Where are the Europeans?

by Andrew Stuttaford

A few years back Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Republic’s splendidly Thatcherite president, explained why attempts to resolve the EU’s “democratic deficit” were doomed:

The relationship between a citizen of one or another member state and a representative of the Union is not a standard relationship between a voter and a politician, representing him or her. There is also a great distance (not only in a geographical sense) between citizens and Union representatives, which is much greater than it is the case inside the member countries. This distance is often described as the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision making of the unelected – but selected – ones, as bureaucratisation of decision making etc. The proposals to change the current state of affairs – included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not much different Lisbon Treaty – would make this defect even worse.

Since there is no European – and no European nation – this defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European parliament either.

That Europeans are not one nationality is the theme that runs through this intriguing, sometimes stinging Foreign Policy piece (h/t: Andrew Sullivan) by Gareth Harding. I wouldn’t agree with it all, but the whole thing is very well worth a read.

Some extracts:

The European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny — an “ever closer union,” in the words of the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded what was then called the European Economic Community. We are now discovering that regional and national differences are not dissolving and that Europeans think and act very differently from one another. The British view of the state’s role is very different from the French view. The Greek or Italian concept of law is very different from that of Sweden or Denmark. Latvians have a very different view of Russia from Germans. What an Irishman is prepared to pay in taxes is very different from what a Dane or Belgian will allow.

Well, I am not sure that we are only “now” discovering this truth, but the broader point holds, as does this:

This lack of unity is Europe’s third and most profound crisis, one that underlies the continent’s economic and political woes. Most Europeans have little idea what the EU stands for in the world, what binds its people together, where it has come from in the past, and where it is going in the future. After more than 60 years of EU integration, 200,000 pages of legislation, and a hefty (and still growing) stack of treaties, we have succeeded in building a European Union without Europeans.

Indeed, that’s something underlined by the hopelessly strained efforts to define European “values”, a quest that, by existing, proves its own pointlessness, a pointlessness accidentally reinforced by Timothy Garton Ash (a brilliant commentator on the Soviet empire, who has lost his way on the question of the Brussels raj). In addition to the usual peace-and-prosperity, he offers up “law, diversity, and solidarity” as shared European values and he does so in all apparent seriousness. “Solidarity” is a fancy word for corporatism and citing “law” is nuts (Harding explains why). As for “diversity”, well, let’s just accept that sentences including an unironic use of that high-cant term can often be safely discarded — and simply move on.  

And, of course, inevitably in such an article, the euro makes its usual grim appearance. I’d argue that as an example of truly irresponsible financial engineering the single currency puts the worst of Wall Street to shame, but Harding concentrates on its key political flaw: it simply lacks legitimacy:

The EU has amassed extraordinary powers, but it has done so largely without consulting the people and without many of the basic safety valves we take for granted in a democracy. For example, nobody asked the German people whether they wanted to give up their beloved deutsche mark. The government simply made that decision for them, arguing that a single currency would be bound by strict rules — which were later torn up by Paris and Berlin — and that a currency union would not lead to a transfer of wealth from rich to poor states — which has proved to be false.

In most democracies, if you don’t like a government you can vote it out. In the EU system this is impossible.

And the EU’s response? Even more of the same.

Harding concludes:

Shortly before the launch of euro coins and notes in January 2002, Duisenberg, the European Central Bank president, mused, “The euro is much more than just a currency; it is a symbol of European integration in every sense of the word.” He was right, but not in the way he might have hoped. A decade on, the plight of the embattled euro seems to encapsulate a broader breakdown of Europe’s dreams of a united future. Rather than bringing the European Union closer to its citizens, the currency has widened the gap between rulers and ruled. Instead of ushering in a new era of prosperity, the euro has condemned millions of Europeans to decades of penury. And far from bringing together the peoples of Europe, it is on the verge of tearing them apart.

Indeed.