter Davidson,

    Thank you for your clearly written thoughts, a valuable contribution.

    The Holy Alliance symbolises the (divinely legitimated) rulers of Europe, who saw themselves as the benign paternalistic autocrats bringing happiness to their peoples, and in practice a cartel of sovereigns intent on (jointly, if needee) crushing any attempts at liberal democratic reform.

    Do you see the European Council and the Council in a radically different light?

  7. Ralf

    I perceive the EU (as it is currently constituted) as an essentially intergovernmental structure, dominated by the influence of individual member state administrations. Of course within the complex equation the larger players exert, even taking into account their respective population sizes, a much larger slice of the EU’s power pie (so to speak), both intra-EU and externally on the global scale. Many academic analysts claim that this vehicle for delivering increased geo-political influence on the world stage was the driving rationale behind French involvement in the entire European project from the outset.

    Maybe today’s political elites see themselves as the inheritors of the divine legacy you refer to but my perspective has always been driven by basic pragmatic considerations. What is the best (most efficient way) of organising our society for the benefit of all (or at the least the maximum number possible because there will always be winners and losers).

    Therefore I have long since arrived at a conclusion in which individual nation states are long past their sell-by date as the best means of delivering widespread wellbeing for human societies.

    In fact I would argue that the concept supporting the ‘European project’ anticipates the inexorable nature of this long term trend. For example, looked at in simple numerical terms the addition of each new member state to the EU edifice increases the self-evident nature of this axiom for anyone who dares to look closely without the ‘aid’ of an indivdual National lens.

    In much the same way as Habermas welcomes the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, I believe the time is now fast approaching when Europeans are beginning to question the entire premise of the EU’s establishment, the basic raison d’etre for its continued existence. I know this might sound perverse but I welcome this crisis of confidence because only out of such adversity will a renewed spirit of democratic legitimacy emerge, derived (I hope) from support through the ballot box for radical (and I do mean very radical) reform of the EU’s institutional architecture.

    There are already whispers about using the 2009 European Parliament elections as a vehicle for holding an EU wide plebiscite to put a number of propsals to the entire European electorate for their approval/rejection. I actually think this time frame is too tight, mainly because there will not be enough negotiating space for the usual suspects to reach consensus on what might be placed before the people for their deliberation but at least viewpoints are now begining to coalesce behind the notion of EU-wide polls; that’s progress for me.

    One minor practical note here; any EU vote must occur simultaneously, none of this crap about the UK or any other member state traditionally voting on a particular day of the week!

    When the practice of EU wide voting becomes established I do no think it will be long before we witness a sea change in public attitudes moving towards thinking on a European scale. This mindset change must be nurtured because presently the vast majority of EU citizens only see Europe through the lens of individual national (media orientated?) viewpoints.

  8. Peter Davidson,

    The Holy Alliance is a comparison aimed at illustrating the anachronistic character of current EU governance.

    Referenda, including pan-European ones, are not cure-alls, but I think that we have much common ground with regard to both the necessity of the EU (in some form) and its basic democratic structure.

  9. Ralf,

    Agreed, referenda as instruments of direct democracy should never entirely replace the more nuanced and therefore satisfactory function of its representative equivalent but now we (Europeans) seem to be fast approaching a crisis point and desperate times require desperate measures.

    What better way to kick start a process of renewal for the concept of European integration whilst simultaneously injecting a much needed dose of democratic legitimacy, than via this electoral vehicle, starting with some simple closed answer questions about the direction (and pace of movement) the project might take in the future?

  10. Peter,

    We seem to agree on the seriousness of the spreading resentment and and disillusionment among both ordinary voters and EU-centred intellectuals.

    I have therefore thought that the EU leaders, realising the deepening chasm, would understand that the European Union has to be based on the citizens, via EU level parliamentary democracy.

    This would entail a package of (initial) Lisbon Treaty reform (at least the substance among the willing) and a pledge to institute democratic reform.

    I have thought that a pan-European referendum would be called for if and when the EU takes the qualitative jump to a democratic and federal Constitution; requiring a double majority of citizens and states it would start among the willing, leaving the relations of the outer circle to be defined (with the option of later accession).

    While your basic analysis looks the same, you seem to favour important, but perhaps more limited questions and a longer evolutionary process, if I understand correctly.

    Your suggestion is certainly worth thinking about, because every avenue to break the deadlock has to be explored.

  11. Ralf

    I have always been convinced that timescale is a vital element in this (very) complex equation.

    The vast majority of people (at least in the UK anyway) tend to recoil in horror when I explain my viewpoint on this very serious issue but when I add the overriding caveat of a (very) long timescale into the debate, their initial sentiment of outright rejection is, in a significant percentage of cases, mollified and some even want to understand a bit more.

    When I start to explain in more detail about why I believe the traditional (larger) nation state within an integrating Europe has seen its best days and it is time to consider a new approach some people are eventually fascinated by the potential solutions this radically different approach offers to many seemingly intractable issues although I don’t even begin to think they wholly accept my rationale.

    Perhaps their sudden change of heart is based on purely selfish motivations (it doesn’t really affect me because I won’t see it in my lifetime so why should I be bothered by this entirely theoretical concept) but I would like to think that there is more to it than that.

    Societies will of course still tend to organise themselves in groups – it is simply the case that those groups will tend to be smaller, more immediate communities. We can see this trend in pressure for increased autonomy; witness recent events in Euskadi, Catalunya and Scotland.

  12. Peter,

    I take note of what you say about the timescale, although it looks a bit odd that people would resist being handed keys to (some) power on a regular basis.

    The UK has, of course, its own brand of EU discourse and media, not necessarily of the most reflective kind, although there are individual notable exceptions, such as think-tanks, NGOs, individuals and House of Lords reports, to name a few.

    Naturally, people tend to identify with small groups in their vicinity: self, family, friends, relatives, football club, home town etc.

    One of the problems with the European Union is that it a) lacks real power in the questions where it would really matter, and b) is perceived to meddle in all sorts of things. This is both a real problem and one of perception.

  13. Ralf

    For a not insignificant minority (I estimate a minimum of 10%) amongst the UK electorate viscerally opposed to any form of closer integration with their European mainland compatriots, your notion of power spurned will fall on deaf ears. For them the concept of shared sovereignty means an unwarranted diminution of the capacity to control their own affairs and no amount of reasoned argument is going to persuade them otherwise.

    Another huge section of British society (maybe another 50%) is now convinced that the bargain is not what they thought it was. The perceived sacrifice of open borders (to their fellow EU citizens) and the so called blizzard of regulation/laws emanating from Brussels have proved an unbearable distraction from the harsh reality of a rapidly globalising commercial environment. Pressure to adapt to dynamic external economic forces and consequent social/political change are routinely conflated; we (the British) signed up to a Common Market but nothing more, we’ll have no truck with this nonsense about political union.

    The foundations of the European Union, as a political manifestation of the overwhelming logic supporting the concept of closer integration, were fundamentally flawed from the outset because they were based on the false premise that individual member states could remain entirely distinct and autonomous entities. The reality, in an intrinsically interconnected and independent world, is that the concept of sovereignty exercised in isolation is now nothing more than a convenient fiction.

    Perhaps a two (or three or even four) speed European project lies ahead in the not too distant future but predicting how these matters will pan out is fraught with difficulties.

    I will continue, wherever and whenever appropriate, to strongly argue in favour of more flexible geo-political template for the future evolution of European integration, based essentially on two-tiers;

    A clearly defined (by a constitution?) directly democratically accountable federal centre operating, openly and transparently, in strictly limited policy fields appropriate to the pan-European and global arena.

    An array of robust but responsive semi-autonomous entities boasting, wherever possible, strong financial, cultural and political credentials, managing the vast majority of day to day governance on behalf of their respective citizens – examples such as Catalunya, Scotland, Lombardia, Bayern, Slaskie, Breizh, Scania, Wallonie, all spring to mind immediately.

  14. Peter,

    I agree that part of British public opinion seems beyond the reach of any reasoned discourse on the need for European integration or the modalities to join forces in the world.

    (Naturally, Britain is not alone. Populist and nationalist right as well as unreformed left have a history of, part successful, attempts to derail European integration.)

    I wonder if the latest ‘blackmail’ operation by Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski finally forces the majority of European leaders to abandon the disastrous unanimity rule, opening up vistas for the two (or more) tiers you envision.