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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

What is the EU for? (Part 2)

This started off as a reply to comments on this post, but got a bit lengthy…

EU Constitution mastermind Valery Giscard D'Estaing

The Convention on the Future of Europe (which drew up the failed EU Constitution) was, in its early stages, a step in the right direction. But – vitally – the public were never fully brought on board despite this being one of the key aims mentioned in the inaugural meeting (and despite the website being quite good, I don’t recall much press coverage or wider debate at the time, nor much effort being made to canvas the views of the peoples of Europe). It ended up being a grand talking-shop for a bunch of lobbyists and politicians (if a slightly wider group of politicians than usual in EU treaty-writing), and coming up with something so vast and complex that it could never be understood by the people it was supposed to sell itself to (though at least it was better on this front than the Lisbon Treaty, I suppose).

It also, as far as I can tell, went far beyond its initial remit – to simplify and clarify the meaning of previous treaties, define the limits of the EU’s power in line with the subsidiarity concept, and push for greater democracy, efficiency and transparency – while not going far enough on any of those main points. It certainly failed dismally in clarifying what the old treaties meant, at any rate – and hell, even the Charter of Fundamental Rights ended up being something countries – i.e. the UK – could opt out of, despite that being another key issue highlighted in the wake of Nice… (Here’s probably not the place to have a moan about what that document includes as fundamental rights, many of which are not so much “rights” as “privileges”…)

What I’d like to see happen (though I have no illusions that it will) now that the Lisbon Treaty also seems to be dying is the birth of a genuine, Europe-wide discussion of the kind Peter mentioned in his first comment – hell, even debates conducted within each state (like that in France in the run-up to their 2005 referendum) would be a start. The Commission’s been making some decent efforts over the last few years, and Margot Wallstrom‘s convinced me that she truly would like a genuine debate while making some good first steps in the right direction – but so far none of these have really taken off, or gone anywhere near far enough.

But this is vital – fundamental. Get the people thinking about the EU, rather than just ignoring it. Get them talking about it. Get them to say what they think it is and what it should be for. Because I’m pretty certain that currently no one knows – and if our representatives at these meetings are starting from a position of ignorance about what the people they are representing actually want, little wonder that they end up with something that the people then reject.

Bruno‘s definitely right about the split between the political establishment and the people. Only the real problem, I’d say, is not at EU level – I’d again agree with Peter (in his second comment), and say it’s the national politicians who are the problem. They don’t know what their people want from the EU, because the people themselves don’t know. But rather than try to get their people thinking and talking about it so they can then, y’know, represent their people, they take the “father knows best” line and forge ahead regardless – in the process constructing an EU without any real guiding principles or final goals, and that the people who have to live with it have had no say in creating.

You wouldn’t start constructing a building with no plans, no idea of the number of floors, rooms, windows and doors, and no idea what the people who are going to be using it are going to be using it for. Yet that’s precisely what’s been happening with the EU for decades. It’s no longer (if it ever was) just a trading block. It’s no longer (if it ever was) heading towards a federal superstate. It’s something altogether new and altogether misunderstood – because the EU itself doesn’t know what it is or what it’s for.

Until the EU works out what it’s for – a purpose that really must be set by the peoples of Europe if it’s going to have any chance at long-term survival – the same unproductive nonsense is going to continue ad infinitum.

(For more along these lines, check out What is the EU for? (Part 1) and the dLiberation blog I did for openDemocracy last year, focussing pretty much exclusively on the problems of getting the people to participate meaningfully in EU reform…)

7 Comments

  1. Just a few basic points of view.

    Peter Davidson is right in that many of the questions laid at the doorstep of ‘Brussels elites’ are in fact in the hands of national political leaders, who hold on to power and hamper effectiveness by retaining the unanimity rule in the crucial areas.

    Yes, the European Union is more than a trading bloc. Potentially, the EU should be able to enhance the security (external and internal) of its citizens, as well as improve conditions for trade with third countries and ‘interstate commerce’ (the internal market).

    Since real powers for these important but limited objectives are needed, the EU can become legitimate only if based on its citizens, who can vote into and out of office those who govern.

    Sadly, the cartel of national political leaders wants to eat the cake and have it too. They are unable to provide the public goods needed in a globalising world, but they are unwilling to let go their grip on power, or even entertain thoughts about real debate concerning the basics.

    Nosemonkey, this adds up to the mess you have described above.

  2. Saying what the EU is for is certainly the crux but this absence of a clear statement of purpose is not accidental.

    The EU is a project of European political centralisation which is why Presidents, foriegn ministers, and strengthened passarelle clauses were all included in the Constitution (and Lisbon) and why transparency, subsiduarity and the democratic defecit were left to languish as mere rhetorical aspirations rather than concrete proposals.

    The concentration of political power at the European level is a deeply unpopular objective europe wide. Accordingly, from inception to now, the project has been very shy indeed about articulating it. The only political justifications hitherto offered have been a series of negatives – fear of a revival of intra European conflict, fear of the US, fear of China, fear of Russia, fear of globalisation, fear of the weather, fear of immigrants etc. etc. In other words the EU is the super nanny that we must cling to for fear of something worse.

    The necessary message is that we, as the citizens of nation states, are helpless in the big bad world and that is why we (and the states of which we severally comprise) must be powerless. Our best interests can only be served by the unaccountable working with the unelected in the secret councils of a growing megapower.

    There is also a myth of expertise wrapped up in all of this but the open and glaring gap between European governance and optimal policy outcomes is now too wide for this myth to be sustained in any broad public debate.

    Popular boredom with the EU is the only remaining basis on which the project can survive/proceed. A bored public is no threat whereas an engaged public most definitely is a threat.

    This why the Constitution was embedded in a prolix babble of mandarins jargon and why, after its Franco Dutch repudiation, Lisbon was even more opaque. Debate is not wanted, votes are not wanted and above all public involvement is not wanted…..

  3. Tony Maher,

    What you call fear of this and that can also be seen as challenges. When you look at the alternatives, the EU is potentially a force for good in the world.

    The founding principles and objectives of the European Union (especially in the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty) are admirable, but the structures and mechanisms to deliver faulty.

    I think that you have a point about debate, votes and involvement not being wanted by the national political leaders and EU insiders. Instead, EU citizens are offered various ‘debates’, which are in essence PR exercises, and as such doomed to failure.

    Since the national leaders want to cling on to the basically intergovernmental structure of the EU, with supranational add-ons, only massive popular discontent seems to offer an opportunity to force a rethink.

    Alas, most populist resistance is based on a misconceived dream to return to the ‘halcyon days’ of national sovereignty and supremacy, instead of achieving EU level democracy for European level questions.

  4. Tony

    I agree with part of your analysis

    European? – obviously!

    Political?

    The goal of closer European integration (as currently manifested in EU form) was based on political motivations from the outset and I see nothing wrong with that. Politics is after all essentially concerned with the means through which humans interact and manage their relationships.

    Furthermore I trust you will concede that the structure we all know as the European Union was founded on the basis of fostering a peaceful environment in which such human interactions could take place and that it has been spectacularly successful in securing the entirely laudable aim.

    Centralisation?

    Now this is where we need to define precisely what is meant by “centralisation”

    A decision uniformly impacting upon the entire single European economic space (which is specifically trade related – I’m assuming you support the concept of an economic space aimed at promoting trade?) must come from a central location – so that decision will be centralised by necessity. What is important here is that the decision should be taken in an open, transparent and accountable fashion. We can argue the merits of the current EU institutional architecture in delivering “political” solutions of this kind but the basic rationale supporting the idea of a politically motivated European tier of governance remains sound.

    Working on the assumption that you understand this explanation of the very basic rationale underpinning the European integration process (that’s not clear from your original contribution), the basic challenge is how to define which policy areas are appropriate for a European tier of governance to manage/control (in a democratically accountable manner) and which areas should remain within the remit of more immediate institutions.

    Now, I’m sorry to have to mention it but at this point I must introduce the dreaded “F word” into the discussion. Unfortunately, it is a routine misunderstanding of federalist principles poisoning much of the “European” debate. Use of the phrase “Federalist Superstate” is commonplace in anti-EU narratives but this betrays a fundamentally inaccurate assessment of this word and what it actually means. Federalism means, in essence, the allocation of governance to the most appropriate institutional tier or stage so it might mean centralising some areas of government activity but it might equally result in decentralising many others. I accept that the “appropriate” in this context opens up a huge area of potential dispute and I am happy to engage a debate about the appropriateness (or otherwise) of individual areas of government activity.

    From your contribution it is clear that you consider the traditional Nation State (UK?) as the best (maybe the only?) politically orientated structure for organising human society. There are many who disagree with that conclusion and this dissent comes not just from above – i.e. from a European perspective but also from below, i.e. sub-nation state, in the UK this might mean Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland but also the peripheral English Regions; South-West peninsula, North West, North East and Yorkshire, who all want a greater say in running their own affairs.

    The irony, specifically within the UK, is that we (British) continue to reside in a highly centralised, distinctly opaque, unaccountable (do you know who runs the hundreds of quangos spending billions of our tax money?) and bureaucratic (Whitehall based civil servants and advisors wield enormous influence within our organs of state) country in terms of its governance style.

    This observation on my part might be irrelevant but perhaps your (sub-conscious?) experience of the highly centralised form of government prevalent in the UK (I’m assuming you live in the UK?) has coloured your judgement somewhat?

    You claim that the threats we read about in various media output are perfectly compatible with Nation-State solutions. I don’t accept your analysis and again I am not alone in holding that viewpoint.

    You also claim that an engaged European populace would present a threat to the EU’s very existence. Again that depends on what you mean by “threat”. I would welcome an engaged public debate about the EU and what its purpose really is (that’s the debate we’re having right now). If by threat you mean this might result in radical reform of the EU’s institutional architecture, once again I would welcome that development because like you I am deeply critical of the form the EU has taken. In short if the EU could metamorphose into an intrinsically decentralised and clearly defined (by a constitution?) directly democratically accountable structure, no one would be happier than me.

    Contrary to your viewpoint, I believe that an engaged and informed (absolutely vital) European public will actually perceive many of the very real challenges faced by the human race in the forthcoming years and begin to accept the efficacy of addressing them through mechanisms outside the traditional nation-state remit. This realisation alone will probably carry more “threat” to the continued viability of individual member Nation States than the threat to the EU referred to in your contribution.

    Given what I believe to be these basic flaws in your reasoning it is very unlikely that you will ever fully endorse the rationale supporting the European integration process.

  5. Ralph Grahn,

    RG: “What you call fear of this and that can also be seen as challenges. When you look at the alternatives, the EU is potentially a force for good in the world.”

    Certainly, but is it actually a force for good? The EU is not a theory it is a practise. We have actual policy outcomes – the common agricultural policy (disaster), the European fisheries policy (an environmental and economic catastrophe), the euro – early results are mixed. I am amongst those who believe that the euro is an exposed way station on the road to complete economic integration. Its vulnerability requires the ECB to impose disciplines which penalise economic growth in the eurozone in order to establish it’s own critically important market credibility. Because it is incomplete it is a crash waiting to happen (as a single monetary policy governing an area of 14 untethered fiscal policies). The bet here is between those who believe that threats to the single currency will eventually compel members to surrender their rights to tax and borrow to the centre and those (like me) who bet that the currency will finally be sacrificed in order to defend sovereign fiscal policy.

    RG:”The founding principles and objectives of the European Union (especially in the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty) are admirable, but the structures and mechanisms to deliver faulty.”

    The motherhood sections lack the inspirational clarity of the US Constitution but they are adequate. I do not think they are superior to those laid out in various national constitutions.

    RG: “I think that you have a point about debate, votes and involvement not being wanted by the national political leaders and EU insiders. Instead, EU citizens are offered various ‘debates’, which are in essence PR exercises, and as such doomed to failure.”

    Quite

    RG: “Since the national leaders want to cling on to the basically intergovernmental structure of the EU, with supranational add-ons, only massive popular discontent seems to offer an opportunity to force a rethink.”

    R.G:”Alas, most populist resistance is based on a misconceived dream to return to the ‘halcyon days’ of national sovereignty and supremacy, instead of achieving EU level democracy for European level questions.”

    Is there such a thing as an “unpopulist” resistance? It may be worth noting here that, in my opinion, advocates of integration are very badly served by their all too frequent assumption of superiority. It may be that, as the EU is a top down project, “de haut en bas” provides the only possible political vernacular to its advocates. But there is plenty of political red meat in this debate and if you leave populism to sceptics you cannot be surprised if it is their views which enjoy growing popular support. Those who seek to manage the tax revenues of Sun readers had better get down and dirty if they want to maintain an uninterrupted future supply. Telling them, in effect, that their tax money is good enough to build a European future but their opinions aren’t is less than persuasive. It is also self destructive for integrationists to treat all scepticism as being made of whole “populist” cloth as this hampers an effective integrationist response to the reasonable and principled objections to EU integration which are also often made by sceptics. I make this as a personal observation about this debate in general and certainly do not impute any of these unfortunate views or attitudes to you.

  6. Peter Davidson,

    PD: “The goal of closer European integration (as currently manifested in EU form) was based on political motivations from the outset and I see nothing wrong with that. Politics is after all essentially concerned with the means through which humans interact and manage their relationships.”

    I agree that the EU project is, and always has been political and I also agree with you that it that, insofar as it necessary at all, it should be political. Where we may differ is that I think the EU represents a political regression away from the competitive politics of the open public arena to the politics of permanent power exercised in a closed court. So far from being a bold innovation for the politics of the 21st Century it is an extraordinarily successful attempt to restore the politics of the eighteenth century. Power is exercised by a permanent oligarchy of officials who issue ambiguous and Vatican style “Urbi et Orbi” pronouncements, made in the clerical Latin of our times. Many integrationists who concede this point think that these are unfortunate system bugs that can be fixed. I disagree – to those in charge these have always been seen as design features and they will not be fixed.

    It could be argued that as a super quango the EU centre is not a bad way to manage minor administrative matters on a European level. But the EU has long moved over the political event horizon and is now managing great swathes of policy. Competition policy, agriculture policy, fisheries policy, trade policy and, for those in the Euro, monetary policy and (far less successfully) a fiscal policy framework also. It has agreed plans to acquire competencies in justice, immigration, defence and foreign policy also. The EU has grown into a political giant but it is a political giant that is still operated by the brain of a bureaucratic pygmy.

    Critical policy has been moved from wide political participation via competitive political debate about objectives, costs and principles and has become instead a branch of management studies with board room battles resolved behind closed doors. Meanwhile the public are left to make the best of whatever consensus their rulers have arrived at, which is communicated to them under a “never apologise and never explain” PR ethos together with a finished policy product which completely binds them as law.

    So the problem with the EU is not that isn’t about political power (it is pre-eminently about political power) but that it has depoliticised political processes and elevated administrative processes and thereby elevated unelected officials over elected politicians. The demands of political ambition will no longer be satisfied at the hustings but in the secretariat.

    The appalling consequences of this political degradation are already apparent Europe wide. Vote however you may – Labour or Tory, CDU or SPD, Gaullist or Socialist but you will only get a pro EU party in power. This is why treaty ratifications that would be overwhelmingly rejected in referenda sail effortlessly through all these European legislatures. Parties pledged to referenda walk casually away from their electoral promise and strongarm any rebel party members who refuse to do so. The political bearpit is transformed on these occasions into a luvvies convention. Consensus abolishes all (public) ideological difference and trumps confrontation every time and the opposition (with the partial exception of Britain) becomes very loyal indeed! And why not – the route to real power no longer lies through the approval of the people and so promises made in Brussels now count for so much more than promises made on the voters doorstep.

    PD: “A decision uniformly impacting upon the entire single European economic space [-] so that decision will be centralised by necessity.[-] We can argue the merits of the current EU institutional architecture in delivering “political” solutions of this kind but the basic rationale supporting the idea of a politically motivated European tier of governance remains sound.”

    Only if we take it as given (which I do not) that such Europe wide cooperation is impossible outside extra territorial institutional structures with legal powers of compulsion such as those embodied by the EU. Europeans voluntarily co-operate in a vast array of areas. Nation states have signed treaties on asylum, human rights, defence, aid and development and space exploration. On an ongoing basis European countries cooperate with one another (and others) in central bank and treasury controls, currency rates, extradition, defence procurement, criminal records, environmental standards and intelligence. If, as you rightly go on to say, we want an optimal balance between the restrictions on sovereign freedom of action versus the benefits of international cooperation the remedy lies to hand – we can choose to cooperate under a treaty or just as a matter of administrative procedure – as much, or as little, as we like. The imposition of a central European authority is therefore a solution in desperate search of a cooperation problem to solve.

    PD: “From your contribution it is clear that you consider the traditional Nation State (UK?) as the best (maybe the only?) politically orientated structure for organising human society. There are many who disagree with that conclusion and this dissent comes not just from above – i.e. from a European perspective but also from below, i.e. sub-nation state, in the UK this might mean Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland but also the peripheral English Regions; South-West peninsula, North West, North East and Yorkshire, who all want a greater say in running their own affairs.”

    Up to point – the English North East famously rejected by referendum the creation of a regional tier of government. I certainly accept that the UK (like France) is a massively over centralised polity. I also accept that there are distinct regions and nations within the UK for whom Westminster is an arbitrary and remote source of law and policy. I have no hang up with Federalism and I would strongly support the introduction of a Swiss style bottom up federal structure to replace our current arrangements. It nonetheless seems counterintuitive to me to beg the powerlessness of these subgroups within the UK in aid of moving power even further up and out (from UK level to EU level). The EU is a super solution which will dissolve such regional identities more completely than the nation state. Furthermore Welsh or Scottish nationalists are big believers in the nation state – that is why they want one of their own. Other than as a tactical stick to beat nation states with the EU is no friend to the regional autonomy from it’s own directives and policy prerogatives.

    PD: “The irony, specifically within the UK, is that we (British) continue to reside in a highly centralised, distinctly opaque, unaccountable (do you know who runs the hundreds of quangos spending billions of our tax money?) and bureaucratic (Whitehall based civil servants and advisors wield enormous influence within our organs of state) country in terms of its governance style.”

    “This observation on my part might be irrelevant but perhaps your (sub-conscious?) experience of the highly centralised form of government prevalent in the UK (I’m assuming you live in the UK?) has coloured your judgement somewhat?”

    Man & boy I’ve been lucky enough to live in many different countries – so my subconscious (insofar as that is the default drive for my politics) has benefited from the input of a diverse data set. Again, my opposition to the over centralisation of power in the UK certainly does not conflict with my opposition to the centralisation of power in Europe. To the contrary in fact.

    PD: “You claim that the threats we read about in various media output are perfectly compatible with Nation-State solutions. I don’t accept your analysis and again I am not alone in holding that viewpoint.”

    Well, as you demonstrate here, this “not big enough for the job” argument against the continued autonomous existence of the nation state is more often declared than it is made. There is (usually) a complete lack of seriousness in the repetition of these lullaby’s of national doom and European salvation that only trivialise the integrationist position. For example what specific national failures has the EU actually rescued us from? Would our northern waters now be a vast marine desert (unlike little Norway’s) were it not for the European fisheries policy? Would our food be as expensive were it not for the common agriculture policy? Has our economy underperformed the eurozone average because we did not join the euro? Have our net contributions to the European budget been better controlled, accounted for and spent then they would have been if controlled from Whitehall? As for the aspirational objectives, (for example global warming) has the EU met it’s promised targets on CO2 emission reductions so far or has it’s relative performance since Kyoto actually been worse than that of the US which did not make any such fanfare pledges?

    PD: “You also claim that an engaged European populace would present a threat to the EU’s very existence. Again that depends on what you mean by “threat”. I would welcome an engaged public debate about the EU and what its purpose really is (that’s the debate we’re having right now). If by threat you mean this might result in radical reform of the EU’s institutional architecture, once again I would welcome that development because like you I am deeply critical of the form the EU has taken. In short if the EU could metamorphose into an intrinsically decentralised and clearly defined (by a constitution?) directly democratically accountable structure, no one would be happier than me.”

    PD “Contrary to your viewpoint, I believe that an engaged and informed (absolutely vital) European public will actually perceive many of the very real challenges faced by the human race in the forthcoming years and begin to accept the efficacy of addressing them through mechanisms outside the traditional nation-state remit. This realisation alone will probably carry more “threat” to the continued viability of individual member Nation States than the threat to the EU referred to in your contribution.”

    The insuperable problem for the project is that monopolising policy initiation in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats and leaving policy execution to politicians negotiating in secret (and remote from the usual levers of public political accountability) is, in terms of outcomes, an outstandingly bad government model. When it operates over a vast region it’s badness is only magnified. China’s slow death at the hands of generations of the mandarin class offers a clear historical rebuttal to the twin claims that bigger is better and that the man from the ministry always knows best.

    As for internationalising the domestic democratic battleground and introducing real accountability so that the EU retains the best of the nation states democratic governance. This is the challenge that is not only being inadequately addressed it is being actively subverted by the project’s leadership. It is impossible to ignore the fact that whilst national executives, national courts and especially national Parliaments are all being increasingly subordinated there is no compensatory political will to empower the European Parliament or insist that the Commission and Council be appointed by the legislature and that policy be initiated by elected politicians in the full glare of critical media scrutiny and only subsequently implemented by unelected officials.

    And even were such an agenda adopted (in the teeth of the opposition of all of the vested interests of the current euro management class) what answer can be given to the challenge that whilst you can invent a state and you can even put an elected parliament in its driving seat but you cannot claim that you have thereby created a people or a demos? What if the created united Europe does not become another United States but becomes instead a vast Belgium or Yugoslavia?

    Politicians and officials can only propose – It is only the people who can dispose.

    This is why gesturing in the direction of external threats such as global warming, globalisation etc. is so inadequate a substitute for the preservation, maintenance and extension of existing democratic accountabilities. These external threats do not justify the breaking of the contract between rulers and ruled which is the real basis for European peace and prosperity. The biggest threat to government by consent is not coming from the skies or from China – it is coming from Brussels.

    So the default implicit claims of the existing EU project are not only that we are entering a post nation state era (highly dubious) but that we are in a post democratic one also (complete and utter madness).

    PD: “Given what I believe to be these basic flaws in your reasoning it is very unlikely that you will ever fully endorse the rationale supporting the European integration process.”

    You will not be surprised to learn that I am not persuaded that my reasoning is flawed but you are right about my continuing opposition to the integration process.

    Tony Maher

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