Politics & Policy

Gesture Politics

The EU reacts to rising discontent.

Europe gave itself the party to end all parties last weekend. Gathered in Berlin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Union, the political leaders of its 26 member states have been planning the next great leap forward toward “ever closer union.” Against this sober background there were celebratory lectures, Euro-themed night clubs and all the other modern signs of official gaiety.

But as several commentators have noticed, all this celebration has a melancholy air. The EU is not loved — or, to be more precise, everybody loves it but the people. A poll in the Euro-enthusiastic Financial Times last week showed that 44 percent of Europeans (and 52 percent of Brits) thought that their life had got worse since they joined the EU. Since this is manifestly untrue — European living standards have risen significantly since 1957 and 1973 (when Britain joined) — the poll was registering strong dissatisfaction with the EU on other grounds. But what grounds?

Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, representing that mild respectable Euro-skepticism that is probably the opinion of most Brits, listed a series of irritants in the relationship between Brussels and member states. Mostly these concerned overregulation: 100,000 pages of new regulations have been handed down by the EU in the past decade; the EU pays for free massages for the unemployed; a British farmer was forced to destroy his herd of cattle because there were discrepancies between their “passports” and ear-tags; EU regulations forbid “carers” working more than 11 hours with the result that the disabled cannot go on vacation; etc. etc., ad infinitum.

EU officials tend to get very angry about these complaints. But an embarrassing percentage of most such reports have proved to be accurate.

Behind the anger and surprise of the Eurocrats lies the conviction that these tales of regulatory abuse are utter trivialities compared with Europe’s great achievements over the past five decades. According to the official mythology of the EU, the EU has provided the continent with peace and prosperity. It transformed a stricken and war-torn Europe into the present glittering colossus.

Alas, these justifications cannot withstand examination. Consider the dates: What is now the EU was established in 1957. Europe’s economic recovery, fueled by America’s Marshall Plan, was then in full spate; the world was admiring Germany’s “economic miracle”; an election in Britain (still outside Europe) was about to be won on the slogan: “You’ve never had it so good.” Since 1957 the EU has indeed prospered. But so has almost every other nation. How well each nation has done is far better explained by its domestic economic policies than by its membership in the EU. Britain, for instance, languished in its first decade as an EU member state. Its sharp economic recovery since then is the result of Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution.

Europe was similarly at peace in 1957 owing to the presence of the United States as a European power in NATO. Everyone knew that no European power need fear its neighbor as long as America remained. In ironic contrast to the myth, it was the European peace provided by America through NATO that was the pre-condition for the establishment of the EU.

Such fantasies are a recurring feature of EU politics at the highest level. EU summits tend to agree on vast ambitious plans for the future that never really materialize. Sometimes these plans — such as the EU’s so-called “Lisbon agenda” for economic reform or its agreed Kyoto targets for carbon reduction — address real problems. But they rarely get anywhere. Almost all the EU member-states, for instance, failed to meet their Kyoto targets. But their response to this failure was to establish even more ambitious targets.

“Gesture politics” of this kind gives EU leaders the comfortable feeling of doing something while they avoid the really serious problems facing Europe: It is falling behind America and Asia economically, its population is sinking below the level required to pay for Europe’s “social model” and importing (mainly Muslim) immigrants to do so is provoking social tensions and political resistance.

Voters have been growing nervous and angry about these failures for some time. A few European leaders have joined them. Last week the Czech president dismissed the Berlin Declaration, which endorses the “social model” and its associated labor market inflexibility. But most European leaders want to push ahead to a politically integrated Europe and to stick to existing policies in doing so.

They can ignore voter discontent about issues such as immigration because the EU has what is called a “democratic deficit.” They seem to like it that way. Their response to the defeat of the Euro-Constitution in referendums two years ago was to introduce it piecemeal under rules that don’t need voter approval.

But this elite high-handedness is probably unsustainable in the long run. If the EU is to survive and prosper, it needs to decentralize, restoring powers to member-states where the voters can hold governments to account. Otherwise, a remote political structure running a rigid economic one is heading for a tremendous smash-up — despite the self-congratulations of last weekend.

This first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.


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