What the European Union is

Simon Berlaymont
22 June 2005

The current affliction of the European Union offers a healthy reminder: don’t confuse the symptoms with the disease. The French and Dutch referenda precipitated the crisis, the rancorous Brussels summit that followed embittered it, the cacophonous point-scoring of national governments as the British presidency approaches on 1 July 2005 is reinforcing it. But beneath the visible wounds and torments is a European body politic that urgently needs serious, long-term diagnosis and treatment. It is time to redefine what the European Union is.

There are many reasons why French and Dutch voters rejected the “treaty establishing a constitution for Europe” in their respective referenda on 29 May and 1 June. Dissatisfaction with current political leaderships, their policies and the results of those policies; anxieties about being in some way swamped by alien forces (Anglo-Saxon liberalism in the case of French voters, big countries in the case of the Dutch) and people (Polish plumbers in France, asylum-seekers in the Netherlands).

No doubt there were other reasons too, some related to the European Union – possibly even some relating to the treaty. Just as unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways, “no” voters express many different fears and resentments (of which a healthy number may be legitimate). This may be a good reason for not taking decisions by referenda; but it also exposes the great weakness in the “yes” campaign; that it had no single clear message to counteract the natural bolshiness of the individual citizen.

The lack of a clear message applies not just to this treaty but to the goals of the European Union itself. In so far as the treaty had a message it was the false one contained in its title: that Europe was acquiring a constitution and was becoming a state. In fact the very ratification process itself – by parliaments in some countries, by referenda in others – tells the real story. This is a treaty and like other treaties it needs to be ratified by the states on whom it confers rights and obligations.

The fact that the treaty was drawn up by a “convention” and that it calls itself (in big print) a “constitution” does not change the reality that it is an intergovernmental document: the title begins with the word “treaty”, in small print, but this is what it is. “Constitution” is a part of the excessive rhetoric of Europe that obscures rather than illuminates, and threatens when what is needed is reassurance. The fact that so many countries decided to hold referenda, and the failure of (so far) two of those, owes something to that rhetoric.

Also in openDemocracy on the future of the European Union:

Krzysztof Bobinski, “Poland’s letter to France: please say oui!” (May 2005)

John Palmer, “After France: Europe’s route from wreckage” (May 2005)

Aurore Wanlin, “European democracy: where now?” (June 2005)

Theo Veenkamp, “Dutch sign on Europe’s wall” (June 2005)

What Europe is not

The only clear vision of the European Union comes from the two extreme camps. Paradoxically it is the same, wrong, vision. The federalists’ dream/pretence of a European state coincides with the sceptics’ nightmare/scare story. Federalists wanted to pretend that that is what they were creating in the “constitution”; sceptics seem to believe that the European state is already with us, and that power and authority has already been sucked out of the nation-states that make up the EU.

Both are wrong: Europe is not a state and is not on the way to being one. It does not have police; it does not run schools; it does not have an army (if Luxembourg felt under threat from Brussels its modest light-infantry battalion would have no trouble seizing the EU headquarters); it does not even have an army of bureaucrats – the 22,000 who do the business of the EU in Brussels would be about enough for a municipal authority in a medium-sized city.

Europe does of course make laws – which is also what states do; and it is true that in the case of conflict those laws override national law – as is always, necessarily, the case for international law.

But the “it” of Europe is not some alien invader. It is us. The process of making its laws is complicated but the key role belongs to national governments, which have in many cases a formal or an informal veto on the result. The European Commission is a supranational body but in the end it still needs backing from the member-states. The commission’s heyday under Jacques Delors was a result not just of Delors’s talent and vision, but also of the backing he had from France and Germany (and the marginal role Britain was playing at that time).

For the most part the laws made in Brussels deal with the world of business, including agriculture. For those directly concerned they are often important. But the average citizen knows little of (for example) the third insurance directive. This may contribute (or fail to contribute) to the soundness of the company that sells her insurance, or to the growth of a competitive insurance market across European boundaries so that she can buy her car insurance for Belgium from a London firm, but she is unlikely to notice or in most cases to care.

The things that most people care about – health, education, law and order – are run by national governments and will continue to be so (the “constitution” did not seek to alter that, or much else). In the opinion polls before the May 2005 election, British voters showed little interest in European issues. This was entirely right. In the areas that most voters care most about, Europe is not a major factor.

Even economies are run by national governments. That should be clear from the enormous variety of economic policies in Europe. Levels and systems of taxation vary widely; policies on pensions, state ownership and unemployment are all different. Luxembourg’s economy is quite different from that of France; Finland’s is different from Greece, Ireland from Germany. It is true that the Stability & Growth Pact (1997) agreed that its members set some limits on deficits for members of the eurozone, limits which its biggest members have then proceeded to ignore (the probability is that if deficits become really excessive the markets will impose discipline more effectively). Freedom of national action, rather than European constraints, is the most obvious feature of the European economy.

Both pro- and anti-Europeans have oversold the European Union. It does not run economies; it is not a new kind of state. On one level it does not matter much for the everyday life of ordinary citizens; though on another it is very important indeed. But it is dangerous for democracy and dangerous for Europe itself if people do not understand what it really is and what it really does – as the two recent referenda have shown. It would not be a bad thing if those who believe that the European Union is important and useful could tell a single reasonably coherent story about what it is.

What Europe does

The real story is this. The central purpose of the European Union is to enable its member-states to function more effectively. There are four main ways in which it does this.

The first is by creating a big market. Markets, and the division of labour they permit are what makes citizens of modern European states richer than any other people in history; and bigger markets provide a wider division of labour. The European Union helps successful national businesses to escape the confines of a narrow domestic market more easily.

The creation of a single European market allowing free movement of goods, services, investment and people is the origin of most European legislation. Markets need to be regulated. Most national markets began with kings establishing fixed weights and measures; later, regulation (like the Factory Acts in Britain) was introduced to protect workers.

There are differences of opinion about how far regulation needs to go; but a single market requires some level of common standards. This is an area where there are many arguments and scare stories – vital ones because how a market is regulated is critical to its success – and in the case of labour markets it is important for people’s lives. So these are significant questions but the area covered is still limited.

The second thing that the EU provides for its member-states is more influence in the world. This is most visible in trade negotiations where the EU is now well established as more or less the equal of the United States. If European countries want to deal on equal terms with the US today, and China and India tomorrow, they need to stick together. No European country on its own will ever get much leverage.

The EU is attempting to pursue this logic in foreign and security, as well as trade, policy. This is more difficult but it is necessary. Bosnia in the 1990s and Iraq since 2002 have shown how ineffective European countries are when they are divided. But when they are united they can make a difference: without Europe there would be no Kyoto Protocol, no International Criminal Court and it is now Europe that takes the primary responsibility for peace in the Balkans.

The third contribution the European Union makes seems more abstract but is no less critical. It provides a framework of law and cooperation for its members. Law is needed for many parts of the single market, to deal with management of borders, to protect the environment; cooperation is needed in areas such as the campaign against terrorism and foreign and security policy. To make any of this function some sense of a common enterprise, of mutual solidarity is needed. This has grown up gradually over the years. For a long time the EU has been helped because Germany has been a net contributor of solidarity. Now, sixty years after the second world war this (non-monetary) burden needs to be shared more evenly.

The most important by-product of all this has been peace. This was and is the fundamental reason for the EU; and the by-product is also the strategic objective. Peace is not the natural condition of Europe. For most of their history European countries have been at war with each other. The sixty years of peace since 1945 is a historically unprecedented period. The European Union, which has created common interests and a common framework of law and negotiation has also helped create and sustain the longest era of peace in our history.

Talk of pooling sovereignty is mistaken. No one talks of the United Nations or the World Trade Organisation as a threat to sovereignty, though all states accept the authority of the UN Security Council. European states remain sovereign; but instead of expressing their sovereignty through armies or heavily guarded frontiers they make it felt around the negotiating table. Men are freer, not less free, when they live in a community of law. States are not less sovereign when they create a world of law for themselves, rather than settling their differences by violence.

The fourth achievement of the European Union, and an astonishing one, is that it has succeeded in extending its community of law and democracy more widely into central Europe. The transformation of the countries of east-central Europe into stable democracies and market economies is without precedent. Revolutions normally bring violence and authoritarian rulers (Lenin, Pol Pot or Ayatollah Khomeini). That this did not happen in east-central Europe owes something to support from the EU and to the prospect of membership that the EU offered (Nato was also an important factor but probably less important than the EU).

It may be that this smooth transition misled some in the US into believing that democracy followed automatically on the fall of dictators; Iraq shows this to be false. Central Europe shows what a difference it can make if there is a community of democracies close at hand and able to help. The best hope for the Balkans is now to use the attraction of EU membership to restore security and decent standards of government. Enlargement and the effect it has had is a historic advance that matches the liberation of the post-1989 period. There is something slightly tragic about European citizens rejecting what has been one of Europe’s finer hours.

What Europe should be

In none of these four areas does Europe replace the national state. In fact Europe is able to function precisely because it has strong, well-functioning national states (and the states themselves function better because of the European framework). Businesses benefit from bigger markets, citizens from travel without visas, jobs without work permits. Above all, and always forgotten, everyone benefits from a peaceful continent governed by law and negotiation.

The European bubble has now burst. Like the dotcom bubble people got an exaggerated idea of a dynamic, and projected trends past the point of common sense. But though the market in Europe has crashed it does not mean that the whole idea is mistaken. There are, after all, some good technology companies too.

There is no reason why people should love Brussels. The negotiating process is tedious and the results unlovely. The institutions are in many ways a mess and some of the common policies could be improved too. In historical terms the EU is new and still has lots to sort out. But it would be nice if more people had at least a vague idea of what it was and what it does. National governments and Brussels officials could start the process by being a bit clearer in their own minds and a bit more modest in the story they tell.

What is difficult to convey is that although the European Union is not a big or a dominating structure it is still very important. This is often true of institutions. The difference between being democratic and being merely bureaucratic is vital though it is not expressed in large budgets or numbers of officials or visible powers. Whether a state is isolated or whether it lives with other states in a community of law is vital in shaping the character of a state and the way it relates to its citizens. These are things that in the end people come to understand and value almost by instinct, and accept almost as natural – as they do with democracy. Until we get to that point we have a lot of explaining still to do.

Do you agree with Simon Berlaymont? Post your view in the forum attached to openDemocracy’s “Europe: after the constitution” debate

Further Links:

Europa - EU gateway

Democracy International

BBC Inside Europe

European Union treaties

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData