The Tragedy of European Union

For someone with a German heritage and who regards himself as a social democrat, it is with a heavy heart that I have become sceptical about the future of the European Union. Europe is a place very close to my heart – the cafe culture, the sense of shared values and epistemic communities, the diverse range of identities, the beer, the excellent little patisseries and bakeries (just food in general really) are truly wonderful European things. In other words, I love Europe. But I believe that the dream of European Union leaves me, more and more, with a sour taste. This is particularly soul destroying given that, around 14 months ago, I was full of enthusiasm about a closure of the EU’s ongoing crises. That enthusiasm has waned, and no one has taken up European leadership like I had hoped.

Right now, there are two colossal problems facing the EU: first, the eurozone crisis, which has spiralled out of any proportion imaginable. Second, any sense of democratic input to decision-making has withered away. In other words, the input legitimacy of European institutions and the output legitimacy of European policy-making have vanished, which have turned the EU into an illegitimate beast. [1] Here’s some more depth:

  • Output Legitimacy. The output policy-making role of the EU has not worked. People are usually relaxed about the authorities so long as they do their job well. The EU, however, has spectacularly failed, which means that the preferences of European populations have not been enacted. Ergo, there is an output-based legitimacy deficit. It is not just that the Euro has been a disaster: the Common Agricultural Policy is uncompetitive, the Common Fisheries Policy has culled fish stocks, and bureaucrats are wasting huge resources by travelling to and fro from Brussels to Strasbourg (for not doing all that much). These are just three examples of many. Policy-making in the EU is simply not working.
  • Input Legitimacy. Mario Monti in Italy and Lucas Papademos in Greece were both installed as heads of government without being elected. These are very stark examples of how the European Union has undermined the principle of democracy. The European Commission (EC) and European Central Bank (ECB) have also imposed austerity measures on other governments, such as Portugal and Spain, without a sense of accountability. Unelected leaders have begun to govern across the continent. So, the contribution of the demos to policy-making (through elections) has been destroyed, which has caused an input-based legitimacy deficit.

Using the idea of legitimacy shows us how deep the problems of the European Union have become, and tells us something troubling about its future too. Current reform proposals do not intend to increase input legitimacy, but rather hand more power to the ECB. Furthermore, the discourse of ‘austerity’ and ‘marketisation’ (that has until now failed to work) is still a course that the EU is pursuing regardless of its consequences. The crisis is going to get worse. The dream of a European union has turned into a tragedy, which leaves us with two options: either the EU must be dismantled, or the entire system must be rebuilt from scratch.

The big question is this: what should Europe be for? The European Union has achieved a great deal, not least safeguarding peace and ensuring economic growth through the single market. It has added to the global power of all member countries through the EU as a trading bloc at the World Trade Organisation, and made an impact on joint foreign policy initiatives. Finally, the EU encourages the spread of democratic values, at least in principle, through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). These values should be maintained, but the priorities must change. First, the EU needs to do more than preach democracy, it needs to practise it. Some examples include a directly elected president, a Commission drawn from the European Parliament, and the EP itself to be given more powers. Second, the EU should be guided by two policy-making principles: economic prosperity and subsidiarity. This means that the single market must be protected and the EU budget must be reformed – far less money must go to the CAP and other protective measures. Instead, the EU should provide investment for national economies and support the spread of knowledge (fostering apprenticeships, training, university funding, and so on). These two areas of reform point to one thing: a looser relationship between its members. We must turn away from ‘union’ towards a ‘partnership’. The EU must be governed democratically, through a consort of a president and strong EP, and its focus must be economic growth and educational investment. If the EU cannot reform itself into a democratic, economic centre, then it is doomed to fail and its members should consider a hasty leave.

At this point it is worth mentioning the British angle. British interests are closely linked to that of the European market: it accounts for 54 percent of British export alone. This means that we have a clear interest in shaping European institutions. Additionally, Britain benefits hugely from the bargaining power of the EU trading bloc at the WTO, and even in other areas of foreign policy. To go it alone would risk marginalising British influence on the world stage – politically and economically. As David Clark summarises very well: “Britain will stand little chance of remaining influential at a global level if it cannot be strong and influential in its own neighbourhood”. [2] Ultimately, there is no halfway house with the EU, although this is always something that Britain has craved. [3] Britain needs to take a decisive step and, whilst I’m probably being naive, I have hope that the United Kingdom can take that decisive step to lead Europe – because sitting in the ‘EU waiting room’ has become untenable, and leaving the European project would be an act of national defeatism.

There are three key things that must happen. First, the European project must be democratised, which means that the EU must ‘slim down’ its priorities and reinvigorate the principle of subsidiarity. Second, policy-making must move away from neo-liberalism towards decentralisation and fostering equal opportunities. Third, and most importantly, EU members must be given a referendum on membership once the new constellation of decision-making has been settled, no sooner or later. The combination of these three things are the last chance that the EU has to become a legitimate focal point for democracy and economic prosperity. If the EU fails on this, then I would prefer for Britain to leave the EU (and, indeed, for the entire project to take the final bow). [4]

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Notes

[1] Legitimacy here is based on Fritz Scharpf’s definition of: i) input legitimacy as reflecting the will of the people, derived from their authentic preferences and a sense of proceduralism, and ii) output legitimacy, which means that political choices are legitimate if and because they effectively promote the common welfare of the constituency in question. See F. Scharpf (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic?, Oxford: OUP, p.6.

[2] D. Clark (2012) ‘Labour’s Next Foreign Policy’, in J. Denham (ed.) The Shape of Things to Come, London: Fabian Society, p.111.

[3] A. Gamble (2012) ‘Better Off Out? Britain and Europe’, Political Quarterly 83:3, pp.468-77. Also, anyone know current policy on the EU? It’s all very confusing with the government: first Cameron vetoes policy proposals to save the EU, then Osborne demands action to save the euro.

[4] These are some hints as to the future direction that the Labour party must take when they are thinking about their stance on Europe. It does not pay to call for EU budget cuts only to humiliate David Cameron – Labour must spell out an alternative, and this little article hopes to show one way towards a social democratic alternative.

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