It’s the same old story. If you drop a frog in hot water, it immediately struggles to jump out. But place it in water that is slowly heated and it is boiled alive.
The EU faces many practical challenges with which it will continue to struggle. But these challenges pale into relative insignificance compared to what is happening to the Union’s soul - its slow transmogrification from a union among equals based on collaboration willingly given, into a union of coercion – a concept that will face a difficult future.
How did this happen?
The concept of a more collaborative Europe emerged from the devastation of WWII. It was then clear that there was much mutual advantage in creating a Europe of collaboration; an attempt to banish forever the prospect of war on the continent. In creating the original Communities, the founders had to find a tricky balance. The desire for collaboration was strong but enmities and resentments were still raw. To navigate these tricky waters, the central structures created were purely technocratic. It was clear that any attempt to fuse politics would be doomed to failure.
Over time, collaboration grew and countries prospered as they recovered from the devastation of war. Europe would be created as a club of equals where every country had an equal say and central structures were there to serve the needs and oil the wheels of ever-increasing collaboration between sovereign nation states.
The major change can probably be traced to the Jacques Delors era – which may well be remembered in history as the era when hubris and over-reach laid the seeds for major change in the basic culture of the European project.
Flush with success and wishing to accelerate integration, the concept of ever-closer union came into being. The Brussels technocracy was given ever-more power and eventually came to see itself as akin to a government of Europe. The mindset changed from a Brussels bureaucracy there to serve the member states to an executive branch tasked with moving the European project forward. A parliament was set up.
The concept of a more collaborative Europe emerged from the devastation of World War II
Two major decisions then changed the nature of the project forever. Frustrated by slow progress and the difficulty in achieving consensus among an ever-growing membership, qualified majority voting replaced the need for unanimity in many areas. The consensus culture and the unifying idea of everyone having an equal voice were both ditched in the interests of practicality and expediency.
The next major act that changed things forever was the introduction of the single currency. A premature and highly imperfect structure, the externalities associated with a shared currency nevertheless made it inevitable that central interference in individual countries’ affairs would grow.
All these things took many years to complete. But they changed forever the nature of Europe. Slowly but surely, the idea of a union of equals willingly collaborating was undermined. Instead there has been a growing feeling of coercion. As Sir Paul Collier puts it, “The EU is no longer unambiguously a mutually supportive club: it has increasingly become powerful countries telling other countries what to do.”
And we heard a few days ago that this may be set to become worse. The recently announced Franco-German initiative for greater joint planning, including establishing common positions before EU summits, may be spun as the restarting of Europe’s dormant motor. But it will be seen by others as yet another attempt to take charge of the whole European agenda and bend others to the Franco-German will. It is no wonder that others have been trying to ensure that they can also speak with strong voices – through the informal new Hanseatic League or the Visigrad group or whatever other groupings will eventually arise. A future of multiple groupings all fighting for their own interests against other groupings is not hard to imagine.
And it is hard to fathom why the Commission should pick this moment to put forward a proposal to introduce qualified majority voting on taxation matters. The proposal has little chance of success and could fuel resentment in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections in May.
In this 21st century, we have rediscovered the necessity of the cohesive nation state as a political unit with popular legitimacy. The trend is to devolve even further – through federalisation, devolution deals, city mayors. Localism is the order of the day. The 20th century transnational structures – from the IMF to the World Bank to the WTO – are fraying. Europe should have been an exception; a shining example of how willingly given close collaboration between nation states could work to everyone’s ultimate benefit. That promise is now under threat. The number of countries in the EU who want ever-closer integration and more supra-national authority has shrunk almost to the point of non-existence. And, if the feeling of a Europe of coercion and asymmetric power continues to grow, I fear for the future of the whole project.
The frustration engendered by trying to find consensus among all member states is understandable. As is the desire by some to shortcut that process in the interest of expediency and practicality. But it may end up being a Faustian bargain – giving up one’s soul for short term gain.
Joe Zammit-Lucia is a founder and trustee of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre (www.radix.org.uk) and author of The Death of Liberal Democracy? and Backlash: Saving Globalisation From Itself.
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