Monday, June 06, 2005

What's Next for Europe?

Pause. Reflect. And have national governments begin crediting the EU for the gains it has wrought, as opposed to using it as a convenient foil for domestic political shortcomings. That's the advice of Will Hutton in the Sunday Observer yesterday in a particularly astute article from a pro-European perspective.

I have not written on the booming "No" votes in France and Holland mainly because it is damn difficult to assess the consequences so soon - from the future of the Euro [Italy may seek a referendum to withdraw] to the timing of Blair's departure from 10 Downing. Hutton tackles many of the points extremely well... I'll exert a few key paragraphs, but if you have a moment, go and read it for yourself.

On the immediate problem:

"But the EU treaty, streamlining the cumbersome procedures for a union of 25 states, was vitally needed. Few beyond the initiates understand the relationship between the European Council (the EU's political directorate with a different member state occupying the presidency every six months), the European Commission (the EU's secretariat), and the European parliament. The treaty tried to give Europe a more human face with a permanent president, a more coherent European Commission and a more empowered European Parliament, together with a more rational and fairer system of voting. It was not a breakthrough but it was an improvement.

Now that it is dashed we are left with the current dysfunctional ragbag, with the No votes signalling opposition to any improvement. The danger is obvious. Locked between a rock of an unratifiable treaty and a hard place of dysfunctional institutions, the EU can only become more discredited in a vicious cycle of decline, ever more obvious impotence and growing illegitimacy."

The size of the document drew a lot of ire and mockery from many who would compare it with the efforts of Jefferson and Co., but in a sense this misses the point. Amalgamating the detail of 50 years worth of treaties demanded such expansive treatment. In a sense, any real changes from the status quo represented mere minor improvements to accomodate the entry of the 10 new members, while the greater project was in the attempt to merge documents of sizeable complexity in order to clarify the scene. I know it took me a few weeks in my EU as an International Actor course to notice and appreciate the real differences between EC law and EU law. At a stroke, this treaty would have eliminated the need to juggle through multiple governing agreements to understand the inner workings of the Union.

Perhaps the gravest error here was infusing this treaty with the meaning-laden term of "constitution". A more lyrical and brief statement of first principles might have been written to accompany the expansive regulations on procedure and term it a European constitution, but any attempt to be brief would have allowed the "anti" forces to claim that the ECJ would simply use it to radically rewrite the structure of the Union.

On the failure of national governments to stand up for Europe:
"Among the founding six member states, Brussels and European integration have come to be seen as the enemy of real Europe and the friend of Islamic immigration, high unemployment, reduced social protection, economic restructuring and 'vulture, locust capitalism'. In Britain, paradoxically, Brussels is seen as the architect of grand social schemes, inflexible labour markets, regulation, economic weakness and reduction of political sovereignty... Neither is true."

Perhaps the biggest paradox of the EU - it has become a convenient hobbyhorse for all sorts of criticism, often contradictory. Last week, both the Economist and the French Socialists came out strongly against this treaty, for almost diametrically opposed reasoning. National politicians acting in their own self-interest have been quick to blame Brussels for their own failures, and so debate and promotion over the larger vision question of what Europe stands for/what benefits it brings just isn't being championed.

On what's next:
"Europeans have to think straight, to talk honestly and recognise their commonality. If they continue to resort to creating false enemies and false choices, there is no doubt that the European project will fail and with it the prosperity and peace we take for granted.What Europe now needs is time to assimilate the message from last week's votes and to stop the ratification process - if a warning on such a scale is not heeded, everything could be lost."

Agreed. It is tempting to celebrate the results in France and Holland as a triumph of democracy over bureaucratic elites, but the European project is not so simply characterised. One lesson is clear, though, the people have reclaimed a central role in this debate, and this is surely to the good. Unfortunately, this message could only be delivered by rejecting an essentially desirable proposal.

Just before the French vote, Bob Tarantino at Let it Bleed drew an interesting analogy between the Constitution's demise and the failure of our Charlottetown Accord. A dozen years later, Canada has yet to attempt any significant constitutional reforms in fear of sparking those old divisions. Europe does not have the luxury of simply retaining the status quo, however. What's that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times?


Blogger The Tiger said...

How can Hutton write this:

Only last week, the row over the 48-hour working week - with Britain successfully resisting attempts to create a continent-wide level playing field - revealed the drift into institutional and political deadlock.

And this:

Britain has not helped. Opting out of initiatives like the single currency and social Europe, the Blair government has chosen to attribute our economic and social success to Britain's resistance to Europe's bargains, values and preoccupations. Thus when Brussels proposes reforms, there is even more evidence for them to be characterised in mainland Europe as part of a pro-Anglo-Saxon, anti-European conspiracy.

... in the same column with a straight face? If Blair gives credit for Britain's more open and vibrant economy to its resistance to proposed Europe-wide regulations, I agree with him wholeheartedly.

I will mourn the death of the Euro, if it happens, but if that is the price of halting further integration under those conditions (heavily bureaucratic), I'd say it's a small price to pay.

10:49 AM  
Blogger James MacDuff said...

The work week fiasco - and single currency problems in general - were items Tim brought up repeatedly when we discussed this last week over Strongbow, in the shadow of Westminster on the Thames. You are surely right to highlight Hutton's discrepancies here [I think he is on record as supporting the Euro and so continues to hope for its British implementation].

But I don't necessarily disagree with his wider point: that politicians love to claim all economic benefits were due to their own reforms, any problems must be blamed on institutions or factors beyond their control, and this undermines the consensus nature of the EU. So the economic benefits of the open market forged in Brussels are never trumpeted by anyone except an increasingly marginalized, powerless, and ineffective Commission - not noticed until lost.

Note also that Hutton does fairly raise the reasons for the economic failures of Germany, France, and Italy [public interest resistance to change, burden of reunification, etc..]

His lament is truly one where national leaders play off one another for domestic gain instead of working toward possible consensus - which leads to a situation where the French vote No because Brussels is perceived as too liberal, and the English vote No because it's perceived as too regulatory. There's no easy way out of that kind of deadlock.

11:16 AM  
Blogger The Tiger said...

Could it be that they have two fundamentally irreconciliable world-views, and therefore that a free trade agreement with labour mobility agreements might be better?

Say it ain't so! :-)

[Maybe there should be a United States of Europe. But does England have a place in it?]

12:40 PM  

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