European Union: after the reform treaty

George Schöpflin
10 July 2007

The "reform treaty" on which the European Union agreed in Brussels in the early hours of 23 June 2007 is both a compromise and an improvement on the two years of uncertainty that followed the French and Dutch rejections of the projected constitution in 2005. Nevertheless, the treaty raises a number of key issues that are likely to haunt the EU in the years to come, basically because as with many compromises, serious issues are unresolved.

At British and Dutch instigation, the reform treaty stipulates that the EU is to lose its symbols, such as the flag, the anthem and "Europe day". These losses may not appear significant at first sight, because symbolic elements tend to be dismissed as marginal. In reality they are a way to promote identification, in this case to strengthen the identification of the citizens of Europe with the EU, something that (notwithstanding Michael Bruter's argument in openDemocracy) is currently weak.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union's Brussels summit:

John Palmer, "Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

Kalypso Nikolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: a new single act" (21 June 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Not for nothing did the British and Dutch, the most Eurosceptic governments, focus on the symbols. If they were as irrelevant as people often think then their removal would not have been seen as important. But they were understood to be what they are - the underpinning of a state-like identity, of the EU as a political entity with its own autonomous political existence. In a democratic world, this autonomous political field should have its own direct access to legitimation by those affected by the EU's power - the citizens.

Intuitively or consciously, the anti-integrationist member-states recognised that the symbols would enhance the relationship of the citizens of Europe with the EU - and saw this as weakening their own power over their citizens. Whether these relationships were really quite as zero-sum as this, these states did not want to take the risk of finding out whether establishing a stronger political relationship between the EU and the putative European demos would weaken the cohesiveness of the nation-state.

The nation: from danger to redoubt

The relationship between the EU and its member-states is and has always been an uneven one, in that integration can move forward only if the states agree on this. In effect, despite the EU possessing its own autonomous field of power, it lacks the capacity to enlarge this without the member-states's consent. The member-states will only do this if they think it is in their interest - the interest of the state as defined by the government of the day on an ad-hoc basis - or when there is pressure from below. This latter happens very rarely, if at all, not least because there are important forces in domestic politics determined to prevent a pro-EU mobilisation.

The key here is a clear shift away from the assumption that the nation-state possessed of full sovereignty is a potential and, at times actual, danger for Europe. This was the default assumption for much of the post-war period, but that has changed. The problem, however, has not. This is the preventing of clashes that can and will arise from there being up to thirty-five high cultures living together in a confined geographic space with political power being structured around these cultural communities, i.e. nations. In the first half of the 20th century it generated disaster on disaster, but as memories have faded, so has the original impulse that gave rise to integration in Europe.

The original objective of European integration was precisely to frame state sovereignty in a suprastate institution with explicit political goals, though using economic instruments to this end. From this perspective, the historic shift of the last fifteen-to-twenty years - the growing belief that too much was being settled in Europe that the state was better at - suggests that European integration has been a victim of its own success. The conflict-resolution mechanisms have been so successful as to make conflict unthinkable, hence unimaginable; from this it is a small step to say that they are superfluous. The change in generations has been a part of this story; for those born after 1945, the second world war is simply too remote and irrelevant to today's concerns because Europe is doing quite well and other problems need more urgent attention.

This shift in attitudes has been accompanied by a dissatisfaction with the Europe that has actually been put in place, on the grounds that it is too remote and bureaucratic and too difficult to identify with. In reality, the symbolic "Brussels" so detested by the Eurosceptics is much smaller than widely believed - the EU commission has a staff of around 27,000, which is certainly smaller than the bureaucracy of a city the size of Liverpool. But - again - the "symbolics" do count and the impulse to identify with Europe has slackened both at the popular and the elite level. Thus a re-identification with the nation and, as a result, with the nation-state has returned imperceptibly, though obviously with varying intensity - in time and place, as well in form and content.

The sociological reality that European integration and political Europe were always an elite activity has contributed to this disenchantment, given that at the popular level "Europe" always tended to be seen as an elite pastime, whereas the nation has retained its street-level resonance. That needs only an anti-European elite mobilisation to lift it into high political discourse. The member-state elites have frequently done this, by using the EU as the scapegoat for some particular unpopular move; London is particularly adept at doing this on a regular basis.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union in a decisive year:

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 2057)

Mats Engstrőm, "Europe's green power" (26 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe" (30 May 2007)

A treaty for tension

Another trigger of disillusion has been the unthinking insistence by an elite on a form of multiculturalism that was lived by the society in question as the downgrading of its own core values in the name of accommodating immigrants. The majority then became vulnerable to an anti-elite mobilisation which - when the elite launched a new phase of the European project - became a vote against Europe. In the Dutch case, this illustrates the complex interaction between different actors and different issues that at first sight have little to do with each other: European integration and immigrant integration (see Paul M. Sniderman & Louk Hagendoorn, When Ways of Life Collide: Multiculturalism and Its Discontents in the Netherlands [Princeton University Press, 2007]). The majority saw its identity as bound up with sovereignty as a defence against the erosion of its core values and shifted against the perceived threat to that sovereignty, Europe.

Thus anti-European sentiments have become a rallying-point for those hostile to an elite that is seen as favouring encroachments on one's sovereignty. This is quite correct, for this is exactly what integration is supposed to do - to dilute state sovereignty with the aim of producing security. But it is only dilution, not elimination. The tension between integration and state sovereignty will persist until such a time as the existing member-states definitively resolve the conflict between wanting more sovereignty or less. In this regard, the reformed treaty offers nothing that would help, but concentrates (as compromises are supposed to) on soluble problems instead.

The pivotal question, therefore, is whether a Europe of twenty-seven member-states can ever integrate further or whether the existing level of integration will be downgraded - or will the EU just stagnate? The almost certain answer is that the maximalists - those who want to go on with further integration - will conclude that the sovereignty-addicts are a nuisance they may as well be rid of, and that the goal of an all-European integration, "an ever-closer union" of the whole of Europe, may as well be abandoned. (It is worth noting here that one of the provisions of the constitution project that has been retained is the exit clause. There is no exclusion clause, but Eurosceptics can now freely demand that their country leave the EU and probably receive tacit sympathy from the maximalists. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands please note; Poland and the Czech Republic ditto).

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:

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

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

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

"Hungary's cold civil war" (14 November 2006)

"The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

"Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

The further implications of the treaty are that it moves Europe towards more inter-governmentalism and more functional integration at the same time. There is no doubt that this too will generate strains precisely because the two positions are pulling in opposite directions. Inter-governmentalism says that states may delegate and, presumably retrieve, powers granted to an agent of the states themselves. Functional activity, on the other hand, means that certain functions are more effectively exercised at the suprastate level, that certain powers are transferred to that level irreversibly, otherwise the agency will be subject to ad hoc political change (like a new government coming to office that does not see value in such power transfers).

These two forces, therefore, pull in opposite directions and can only be maintained in a kind of unstable equilibrium or perpetual fudge. At the very least, the demands of the inter-governmentalists will use up a great deal of time and energy to keep the equilibrium in being, while the maximalists will be tempted to go off and establish new, more tightly integrated institutions of their own.

Democracy's pantomime-horse

Inter-governmentalism has a further, presumably intended consequence. It continues to keep the citizens of the EU at arms length from its institutions and impedes their becoming a demos with political consciousness at the European level. As we have seen, the stripping away of the symbols was about this. But there is a deeper contradiction. Both the EU and its member-states are treaty-bound to support democracy and popular participation, but have very different ideas on what this actually implies.

For inter-governmentalists, identification, popular participation and legitimation should be structured around the member-state, leaving dealing with the EU to the elite and the government of the day. For the integrationists this involvement should be direct. Indeed, the logic of democracy supports this latter position - if it is accepted that the EU exists as an autonomous field of political power, then both popular participation and legitimation should be at that level.

In effect, what the inter-governmentalists say is that there is no such autonomous field, but equally they blame Brussels when it suits them, implying that there is. They claim that there is no European demos, only a series of member-state "demoi" and so should it stay, but at the same time operate as if the EU does function autonomously of them. This makes the inter-governmentalists free-riders on EU power. They have assented to it, but then deny that it exists. They silently welcome the democratic deficit and then blame the EU for being undemocratic. The member-state demos should not have much direct access to EU institutions, because that would erode state-level legitimacy. Equally a weak mediated relationship between the EU and a European demos will pre-empt the possibility that the local demos might use EU provisions against the member-state. The charter of fundamental rights, from which the UK obtained an opt-out, is a good illustration.

Besides, the more the state-level demos gains knowledge of the EU, the more difficult it becomes for member-states to use the EU as a scapegoat for their own unpopular policies. This use of the EU is reminiscent of the communists in east-central Europe in the 1980s who were wont to say, "we would like to reform, but Moscow will not allow it". The inter-governmentalists have constructed an EU for their own purposes and want to keep it that way, because it suits them to have a weakly legitimated integration process that they can denounce as undemocratic.

A core Europe vs the rest?

The medium-to-long-term question which follows is: how long can the inter-governmentalists and integrationists remain together? What happens when the two clash? For the time being, the former can effectively slow down the integration process, though not bring it to a stop. The inclusion of climate change as a part of the EU's remit, something that was wholly absent when the draft constitution was negotiated, indicates that integration continues and is extending its scope. But if the wishes of the integrationists are continuously ignored, sooner or later they will begin seriously to contemplate a more highly integrated core Europe, obviously without the inter-governmentalists.

If European integration is the most effective conflict-resolution mechanism ever devised - something that the inter-governmentalists do not recognise - then the tension between the two forces will have far-reaching consequences, not only for the inter-governmentalists, but also for the poorer member-states, which are most unlikely to be invited into this putative core Europe. Then the chances of conflict re-emerging cannot be ignored. The current friction between Poland and Germany is self-evidently eased by having both states inside the EU.

In the short term, the reform treaty will undoubtedly be a psychological boost - the European Union can operate again. But at the same time, there will now be greater caution about future projects on a Europe-wide scale. Maybe a project for twenty-seven states was always going to be too ambitious, but such considerations are not what the Europe of the ever-closer union is meant to be about.

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