The end of the European Union

About the author
Gwyn Prins is professor in the European Institute at the London School of Economics.

For the first time, fear really stalks the Rue de la Loi in Brussels, headquarters of the European Commission. It is visceral. We know this because of the increasingly hysterical register of the messages in which the commissioners are sending French and Dutch voters preparing (in their referenda on 29 May and 1 June respectively) to vote down the treaty establishing a federal constitution. If you do so, the European Union nomenklatura is saying, you will return Europe to economic disaster, internecine war or (most tastelessly and least forgivably) another Holocaust. It is ridiculous hyperbole and therefore all the more demanding of explanation. How did it come to this?

I watched, in voyeuristic fascination, the first two-hour television debate between the French protagonists on 16 May. Each side reached opposite conclusions from the same assumptions: that essential French interests were under mortal threat; that enlargement has already gone too far; that Turkish membership was out of the question. As voices rose, it sounded like a collective nervous breakdown.

My guess (and hope) is still that we will see a “Maastricht yes” in France: a vote for the constitution, but by the slimmest of margins. Perhaps President Chirac, like Francois Mitterrand in a similar predicament, will announce prostate cancer on polling eve. The “yes” camp may yet triumph, but it is a close call.

After two recent visits to Holland, it looks to me increasingly likely that the Dutch too will vote “no” - also for a mixture of reasons, though in their case much closer to English ones. There is no appetite in Holland for federal union; much anger about having been taken for granted in the past and, now, by the most unpopular Dutch government for a generation; and mistrust of the French. A French “yes” and a Dutch “no” would mean that Tony Blair cannot escape his referendum in Britain; and a “no” there would write the obituary of the European federal project that is now – in any case – so plainly dying.

A dying fall

What a difference fifteen years can make! In 1990 the European Community (as it was then called) was still doing, more or less, what it had been intended to do since 1957: in essence, to ensure that the skilful French rider could ride the sturdy German horse, in Charles de Gaulle’s celebrated description (with, one might add, the Dutch and British stable-lads paying the bill for the cheerful French peasant to grow the fodder).

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union’s future:

Frank Vibert, “French referendum lessons

Krzysztof Bobinski, “Poland’s letter to France: please say ‘oui!’

Johannes Willms, “The big fear: the European constitution divides France

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In 1991 the rider fell off. The occasion was the death of Yugoslavia. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s foreign minister, insisted that his newly-reunited country pursue an active foreign policy for the first time since 1945. Along with his Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, he forced the European Union in January 1992 to recognise two republics of fragmenting Yugoslavia – Croatia and Slovenia – as sovereign states.

Many other European capitals, and Washington, had grave doubts about this move. London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam were convinced – correctly, as it turned out – that this would lead to a Balkan civil war. The Germans insisted, and won; John Major, the British prime minister, consented to the decision after having secured from Kohl in exchange an “opt out” from the Maastricht Treaty’s “social chapter”.

The shock of German heavy-handedness and EU foreign-policy rudderlessness and division were the stimulus to accelerated federal steps in the 1990s. Some were taken on autopilot: the Brussels machine is programmed to legislate as a spider is to spin its web. Thus the Gulliver-like achievement of the single market was tied down by the myriad Lilliputian threads of the acquis communautaire legislation, advancing stealthily into ever-wider areas of member-states’ national life (especially under cover of “heath and safety” and “environment” regulation).

Among the historic errors of this period – when the heaviest-footed drivers were in Paris rather than Berlin – was the introduction of the single currency: a premature decision that has been severely punished by the capital markets, where the euro is now effectively traded as a debauched currency.

France and Germany’s violation of the fiscal rules they signed up to elicited the just fury of the Dutch, who had surrendered the second-strongest European currency (after the Swiss Franc) in a community-minded spirit, only to discover that the translation of communautaire was “French national interest”. The Netherlands everywhere experienced small-item price inflation (compare the price of a cup of coffee in lira or guilders and now euro).

Then came Giscard d’Estaing’s extravagant federal constitution, which may yet prove to be the bridge too far. [The definitive insider’s account of the gestation of the bizarre, constipated text written by Giscard and Sir John Kerr is by Britain’s principal parliamentary member of the drafting group: Gisela Stuart, The Making of Europe’s Constitution (Fabian Society, December 2003).]

This brutal acceleration of the European Union project in the post-1990 period has leaked so much legitimacy from it that it now starts to resemble that other superannuated, elite-created, imposed federal union “project” also conceived in Europe in the same period (1910s-20s): the Soviet Union.

One of John Kenneth Galbraith’s most ingenious contributions to social knowledge was his observation that above a certain size, large organisations replace their original motivation (for example, profit) with the goal of integrated control of its entire operating environment, and that they hide this pursuit of unaccountable power behind a myth of its opposite.

By the same token, neo-absolutist political institutions like the EU depend upon the maintenance of a fiction of democratic accountability. The claim is periodically challenged by the public refusal to vote for the European Parliament – hardly surprising when the parliamentarians vote to continue inflating their expenses, when an entire commission has to resign over corrupt practices, when the organisation as a whole fails to produce reliable, honest financial accounts, and when “whistleblowers” like Paul van Buitenen and Marta Andreasen are excommunicated and threatened.

The fundamental issue is that the EU, like the failed Soviet experiment, cannot meet Alexis de Tocqueville’s tests of democratic legitimation. The organisation is trapped by the local effects of a worldwide crisis of institutional trust, and a breakdown in the essence of the social contract between citizen and state.

The French effort to mount the German horse – an exercise first conceived in hope by Aristide Briand, Jean Monnet and Arthur Salter in reaction to the slaughter of Verdun and the Somme – is newly exposed as bloated and unlovely. The “European Union” is just another episode – now drawing to a close – in the long history of Europe and its peoples. It has no inherent identity except in the minds and worldview of the Brussels elite who depend on it for their privilege and power.

Least of all is the “EU” coterminous with Europe. The Eurobarometer opinion surveys reveal that the generational gradient of affinity to a primary European identity is the reverse of what Monnet and his colleagues expected in 1945. They were the strongest enthusiasts for the federal project; the soixante-huitards (like me) were still keen, but less so; “Generation X” and today’s rising 20-somethings are just not interested. They take for granted the four basic qualifications for successful modern living: convenience of travel, the universal need to speak English, computer and mobile phone skills, and car-driving. And they feel Dutch, English, French, German or Italian, first of all.

The castle is all lit up; the flag is flying, the wardens peer out anxiously, but the people aren’t at home. It is not what many would have predicted in 1991.