The Future of European Union

15. 3. 2017

The binary logic of op-ed pages would have us choose between a “United States of Europe” and “Eurocalypse Now.” I rather suggest that neither fate awaits us: not a revolution; nor a break-up

Deciding on a date proved as difficult as deciding what to say. The British prime minister’s political address on Europe that, by sheer anticipation, grew into “The Speech,” had already been postponed several times when Number 10 discovered that the chosen day would now coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Franco-German Friendship Treaty, on Tuesday 22 January 2013. A sacrosanct affair, gatecrashing it might just prove one diplomatic affront too many. Bringing the event forward by a day would mean jostling for the limelight with the second inauguration of the American president, who that very week had warned the British prime minister that cutting links with Brussels would only reduce London’s clout in Washington. Opting for the apparently safe date of Friday 19 January and a venue in the Netherlands (preferring its capital Amsterdam over government seat The Hague, since that would allow his good friend the Dutch prime minister politely to keep his distance), he was forced by an escalating terrorist crisis in North Africa to re-postpone to the 23rd— at which point he decided that a packed room at the London office of an American news agency would do just as well. Thus, even before its leader had spoken, one thing had already become clear to the British public: an attempt to redefine the country’s relationship with the rest of Europe would not be without its constraints.

This is merely the most recent episode in a long, continent-wide story that is set to continue for many years to come, but nowhere do the key questions and contradictions in the European Union stand in such sharp relief as they do in the British debate. What is Europe for? It seems we are faced with a choice between two visions: either it is just a market, a service provider, a means to an end, something you can be practical about, or it is a political project, a dream, a promise, in some sense an end in itself, an emotional matter. Or is this the wrong way of looking at it?

What drives the Union and why is it moving at all? Some would point to a Brussels bureaucratic conspiracy, others to pragmatic readjustment in a fast-changing world, yet others to clueless collective drift. Then there is the ever-more fraught relationship between the Union and the peoples of Europe. Political leaders sometimes seem to vacillate between involving voters and avoiding any risk of public defiance. Some commentators suggest that decisions on the size and shape of cucumbers or on sardine quotas can be made without the whole democratic jamboree, but in that case how do such things come to spark fierce nationwide debates about sovereignty and democracy, about keeping control and having a say?

The eurozone crisis has exacerbated all these tensions, as well as making a better understanding of the stakes and probable outcomes more urgent than ever. Bankers and investors in the United States and China, trading partners across the globe, a British prime minister betting his future on new treaty negotiations—the whole world wants to know how Europe will get through this test.

The binary logic of op-ed pages would have us choose between a “United States of Europe” and “Eurocalypse Now.” Either the turmoil is forcing member states to make the “federal leap” so passionately wished for by a few—so the argument goes—or else all this intense activity aimed at ending the crisis merely marks the beginning of the end, a last firework before night comes down on the old continent. I rather suggest that neither fate awaits us: not a revolution, since Europe is patient; nor a break-up, since Europe is tough. The adventure of turning a continent into a Union, although spurred on by crises and dramas, is a slow affair, often taking paths that nobody had foreseen. Perhaps this should not surprise us. Even America has seen countless twists, turns, reverses, crises and fresh starts on its journey from 1776 to the present.

Recent experience will inevitably leave its mark, all the more so for being painful. From now on nobody in the eurozone can ignore the fact that Greek mendacity, Spanish exuberance or Irish recklessness may affect their own job prospects, retirement or savings. This is not just to say that economies are interdependent. In 2011, a vote on the euro in the Slovak parliament made the headlines all over Europe, as did an election result in Finland, the announcement of a referendum in Greece and, a year later, a ruling by Germany’s Constitutional Court and a decision by the European Central Bank. In 2013, national elections in Italy, with high stakes and a formidable cast, as well as those of the Union’s powerhouse Germany, are followed with intense interest across the continent. The discovery that all euro countries share a destiny certainly creates tensions, but the political will of both leaders and peoples to stay together has proven stronger than many predicted—or are able to explain.

As the past sixty years have amply shown, the Union disposes of unique political glue. The adhesive may be invisible, but it works, and underestimating it can come at a cost (in real money for those traders who bet on the break-up of the euro in 2012 and lost hundreds of millions of dollars). By making both the Union’s cohesive force and its inner contradictions more palpable, recent events help us to approach the future, first of all by resolving misunderstandings and recasting the terms of the debate. Two elements stand out: Driving forces of Europe, and the need for public consent. The two are linked: nothing has fuelled people’s suspicion of Europe more than the niggling sense that change is being forced upon them as part of a Brussels plot.

To anyone who regularly reads their country’s newspapers, national politics appears as a constant stream of surprises, setbacks and scandals, often with utterly unanticipated outcomes. It is clear to all that, in a democratic setting, far less ever goes according to plan than they might fear or hope. Europe, a club of volatile democracies, is no different.

Momentum originates in an unpredictable series of decisions, often by national leaders grappling with events both at home and abroad and forced to deal with them jointly, sometimes with obvious reluctance. This political interplay offers a more plausible explanation than either the pseudo-logic of integration theory and federalist teleology or the Eurosceptic worldview of evil conspiracies and Brussels-led schemes to impose foreign rule. Since the Greek maelstrom became evident in early 2010, certainties have evaporated and taboos have been violated, red lines crossed and rules rewritten. Dragged along by necessity, prodded by conflicts of interest and clashes between political cultures in which no one has been able to claim authorship of an overall plan or a common vision, the Union is dealing with the shock in ways that are deeply instructive.

Pulling the “emergency brake” sometimes works, but the pressure of events can be such that it is simply impossible—as a famously inflexible British prime minister discovered. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she fought for a year against the forces of continental change (“No, no, no!”), only to meet her downfall as a result. It seems cleverer, as her successor has recognized after seeing how ineffective his veto was at an ill-tempered summit in December 2011, to make the most of evolutions and try to get something out of them.

In this particular case, London endorsed change and even encouraged its partners to pursue further eurozone integration, yet remained irritated by the amount of diplomatic energy being spent on preventing a “dangerous monetary experiment” from ending in catastrophe, rather than on the business of jointly delivering prosperity. While its partners struggled, London repeatedly insisted that the single market must remain ‘at the heart’ of the Union, but the reality is that with the single currency the Union has acquired a “second heart,” and most other governments consider it vital to keep both of them beating, even if they do not agree on how exactly to achieve this.

To the majority of member countries it seems natural for Europe to evolve over time, a view embodied in the infamous words “ever closer union,” present from the start. In contesting this vision, the one European country without a written constitution often invokes the letter of

the Treaty, whereas for many on the continent it is the spirit that counts—a spirit best summarized as “advancing together.” But when it comes to “doing stuff together,” this vaguely-defined togetherness can at crucial moments become more important than the stuff itself. So when British politicians complain that their partners are “changing the rules of the club,” they miss the point: Europe was—and is—always destined to be a club with ever-changing rules.

There is a good reason for this. No project, no treaty can anticipate the creativity of history, let alone prepare an adequate response. The founding states’ idea of anchoring Europe in a system of rules, which they hoped would provide some civility and predictability to relations between them, was a visionary plan after the long, double world war of 1914–45. This strategy reveals its limitations each time new challenges arise and the member states feel the need to confront them jointly. That is the source of the tension, throughout the past six decades, between the desire for certainty and the need to face up to change. It explains why Europe is a club that loves rules and keeps changing its own.

Even the briefest glance at the Union’s past shows how improbable it is that we have ended up where we are today—an observation that has huge implications for how we approach its future. Today we are not in a period of flux after which things will settle down (as some seem to hope). Global economic and technological change, shifts in the geopolitical landscape, the march of neighboring peoples towards democratic equality—all these slow trends can have sudden repercussions. Events will continue to produce surprises, and will need to be dealt with one way or another.

This brings us to the second issue about which the terms of the debate need to be recast: the need for public support. In The Speech, the British prime minister asked for Europe “both to deliver prosperity and to retain the support of its peoples,” which immediately makes clear that in his mind, even if the Union were merely a market, political choices would still be involved and democratic accountability needed. This rather casts doubt upon the usefulness of the distinction between Europe as a means and as an end.

Roughly speaking, for the past sixty years there have been three main goals of European cooperation: peace, prosperity and power. All member states subscribe to each of these three ends, albeit with varying degrees of intensity. There are variations that occur over time—it is no secret that the peace motif, decisive at the post1945 founding, has worn thin in Western Europe, whereas the globalization challenge of acting jointly in the world has gained in importance— but variations also occur between states: some countries have emphasized economic motives, concentrating on growth and prosperity, while others seemed more attracted by the political goals of continental stability, entrenched democracy and global influence. It is not always possible to distinguish precisely between the two, another point confirmed during the eurozone crisis: Berlin’s decision to avoid a Greek euro exit was motivated by both financial and political concerns. Moreover, even the economic goal of prosperity requires very political means to achieve it, including the art of convincing the public.

The advantage of portraying Europe as a practical means, a tool for achieving results, is obvious: everything becomes technocratic, so we should all be able to agree. The politics of it is masked. The single market—cherished by the British, but also by the Dutch and the Scandinavians— is the cornerstone of this pragmatic approach. At first sight, a market resembles such inoffensive things as a customs union or a free trade area. The fact is, however, that building a market, unlike creating a free trade area, continually requires new legislation, which even if mostly technical, at times involves deeply political choices. In Europe’s Internet economy, who decides the rules on consumer privacy? If a British family moves to France to set up a bed and breakfast, will the parents and children be able to access local hospitals and schools? What about their Polish and Lithuanian fellow-travelers back in the UK? If there is a European market for financial services, who will pick up the tab when a bank goes belly-up? These political implications were precisely why the British walked out of the first market negotiations, back in 1955. A market is not a factory delivering results (‘press the growth button’); rather, it is a playing field for economic interests, its shape defined by political decisions and choices that often result from fierce negotiations and conflicts.

This is where the trouble starts: how to muster public support for market legislation when a government can be outvoted by its partners? After all, in the Union, political battles take place both within countries (between industry and trade unions, for instance) and between countries (as when some advocate protectionism and others prioritize cheaper imports). Even if most European decisions are packaged as compromises, there may be situations in which a country clearly ends up on the losing side. How to explain that at home?

Compare this to national politics. Every day any national government—in Poland, say— takes decisions that can be contested to varying degrees by opposition parties, be disliked by voters, even trigger protests or strikes. As a general rule, however, even the protesters accept the legitimacy of the Polish government itself. They might want the Polish prime minister to leave office tomorrow, but they would still consider him “our (infuriating) prime minister” and speak of ‘our (disappointing) parliament’ and “our (bad) laws.” Political identity trumps the outcome of the political process. This is clearly the weak spot in Europe’s case. Few people, and not only in Britain, consider European decisions to be “our” decisions or European politicians ‘our representatives.” (Tellingly, in most countries “our commissioner” refers only to the one national among the European commissioners, while members of the European Parliament are often seen as representatives of ‘Brussels’ rather than as speaking for ‘us’ out there.) Yet this feeling of ownership—incredibly difficult to grasp, let alone to create—is exactly what is needed to confer legitimacy on joint decisions. Results are important, but they can never do the trick on their own, both because bad times may follow good and because outcomes are often the product of a political battle. This is one reason why the absence of a national veto increases the challenge.

In recasting the terms of the debate, an indispensable first step is to acknowledge that the European game is not taking place primarily on Brussels terrain. European politics is played out between the governments, parliaments, jurisdictions and populations of all the member states. Ultimately, the circle of members comes before the Union. Europe cannot be reduced to a square mile of buildings in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg.

Luuk van Middelaar

Political analyst and historian, Luuk van Middelaar is the author Te Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union (Yale University Press 2013, paperback released on 5 June), winner of the European Book Prize 2012. He worked in Te Hague and Brussels and has been the speechwriter to the European Council President since 2010. He writes in his personal capacity.

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