Features, Not Bugs

by Andrew Stuttaford

The Economist frets over the upcoming elections for the EU Parliament in curiously revealing, and splendidly unconvincing, ways:

The European Parliament is trying to kindle public interest by turning the ballot into a contest for the next president of the Commission, a post traditionally decided by national leaders. The leading umbrella-parties are fielding candidates known by the German name of Spitzenkandidaten, complete with a series of face-to-face debates, and have agreed that the candidate of the largest group will be parliament’s choice to lead the commission. Government leaders are suspicious of the idea but have not dared halt the process. A protracted standoff over the nomination is a distinct possibility, and would lead to paralysis in Brussels. The man to beat is Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat who is also president of the European Parliament. If he succeeds in taking over the Commission, he will have scored a remarkable personal victory, and permanently shifted power from governments to the European Parliament. However, a more politicised commission will raise questions about its role as an impartial arbiter (eg, on competition policy) and a referee between member-states, whether they be large or small, or of the left or the right.

This is half true. As I mentioned this morning,  the election  of any one of the leading Spitzenkandidaten (although Schulz is the most dangerous of the three) could well lead to a further shift in power to the parliament (and, paradoxically, another shift away from authentic democratic control: the EU parliament represents a supposedly pan-EU electorate that in many senses does not exist).  But the idea that the commission is not already highly politicized is both absurd and a failure to recognize that the speed and extent of European integration—something the Commission does much to shape—is itself a profoundly political question.  The Commission is not, nor has it ever been an “an impartial arbiter”.

The Economist correctly notes that “eurosceptics will struggle to influence legislation directly” in the parliament. Nevertheless, it maintains that a euroskeptic surge in the vote would have three consequences.


[T]heir numbers will make it harder for EU institutions to argue that the answer to every problem is “more Europe”.



[T]hey will force mainstream parties to form a grand coalition to get legislation approved, thereby aggravating the democratic deficit.

Good: this will highlight the essentially oligarchic reality of the EU’s political process. That may prove instructive.


[T]hey will weaken and terrify many national governments, pulling them towards more Eurosceptical policies.

Again, excellent.

This, worries The Economist, “may prevent Europe from enacting the reforms it so desperately needs, from deepening the single market, to promoting free trade and fixing the euro zone”.

The idea that “deepening the single market” (something that already works reasonably well) or “promoting free trade” (ditto, more or less) are objectives important enough to trump most other considerations is a fairly classic expression of Davos liberalism (an Economist trademark) – but it should be ignored:  A nation is more than a unit of production. As for ‘fixing the euro zone’, that presumably means the adoption of a much tighter degree of integration within the currency union, including the introduction of a ‘transfer union’ that would effectively set up a permanent pipeline from the pockets of German and other ‘northern’ taxpayers to those euro zone economies that are struggling to keep up. Economically speaking that is indeed the best way of preserving the euro ‘as is’, but economically speaking preserving the euro ‘as is’ makes little sense. In terms of democracy, it would, of course, be a catastrophe. Far better to look at more radical solutions (at this point I insert the usual reference to the ’northern euro’) but that is not the sort of fix that The Economist or anyone in Brussels has in mind.

There are other issues, of course, not least the nature of some of the parties that will benefit from a euroskeptic surge but The Economist’s fears look, for the most part, like glimpses of a somewhat more promising future.

The Corner

The one and only.