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The EU approaches a constitutional moment

A retreat from the present unsatisfactory half-way house to a Gaullist ‘Europe des Patries’ would be an act of reactionary vandalism.
David Marquand
20 July 2011

A retreat from the present unsatisfactory half-way house to a Gaullist ‘Europe des Patries’ would be an act of reactionary vandalism.

Brooding on the responses to my recent openDemocracy piece on Europe it seems to me that two themes stand out: democracy and leadership. Both go to the heart of the dilemmas that now face the EU.  

Democracy first. It’s often said that there is a democratic deficit at the heart of EU governance, and the charge is well-founded. But, in Britain at least, most of the debate on the Union’s lack of democratic accountability ignores the historical background which holds the key to the story. The original architects of the European project looked forward to a federal Europe. Jean Monnet, whose brainchild the project was, set up an ‘Action Committee for the United States of Europe’ after he retired from the presidency of the Coal and Steel Community’s High Authority. In his memoirs, Walter Hallstein, the first President of the European Commission, was quite explicit about his federalist convictions. Indeed, he thought the EEC institutions were already embryonically federalist: the Council of Ministers would eventually become the upper house of a bicameral EEC legislature and the European Parliament the lower house.

Within a few years of the Rome Treaty, however, the French Fourth Republic collapsed; and Charles de Gaulle, the stern, unbending and profoundly conservative champion of French ‘grandeur’, was catapulted into the Presidency of France. With unremitting persistence he did everything he could to stymie emergent Euro-federalism in the name of an essentially confederal ‘Europe des Patries’. The end result was a stand-off which has lasted until our own day. The Union is neither a democratic federation nor an intergovernmental confederation. It is a mixture of the two. Some of its institutions – notably the European Court of Justice, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the increasingly powerful directly elected European Parliament – are federalist in conception and function. Others – notably the Council of Ministers and the European Council – are inter-governmental and confederal.

This mixture is inherently undemocratic. In a democracy the voters know ‘where the buck stops’, to use Harry Truman’s time-honoured phrase. In the EU the buck can’t stop. There is no Union President or Government to be held to account. There are 27 member governments and national administrations, all desperately hanging on to their dwindling authority, and accountable only to their separate national electorates. Freud would have diagnosed this as a severe case of institutional anal retentiveness, and he would have been right.   

But a retreat from the present unsatisfactory half-way house to a Gaullist ‘Europe des Patries’ would be an act of reactionary vandalism. For starters, it would mean getting rid of the ECJ and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, tearing up the myriad regulations that underpin the internal market and give EU citizens the right to work in member states other than their own, and getting rid of the European Parliament, or at least binning its legislative powers. To do all this in the name of democracy would be an exercise in the higher lunacy.

The EU’s present arrangements, inadequate though they are, do give some protection to the smaller and weaker nations of Europe against the depredations of the bigger and stronger. In a Gaullist ‘Europe des Patries’ of 27 countries, varying in size and economic weight from Malta to Germany, the smaller countries would have no protection at all. There is no doubt that the voice of the emerging European demos is weaker than it ought to be, but replacing it with a cacophony of 27 different voices, coming from 27 different demoi, would do more damage to the cause of a democratic Europe than anything that has happened since the Second World War. The conclusion is inescapable. No federalism, no democracy.

Which is where leadership comes into the story. Complaints about the wicked deeds of the so-called ‘European elite’ are the small change of Euro-sceptic rhetoric. But the complainants never tell us who or what make up the elite. They can’t: the whole notion is a phantom. There is no European elite, and never has been: we would be much better off if there were. Europe is not run by a homogeneous elite pursuing a coherent project or projects, but by a fluctuating conglomeration of national elites. In the early days, these national elites, or at least their most outstanding members, had the wit and will to lead. Adenauer in Germany, de Gasperi in Italy, Spaak in Belgium, Schuman and Monnet in France were all endowed with an astonishing combination of political creativity and courage. They had all lived through the two terrible European civil wars of the twentieth century and they all believed that it was up to them to make sure that there would never be a third. Above all they knew that the job of democratic leaders is to lead.

Today’s leaders could hardly be more different. Thanks to a kind of bastard populism, that ignores the crucial role of principled leadership in democratic governance, they spend their time kow-towing to the lowest common denominator of their focus groups instead of trying to educate their peoples. The result is a witches’ brew of cynicism and cowardice.

However, I don’t think this can go on for much longer. The 2008 crisis – the second most destructive in the long history of capitalism – is not over yet. No one can possibly know for certain how the current travails of the Euro will pan out. But, to put it at its lowest, it’s surely more probable than not that, having tasted blood in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the bond markets will soon be asking for more. Perhaps in Italy, perhaps in Spain, perhaps in both, who knows? The fundamental flaw in the single currency – the attempt to Europeanise monetary policy while leaving fiscal policy under national control – is becoming ever-more obvious, and ever-more dangerous. If I’m right, the odds are that the whole structure of the Eurozone will be in the melting pot in the not very distant future, with incalculable consequences.

There is a baffling mystery about the current crisis. The crisis of the 1930s provoked new political and economic departures in a wide range of capitalist countries, from Sweden to Germany to the United States and even to the United Kingdom. So far, nothing of the sort has happened this time. Everywhere, the cry is: Business as usual. But the shutters are down on this particular business. Not just the structure of the Eurozone, but the whole structure of the EU, have been called into question. Europe, in short, is approaching a constitutional moment.

Either the whole enterprise founders or it goes forward, first to fiscal union and then to full-scale federal union. Crises are also opportunities. If the European left can get its act together in time, this one may yet turn out to be historic.

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