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The European Union's troubled birthday

George Schöpflin
23 March 2007

We need considerable distance to see the European Union as it really is, simply because it has become a standard part of the political landscape and - in the eyes of many of its citizens - a largely undesirable one. Yet the very idea that states which have spent decades, in some cases centuries, at war with each other should come together in a joint political and economic enterprise and be able to keep it going is something quite extraordinary in the history of Europe. From the perspective of the first half of the 20th century, this would have been in the realms of fantasy.

What is particular to the European Union (and its predecessors, the European Economic Community and the European Community) is that it was put together as an act of a deliberate and targeted construction, with certain clear aims - peace, democracy, and markets being at their heart. This mostly seems self-evident today, but before 1945 democracy was not in any way the default condition of Europe.

What the founding fathers saw was the causal link between peace and democracy: that democracy made a sustainable peace viable. To achieve this, they understood that they would have to dismantle the nation-state to some degree - not wholly - and to soften the extraordinarily hard boundaries that had been built around it.

The purpose was to give every member of the European enterprise a stake in the well-being of all the others. The method chosen was unique then and remains so, because it requires very high levels of trust and reciprocal commitment. Certain areas of the economy, basically the raw materials of war as understood at the time (coal and steel) would be removed from the control of the state and placed in the hands of a supra-state authority. The founding fathers believed that this would make war impossible. They were right, although the sinews of war adapted as the decades moved on. The failure of the European Defence Community in 1954 (after the French parliament's veto) was a very serious hiccup; but the mutual trust did work.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union's past, present and future

Kalypso Nicolaïdis, "We the peoples of Europe..." (18 December 2003)

Simon Berlaymont, “What the European Union is” (23 June 2005)

Anthony Barnett, “The birth of Europe?” (9 October 2006)

John Palmer, “Germany and Europe: the pull of unity” (16 February 2007)

Aurore Wanlin, “The European Union at fifty: a second life” (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, “European unity: reality and myth” (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, “The European Union in 2057” (22 March 2007)

A model of modernity

The enterprise was then relaunched because its members recognised that on a broad front - democracy, security, prosperity - it was worth sustaining. Besides, there were several other less obvious elements in the mix. The initial design was heavily elite-driven and at the time, the elite legitimation of democracy was far more significant than now. This had the advantage of making agreement among the participants relatively easy. If the elites were at one, deals could be reached and sustained.

At the same time, the original design had introduced something that turned out to be very important indeed, though few saw it at the time: the equality of all the member-states. This in effect gave the smaller states a large incentive to make the enterprise successful, because it would ensure that they would be freed of large-state interference. Again, a long-term historical perspective is required to see the significance of this. Even after the Westphalian system was established in 1648, large states constantly intervened in the affairs of small states, thereby making them factors of instability. The EU has effectively reversed this trend and provided all states with a mechanism for conflict-resolution that has stood the test of time.

A standard argument in this respect is to deplore the common agricultural policy (CAP) of 1962 as a vast spending machine that produces nothing but rich farmers and goods that could be better grown elsewhere, not to mention environmental damage. All this is (still) true, but it misses the point. The CAP in its own time was one of the greatest successes of the community method, because no one had believed previously that a common market in agriculture produce was possible; agreement on this demanded a great deal of mutual confidence.

But beyond the economics, the CAP did something else. It provided the means by which western Europe's remaining peasants could be converted into citizens. The movement of people from overcrowded rural areas is a difficult process in the best of circumstances and painful for all those affected. The CAP ensured that the French and Italian rural population would escape poverty-traps and have some chance of a decent life.

All this meant that the European Union actively helped the construction of a particular model of modernity, with four principal features:

  • the establishment of greater complexity
  • a degree of equity in society
  • a certain level of solidarity and mutual support
  • the effort to embed the individual in a network of social support and obligations.

It is worth noting that this model is increasingly at variance with the Anglo-Saxon type of social organisation, which stresses the individual over the collectivity. Some of the friction between Britain and the European Union unquestionably derives from this distinction.

A problem of legitimation

The success of the European Union (under its earlier designations) was certainly advanced by - success. This is not as banal as it sounds. The prosperity of the 1960s, the arrival of mass consumption and the gradual, irreversible elimination of primary poverty was ascribed to the EU. The precise causal connection is impossible to identify here, but the existence of a process of European integration undoubtedly contributed to the environment in which prosperity could advance.

But this success story was not smooth and untroubled. Precisely because of the open-ended quality of the undertaking and its elite-driven origins, the balance between EU integration and the demands of the member-states - and these were and are nation-states - had and still has constantly to be renegotiated. This involves a balancing of the elite methods of integration with growing levels of democratic participation and demands for accountability.

The EU was initially legitimated by elite commitment and rational design, by economic success and stability; it was not constrained by the requirements of popular legitimation. This is where the problems of 2007, the fiftieth birthday year, are most acutely visible.

All institutions evolve their own, particular order and initial design, and the flaws in that design often become extremely difficult to correct later. The problems of the EU today derive, in part, from the unique quality of tension and balance between the EU institutions and the member-states. The consent of the member-states was always necessary for the EU to acquire power. But over the years, the EU evolved nonetheless into a site of power autonomous of the member-states. The distance between this EU power and the population has grown - and with the project of the constitutional treaty, a threshold of legitimation may well have been reached.

The capacity of the EU to acquire legitimation was adequate at the outset, but is plainly no longer so; and the means of correcting this deficiency are in the hands not of the EU, but of the member-states.

In essence, the EU acquires its power because the member-states transfer power to it and do so consensually. What the member-states do not do (indeed, are horrified at the idea) is to transfer modes of autonomous legitimation as well. Whenever power issues are on the agenda, no one wants to give away more than is necessary; what the member-states have done is empower the EU to carry out certain tasks, but block it from engaging directly with the citizens (understandably as this would seriously erode the member-states's own power).

From redesign to new narrative

The outcome is a decidedly odd situation. All pragmatic arguments point towards giving the EU more powers. In a globalised world, protection against the worst effects of globalised markets can only work at the European level. A whole range of problems are best tackled collectively, especially where small states are concerned - climate change, environmental protection, the fight against organised crime and corruption, consumer protection, food safety (to name but a few): all demand European-level regulation and standards. To make this work, member-states must transfer more power to Brussels.

The member-states are mostly open to the pragmatic argument, but they will not allow EU closer to the citizens than it already is, because they recognise instinctively that while the logic is right, they would lose power. This is what all the shouting about loss of sovereignty is about.

Effectiveness demands giving the EU more tasks, but the member-states baulk at this, with the result that the effectiveness of the EU is weakened. Besides, the member-state elites have their own interests here - they play a dual game with the EU. They accept the effectiveness argument, but blame Brussels for their failures, a process in which they are abetted by national media that invariably report on EU affairs from the member-state standpoint and all too often present the relationship as a zero-sum game.

The current crisis of the EU springs from the rejection of the constitutional treaty in the French and Dutch referenda of 2005, but these votes simply exposed the much deeper crisis in the design structure of the EU:

  • what should be the balance of power, authority and legitimacy between the EU institutions and the member-states?
  • are the member-states ready and willing to accept the need to give the EU more control over its own legitimation than it has currently, meaning stronger direct links with the citizens?
  • what, in fact, should be the linkage between EU and its citizens?
  • if the member-states do not take steps along these lines, can the EU do anything in competition with the member-states?

The answer to the last question is a tentative yes, though success is not guaranteed. In essence, a step of this kind would require the EU to launch its own separate processes of legitimation by constructing (and publicising) new narratives to revive the European idealism of the early years. Peace, democracy, prosperity, stability have all been attained and are now taken for granted.

Hence, if the EU is to go down this road, its narratives have to break new ground:

  • Europe has to engage with the changing world, meaning it must find answers to the impact of globalisation. Here the impact of the entry of China into the global labour market has been devastating for Europe. Sizeable swathes of unskilled and semi-skilled labour have been radically devalued, leaving anything up to a quarter of the workforce without a meaningful role. The British solution of transferring this surplus labour into the service sector has resulted in a rather badly functioning service industry, in which the consumer has been made responsible for performing tasks that were historically done by institutions, e.g. banks. This is one model, but its sustainability is doubtful, especially as it has been paralleled by growing income differentials that few outside Britain care for. So some commitment to a social Europe, as opposed to a market Europe, is vital.
  • Then, Europe has a role to play in the cause of democracy. Historically Europe (and the non-European west) has had a monopoly of defining modernity, a monopoly that is finished and new modernities are emerging or have emerged to challenge Europe's long-term dominance. The particular European attainment was to insist that modernity must involve the exercise of power by the consent of the governed, that a bureaucratic or technocratic or oligarchic form of government would not last, however successful it may have been in developing modern economic and technical forms.

Europe was fortunate that the key moment of change, the confrontation between rule by consent and oligarchy - the French revolution - came before the technological and economic breakthroughs of the 19th century (in Russia, by contrast, the revolution of 1917 produced a technocratic-authoritarian, and ultimately unsuccessful, system).

The question for Europe is whether it can transfer its experience of democratic governance to the rising new modern states (Brazil, Russia, India and China - the "Bric" states- among them) and to do so without falling into the trap of the United States, of thinking that democracy can be implanted by force.

  • The greatest of these challenges is the fate of globalisation itself. In the current situation, market forces are given freedom to act without regard for the economic and non-economic consequences of action. Indeed, economic actors - the multinationals, but also state corporations (as in Russia) - are largely exempt from any kind of political accountability, despite exercising a great deal of power.

George Schöpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.

Also by George Schöpflin in openDemocracy:

"Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity"
(8 August 2005)

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

"Hungary: country without consequences" (22 September 2006)

Democracy and globalisation

This state of affairs is legitimated by three arguments. The first is that the market finds its own, self-correcting and natural level that is capable more or less automatically of dealing with any injustice.

The second boils down to "globalisation is good", and that's it. At most, there may be some passing regret at some of the collateral damage, but the overall outcome makes it all worthwhile. Evidence to the contrary is rejected, screened out, or trivialised. Indeed, this argument is couched in vaguely ethical terms, as if it were a matter of obvious morality or faith.

The third proposition is implicit: that somehow globalisation too is "natural" and thus inevitable, and that those who object are being irrational (who, after all, would argue with the force of nature?). In sociological reality, globalisation is a process or set of processes constructed by human beings, meaning that there are well-entrenched interests hiding behind the words "natural" or "irrational", like the multinationals and their ideologues. (There is more than whiff of the Marxist doctrine of historical inevitability here.)

What Europe could and should do is to take up these three arguments and insist - in the name of democracy - that those who wield economic power be as accountable for it and for the consequences as with any other form of power; and that the legitimacy of globalisation is based on an untested series of assertions and somewhat dubious statistics which appear to demonstrate an increase that globally everyone is better off, while ignoring the complexities of the intended and unintended consequences of the process.

The ideal of making globalisation answerable to democracy would have major resonance on both left and right in Europe and would certainly appeal to those of its citizens who sense that their future is clouded by the fears of "natural" and "inevitable" economic forces over which they have no control and which are transforming their lives without their consent.

These proposed new narratives of Europe and European integration have - unfortunately - little chance of finding their way into the Berlin declaration that will be proclaimed on 25 March 2007 the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. But at some point they must be debated. In the meantime: happy birthday, Europe.

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