The EU: A State in Denail?

There is an old saying in English: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it’s a duck.” In the case of the EU sometimes it seems to be an ostrich, or a phoenix, and others, like a turkey. And there is a real question about whether it can ever fly or keep its young in the nest. Why is this?

It all goes back to the origin of the species — one previously never seen before. When it was created by the Treaties of Rome in 1957, Europe was still dominated by the effects of the recent war, and by the reality that for many of the key potential partners this was the third cataclysm in seventy years (if we include the Franco-Prussian war of 1870). The inception of the EU by its founders (Monnet, Schuman, Spaak and Adenauer) was designed to create something that would stop this passion for wars by eliminating the significance of borders and by creating a “shared vision”. In that context the EU has been an unquestioned success. The only European wars since it was launched have been among non-members, e.g. the Western Balkans. We must remember this.
But, the essence of the central dilemma of the EU has been there from the beginning. At that time it was called the European Economic Communities, which seemed straightforward enough; but it wasn’t. First of all it had several of the instruments and institutions that political scientists had long come to recognise as the symbols of sovereignty. For instance, it had a Parliament, and what Economic Community has a parliament — and why? It also had legislative authority through the directives which are binding on members. For many members it has a common currency, which has normally been the prerogative of sovereign entities. Next it had a judiciary, and law is one of the defining symbols of sovereignty and its decisions became binding above and beyond national law. Then, again, the key provision of the free movement of labour from the outset, removed, within its space, the sovereignty over immigration — which became a huge issue in the UK when the seven-year adjustment period after accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 ran out. Interestingly, the elected parliament was never the body that made legislation—that power rested with the unelected Commission that invented the new laws, and the unelected Council that authorized it. At one point, with French backing, a Constitution was proposed, though that was thrown out by, among others, France.
In 1992 the EEC morphed into the European Union. What does European mean? Is Turkey European — the French leadership has been pretty outspoken that it is not, even though it occupies a small part of Europe. Is Ukraine Europe? Is Bosnia Europe? Russia? Who knows? What is Europe anyway? Is it the shared experience of the Enlightenment, the Renaissance and the rise of Democracy? Well, Bulgaria missed all those thanks to the Ottoman Empire, but nobody would surely deny that Bulgaria is part of Europe. Then there is this word Union. One of the principal stated aims back in 1957 was to create an Ever-Closer Union. Though what a Union is was, deliberately, left vague. As the EEC moved to standardise all the Economic elements it took away many of the initiatives in national public policy and policy-making. As it moved forward decisions became increasingly political, though this was not stated.
Europe is, for the most part, constituted of nation states arising from a common identity of language, history and space. Changes in the EU increasingly came at the cost of national sovereignty and, some would say, identity — hence the rise of the patriotic right. But, the giant above these states, is not a Federation nor even the Holy Roman Empire. It is over this tension that many of the current schisms have arisen—a currency that is not accountable to sovereign oversight leading to abuse and chaos; the challenge to national law, the Democratic deficit, etc. The British recently reaffirmed the sovereignty of its Supreme Court over European legal institutions, and then talked about a referendum (2017) to leave this indefinable thing that was stealing their sovereign identity. In some ways a “Federal Europe” would match its size and wealth with a foreign policy and a military force; NATO certainly not being a European institution. Does this mean it should become a phoenix rising from the ashes of 1939-44 before the chicks leave the nest? We shall see soon enough.

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The article was published in “Life” magazine (3 april 2015)

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