The Prime Minister's proposals might be just what the Union needsby Anand Menon / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Twelve things you need to know about Brexit
Consider the following news report: “The leaders of the… European Union nations went home after a failed two-day summit meeting in anger and in shame, as domestic politics and national interests defeated lofty notions of sacrifice and solidarity for the benefit of all… the failure of the summit meeting laid bare the deep divide with the European Union.” Such criticisms of the EU are commonplace right now. Yet its problems are of older provenance—that report appeared in the New York Times in 2005.
But this crisis may be the worst yet, as the EU grapples with problems such as migration, terrorism and the rise of Eurosceptic parties. Any political system would struggle to deal with so many challenges on this scale. And the EU is arguably more constrained than any other such system, fragmented as it is both in Brussels between different institutions vying for authority, and between those institutions and member-states anxious to preserve their power.
Such fragmentation is built into the EU. Its origins lie in the end of the Second World War, and thus it was designed to prevent hegemony by diffusing rather than concentrating power. The roots of this crisis, though, can be traced to the early 1990s, when member states resorted to what might be called “competence dumping.” Confronting problems to which, individually, they could find no easy solutions, they turned to the EU for answers. Yet they did this at the very moment when their tolerance for handing power to Brussels was wearing thin. What resulted was partial integration in key policy areas—something that is coming back to haunt them.
Sensible suggestions for improvement can be found in an unlikely source. For all his rhetoric on the EU, David Cameron only embarked on his “renegotiation” for domestic (read: Conservative Party) reasons (today he will reiterate them at a crunch summit in Brussels). Yet alongside the flannel—token moves on benefits that won’t affect migrant numbers—his proposals include ideas that would move the EU in the right direction. Despite their limited relevance for the Brexit referendum, they merit being taken seriously.
From its creation in the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the European Community hardly impinged on people or politics at the national level. Integration took place under the radar. The single market launched in 1987 changed this. The Community began to intrude more directly in political and economic life. No longer could politicians sign up to European integration safe in the knowledge that their electorates would neither know nor care.
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At the same time, the successes of the Community ratcheted up expectations in Brussels. Commission President Jacques Delors began to cause consternation with his ambitious rhetoric. In a widely publicized speech before the European Parliament in 1988, he claimed that, within ten years, “80 per cent of our economic legislation and perhaps even our fiscal and social legislation as well, will be of Community origin.” This would not be the last time that a Europhile did more to incite distrust of integration than any Eurosceptic propaganda.
There were rumblings of discontent about Brussels in the late 1980s, most notably in Margaret Thatcher’s infamous Bruges speech of 1988. These merely rose in volume as the Commission President became more outspoken and as both the European Court and the Commission began enforcing the single market. In the UK, unease was symbolised by the “Up Yours Delors” front-page headline of The Sun in 1990. Yet such sentiments were not limited to Britain. Several member states challenged Commission interventions in areas such as culture, education and public health. And national politicians began to speak of the need to rein in the EC institutions.
Then came the end of the Cold War. The problems it spawned—new relationships with central and Eastern Europe, violence in the former Yugoslavia, illegal migration and organized crime—eluded national solutions. In July 1989, member states gave the Commission the task of co-ordinating assistance to the newly liberated states of Central and Eastern Europe. This was the first in a long line of decisions that entrusted the EC with problems that member states either couldn’t or didn’t want to tackle.
Yet this move came at the same time as suspicion of the EC institutions was increasing. It was in this context that the member states met at Maastricht, and both tendencies are apparent in the document that emerged. On the one hand, the treaty significantly expanded the scope of integration to cover areas such as monetary union, justice and home affairs, and a common foreign and security policy.
On the other hand, the treaty also reflected growing member-state unease. Hence the introduction of a new structure, with the Commission being supplemented by separate pillars for justice and home affairs and the common foreign and security policy. This was intended to rein in the supranational institutions and to establish member-state control over new and politically sensitive areas. Decision making here would be by unanimity, with a minimal role for the European Commission.
“Eurozone members have not had the tools they needed to deal with the sovereign debt crisis”
The member states had not so much empowered the EU as dumped competences on it without giving it the power or authority to act effectively. And the three areas where this was most true—fiscal policy, justice and home affairs (including migration) and foreign policy—are those where the EU today finds itself most hamstrung.
The Maastricht Treaty was eventually ratified. However, initial defeat in a referendum in Denmark in 1992, along with an uncomfortably close outcome in France, ought to have alarmed politicians far more. Instead, member states continued to spawn European initiatives in new areas such as defence, despite growing public disenchantment.
The effects of incomplete integration are all too apparent in recent crises. Eurozone members have not had the tools they needed to deal with the sovereign debt crisis. The lack of a centralised fiscal policy, of a Eurozone budget and of effective mechanisms for risk sharing are a direct result of the reluctance of member states to cede more than the absolute minimum of power to the EU.
Similarly, when it comes to the migration crisis, ultimate authority rests with member states. Attempts by the EU to introduce measures, such as the quotas suggested by the Commission, have fallen foul of profound divisions among them. Different approaches to migration, different arrangements for border controls, and, of course different levels of exposure to the flows of migrants mean that, in the absence of an enforcement mechanism at the European level, rhetorical initiatives will remain just that. Thus, the Visegrad bloc opposes Juncker’s relocation scheme, while other countries such as Austria, Denmark, and Sweden have re-imposed Schengen borders.
Finally, incomplete integration was also apparent in the foreign policy crisis in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood. In the run-up to the Vilnius summit that saw Ukraine fail to sign up to a trade agreement, European policies towards the region had been badly co-ordinated at best. While the Union persisted with its technocratic approach, some member states made little secret of their support for eventual EU membership for Ukraine. Meanwhile, the larger western member-states essentially left it up to others. Ultimate responsibility for the failure lies in Moscow and not Brussels, but the existence of several European foreign policies again played a damaging role.
The EU’s responses to the recent crises illustrate the way in which integration in areas of high political salience has eroded trust between member states. The sense that the EU works well for some while imposing high costs on others has been reinforced. As trust declines, so too does the prospect of collaborative action, while the temptation to play at anti-EU populist politics increases.
These factors also lie behind the British referendum. Rightly or wrongly, there are those in the UK who feel it has got a raw deal from membership. While the situation in Britain is unique, the lack of enthusiasm for European integration is beginning to be mirrored elsewhere.
The answer to our problems is not simply more integration. Certainly, further delegation of power to the EU might be more efficient. But politics is not simply about efficiency. Just because a particular solution promises optimal policy outcomes does not make it necessarily desirable.
“The European Parliament is not up to the task of ensuring the legitimacy of the EU”
Neither fiscal federalism, an integrated migration policy, nor a single European foreign policy are about to emerge anytime soon. Member states simply could not agree on such ambitious steps. Where member-states want more integration, they want it in different areas and in contradictory ways. Debtor states want risk sharing. Creditors want safeguards to avoid excessive spending. On migration, member states are divided between the beleaguered southern countries, the generous northerners who are taking in more than their fair share, the eastern countries who have no desire to admit Muslims, and the free-riders like Britain who simply turn a blind eye. And on foreign policy, where to start? The divisions are almost as numerous as the problems.
Even if further integration were achievable, it would not be desirable. Voters, and their governments, have reached the end of their appetite for ever more Europe. Eurosceptic political forces are on the rise in many member states. One of the core problems is the EU’s lack of democratic accountability. The European Parliament is not up to the task of ensuring the legitimacy of the EU. The idea that Brussels could expand its powers, buttressed only by the legitimacy provided by the Parliament, is a recipe for disaster.
“the idea that the European Union requires “ever closer union” must be challenged—but not via an opt-out for Britain or another meaningless quick fix”
Rather than ever more centralisation, the path to a more effective and legitimate European Union lies in ensuring greater involvement of member-states in its activities. It is precisely a perception that “they” in Europe impose things on “us” the citizens that has contributed to the EU’s malaise. And here David Cameron’s much maligned renegotiation of the terms of British membership throws up some interesting ideas.
First, his idea that national parliaments play a greater role in EU decision-making. The creation of an organic link between EU action and national parliamentarians would make it harder for them to attack the EU with impunity. National politicians must become genuine and obvious stakeholders in the European integration process. Only then will the incentives for them to treat the EU as cavalierly as they do decrease.
Second, the idea that the European Union is a one-way process of “ever closer union” needs to be challenged. Not via an opt-out for Britain or another meaningless quick fix, but by political leaders engaging in a serious debate about where integration is both necessary and possible, and where it is not.
And finally, we may need to stop thinking in terms of a “European project.” European integration should not be seen as some great adventure embarked on by our leaders in our name. It should be a practical attempt to allow a collection of small and medium-sized states to do together things they could not achieve alone. Let us welcome the prosaic, and with it a more rational, politically reasonable and ultimately more effective approach to European integration.
Now read: Cameron’s EU deal is wafer thin, but that’s not the point
Anand Menon is Director of UK in a Changing Europe