Can Europe Make It?

Special deal, root and branch reform or Brexit? Cameron’s EU-policy - a sceptical view from Germany

The concessions which Britain will be granted today in negotiations with Brussels and Berlin may well turn out to be self defeating in the long run, because they will marginalise Britain. 

Ronald G. Asch
25 May 2015
Wellington and Blucher meet during Battle of Waterloo, 1815.

Wellington and Blucher meet during Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Wikicommons/ artist William Heath, 1819. Some rights reserved. With Cameron’s somewhat surprising victory in the general election, the prospect of Britain leaving the EU is no longer a distant possibility; on the contrary if Cameron has nothing to show for his efforts in negotiating a new deal for Britain over the next year or so and is unable to prove that Britain will be able to safeguard her sovereignty against further interference from Brussels in the future the majority of voters in the UK may well vote for leaving the EU altogether in a referendum which Cameron has promised to hold.

For Germany this would be a major nightmare. Although Britain has never been an easy partner for Berlin at the EU negotiating table, a Europe without the United Kingdom would be dominated ever more by governments which are sceptical about free trade, want to fight globalisation by protectionism and which believe in creating economic growth by state intervention and by paying out generous subsidies to potentially non-profitable industries, subsidies for which the German taxpayer would eventually have to foot the bill, or so Berlin fears.

On the other hand a major treaty change to accommodate British wishes is fraught with enormous problems and would allow impoverished southern countries which rightly or wrongly want more financial support from Brussels or Berlin to blackmail the German government, because without their assent such changes would be impossible to implement. 

This is a complicated situation and it is made even more complicated by the fact that nobody quite knows what Cameron really wants. A curb on unrestricted immigration and on what is somewhat polemically called ‘benefit tourism’ is certainly high on the agenda, but the Tories clearly also want some sort of guarantee against further interference from Brussels in general. The EU is to abandon the objective of creating an ever closer union – at least as far as Britain and other non-Euro states are concerned -  and of transforming the European nation states ultimately into mere provinces of a centralised political entity governed from Brussels. The British position can perhaps be summed up in the words, ‘the power of Brussels has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished’ to quote a famous motion tabled in the House of Commons in 1780 – referring, of course, at the time to the influence of the crown, not that of some far away super state.

In theory this is at present probably a sentiment shared in a vague way by many voters throughout Europe, not just in countries such as France which have often defended their sovereignty against Brussels, but also for example in the Netherlands which used to be much more EU-friendly in the past.

However as bad luck will have it there is one man in Europe who is passionately opposed to abandoning the ideal of an ever closer union as a guiding principle for European politics. This is Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful German minister of finance who will be one of the most important negotiating partners for the British government. Schäuble seems to be genuinely convinced like a number of other politicians from his party, the CDU, that only a United Europe with all the powers of a genuine state can hold its own in the fierce global competition with countries such as China or the US.

Furthermore like many Germans of his generation he believes that it is Germany’s real historical mission to vanish as a nation and be submerged in a yet to be created United States of Europe. Of course Schäuble still hopes that the future homo Europaeus – the ideal European citizen - who no longer identifies strongly with any individual nation will think and behave in many ways like a typical German at least as far as economic matters are concerned. This is Schäuble’s hope not because he is such a strong nationalist, the opposite is true at least by any conventional standards, but because he is  - somewhat naively -  convinced that the German economic model just happens to be the best and most perfect in Europe.

Whatever one may think about this European vision, if there is one country in Europe where it is definitely rejected by most people (at least south of the Tweed) it is Britain, both in its pro-European and its more specifically Germanic aspects.

So how can there be common ground between Osborne and Cameron on the one side and Schäuble and Merkel (who mostly backs her finance minister in these matters not having any strong political ideas of her own unless her survival is at stake)?

Compromise in the offing?

However, a compromise may not be as difficult to achieve as one would be tempted to assume. If one believes media reports Schäuble is prepared to grant Britain even more generous opt out clauses on all sorts of issues than the UK enjoys at the moment. European markets for services might also be liberalised and deregulated more than they are now, something Westminster has insisted on for a long time. At the same time Schäuble hopes for a more stable fiscal union among Euro Zone members which for him essentially means tighter budget controls and the need for individual countries to co-ordinate their economic and welfare policies with Brussels.

Countries like France and Italy and even more so Spain, Portugal and Greece would probably demand in return more financial support - to be financed out of a special budget for the Eurozone -  for their economy and the vast number of unemployed seeking work.

Theoretically such an arrangement, more money for the deficit countries, more supervision of spendthrift governments and more sovereignty for non-Euro countries could keep everybody happy. So where is the snag? For Germany the great drawback would be that governments in Paris and Rome could as they have done in the past, starting with the Maastricht treaty, sign any number of agreements but would not be very likely in a moment of real crisis to stick to the stipulations of such treaties. Their voters would not allow them to do so and why should they pay more than fleeting respect to mere pieces of papers anyhow? There is no power within the EU which could force the greater European states - smaller countries such as Greece or Portugal are an entirely different matter - to impose unpopular budget cuts on their populations for example, apart perhaps from the ECB where, however, the influence Germany and the other northern countries enjoy is very limited indeed these days. So Germany would make concessions without really getting anything in return as it did when the legal framework for the Euro was first designed in the early 1990s.

Think twice, Cameron

That of course should be of no concern to Cameron, on the contrary. But nevertheless such a compromise may not be as beneficial to Britain as it may seem at first glance. If the Eurozone continues to follow the path leading to an ever closer union, and this is what Schäuble and other politicians who truly believe in monetary union want, then Britain will become ever more the odd man out within the EU.

True enough, other smaller countries such as Denmark and Sweden may follow Westminster in their approach to politics in Brussels: try to preserve the advantages of the single market and free trade but avoid all other commitments which might lead to a (further) loss of sovereignty. 

But if such an approach is successful, Britain will be perceived by the members of the Eurozone ever more as a country which just wants a free ride; this will inevitably diminish British influence in Brussels, a process which has already gained a considerable momentum of its own since the beginning of the Euro crisis.

One might say, given the fact that all Britain wants from Europe is free access to European markets, this does not matter all that much. If that were true relations between Switzerland and Brussels would not be as complicated and marked by conflict as they are at the moment. If the Eurozone continues to become more integrated, more like a true state, raising for example taxes of its own on financial transactions (plans for such a tax are discussed from time to time in Brussels), Britain will be affected by such measures for better or worse, and no agreement on British privileges drawn up now can entirely safeguard the UK against further European legislation (difficult to anticipate in its details anyhow today) designed to impose a framework of unitary rules on individual states and demanding ever more power sharing among them.

In the end Brussels will say: if you want access to our markets you have to play by the rules regardless of what privileges you may have obtained in the past. That is the situation facing Switzerland now regarding immigration, which Swiss citizens want to limit once and for all.

Analysts aware of this problem, such as the think tank Open Europe, advocate a root and branch reform of EU institutions, which would give for example national parliaments much more influence on European decisions and would make it much easier for a minority among European governments to stop legislation which at the moment can be pushed through by the Commission provided a qualified majority of member states supports such measures.  However, such wideranging reforms would probably require a treaty change which can easily be blocked by any member state and is therefore difficult to achieve, as has already been emphasized.

Many Tories in Britain have therefore already given up on any overall reform of the EU and prefer a mere special deal for Britain, a wholesale opt out arrangement on most contentious issues. Others, including a sizeable minority of the parliamentary party and even some cabinet ministers such as – possibly -  Sajid Javid, support a Brexit. Their attitude to the Eurozone in particular can be summed up in the words ‘let them go to hell in their own way’ (as long as we don’t have to join them), a mixture of tolerance and contempt, which is perhaps in line with the traditional attitude of Englishmen and –women when confronted by the strange and outlandish customs of exotic tribes and the uncouth and barbaric manners of foreign rulers and potentates.

However such a mixture of disdain and complacency can be dangerous – unless one assumes a Brexit to be desirable or at least inevitable anyhow. If Britain really wants to remain part of the EU but prevent further encroachments on her sovereignty, there is no alternative to a structural reform of the EU.

The relentless drive for ‘enlightened reform’ imposed from above within the EU, eroding national legal and constitutional systems and the power of national parliaments to solve problems on their own, needs to be stopped.

One would need to take seriously the principle of subsidiarity, which at the moment is a mere face-saving device utterly ignored in practice by the Commission and the Parliament. The Commission and even more so the MEPs but also the European Court of Justice - forever favouring centralising policies in its judgements - would need to change their long term objectives.

At the moment despite all the problems, ill thought out and hastily implemented measures for making the EU more homogeneous are still under way having been created from the early 1990s onwards. The spirit and ethos of the major European institutions is still the same as 20 or 30 years ago. Everything that creates more unity and erodes national autonomy is good in itself and very rarely questioned by the majority of MEPs or by the members of the Commission, although the latter are appointed by their home countries. Most go native very soon once they are in Brussels.

National governments sometimes take a different line of course and are very reluctant to accept the Brussels’ line whenever this means that they have to shoulder greater financial burdens or sell policies to their voters which are blatantly unpopular, like for example accepting more refugees instead of sending them to other European countries.

But on other issues where voters are less touchy or less likely to notice that real power is increasingly being moved to Brussels, national governments are more likely to support the unifying policies of the Commission and the EU Parliament, in particular when this allows them to implement on the sly policies for which they can not easily find a majority among their own voters under normal circumstances.

At the national level it can be a great advantage if you are able to say: we have no choice, Brussels has made a decision which we cannot question, much as we regret it, thus passing the buck to the unpopular Eurocrats who cannot be voted out of office. That after all is what the post-democratic regime of decision making in Brussels is about. That’s the beauty of it, and for professional politicians it would be foolhardy to sacrifice all that is most attractive about Brussels.

Among citizens, however, who take a dim view of the entire idea of European unification as such because they take pride in their own national constitutional traditions and liberties or because they are just not cosmopolitan and enlightened enough (depending on what perspective you favour)  – and there are very many such unenlightened sceptics in England – the EU seems ever more like a vast Golem smashing its way relentlessly through the maze of national traditions, replacing diversity by the rules which the higher wisdom of MEPs and Eurocrats thinks fit to impose on European subjects.

To stop this Golem – if we accept this vision for a moment -  one would need to remove the parchment with God’s name from its mouth in a manner of speaking. But that is easier said than done and it is questionable whether Cameron will find many allies in the EU should he really attempt to block the project of an ever closer union, not just in so far as it concerns Britain but also Europe as a whole.

Looking for such allies in Germany may be a particularly arduous task, as sceptical discussions of the EU and its objectives (unless they take place behind closed doors) are still frowned upon in the Federal Republic despite or perhaps because of the on-going Euro crisis.

German politicians mostly follow the line as far as the EU is concerned: Don’t touch it, it could fall apart, fragile as it is. Whoever dares to break this taboo is immediately attacked as a chauvinist, a man of the past and as somebody who favours ‘Kleinstaaterei’ (a Europe of quaint old fashioned micro-states and petty political fiefdoms which would be unable to survive on their own).

And conveniently for politicians like Schäuble the only party really sceptical about the cause of an ever closer European union in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland is just about to tear itself apart, having chosen the path of self destructive internal conflict for reasons which are difficult to fathom. It is quite uncertain whether it will survive its present crisis. So wherever Cameron will find allies for a major retrenchment of EU powers, Germany is not a place where he is likely to be very lucky in his search.

Nevertheless a fundamental reform of the EU transforming the inherent ethos of the European institutions would be the only policy which would allow the UK to participate in future European policy discussions on equal terms with other countries which are part of the Euro zone and do not enjoy the benefit of the generous opt out clauses which Britain has obtained in the past and hopes to obtain now on an even larger scale.

Otherwise the concessions which Britain will be granted today in negotiations with Brussels and Berlin may well turn out to be self defeating in the long run, because they will marginalise Britain within a political system which in its spirit and design is so alien to everything the British or perhaps rather the English political and constitutional tradition stands for. After all Britain is one of the few countries in Europe which never enjoyed the blessings of enlightened absolutism which was so similar in spirit to the world the European elites in Brussels want to create, to liberate their uncivilised hidebound subjects from their irrational convictions and antiquated national loyalties.

Fudged compromise

The most likely outcome of Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels is of course another fudged compromise, something the EU has always been good at, in fact such arrangements are the EU’s real strong suit. Compromises of this kind, laboriously stitched together but nevertheless often remaining incoherent and contradictory, tend to fall apart or to have thoroughly nefarious effects after a couple of years. The Euro is the best example for this. But who cares? After all in the long run we are all dead, as Keynes once famously put it, an insight which has many fervent supporters in Brussels.

It is a pity that in all likelihood there is no really satisfactory solution on the table, because despite the massive problems the United Kingdom is facing herself at the moment – one only needs to look at the fragile state of the Union between England and Scotland – British political culture with its more pragmatic, empirical and anti-utopian approach to politics could act as an important corrective to the haughty self confidence of the pro-European elites on the continent who still think – after the disastrous turmoil of the Euro crisis which is far from over -  that they can create a better world by wiping out Europe’s diversity.

It has been attempted before, though in more violent ways than by the softly softly approach favoured by the unobtrusive and seemingly harmless men and women peopling the corridors of power in Brussels, and so far it has never been a great success. This is something one should remember in the year marked by the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo which put an end to one such attempt at creating a modern and rationally organised European empire.

In 1815 the Prussians saved Wellington and his thin red line from defeat, but it is unlikely that there will be a repeat performance a hundred years later. Cameron will have to look for allies elsewhere, Schäuble ist no Blücher, unfortunately.

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