Nothing to Envy in EU Membership

Outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Unable to change course, the union must and will crash spectacularly.

More than usual, I’ve been thinking about France. Or rather, daydreaming about it. I listen to Stacey Kent records, where she sings in that distinct style of French bossa nova. It’s a style of jazz music that is relaxed, never tired. None of the drug-fueled creativity of American bebop, just that propulsive rhythm section and a chanteuse you’re supposed to love. French people seem to know that they can get away with doing just a little less than the minimum required. It’s part of their style.

And certainly it is true about their politics. In the face of the Yellow Vest protests, French president Emmanuel Macron abandoned his campaign pledge to stand firm behind his reform agenda. He rescinded tax increases and promised more spending outlays, expanding his budget deficit beyond the European Union’s threshold of 3 percent of GDP. The EU’s budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, said the EU would make an exception and accept the rule-breaking French budget.

No such exception is made for the new Italian government, which seeks approval for a budget that has a 2.4 percent deficit. The EU wants to clamp down on Italy’s debt, which at 130 percent of GDP is more than twice the EU’s limit of 60 percent. (France exceeds the limit as well, however, with a debt roughly equal to its GDP.) And in the eyes of the EU, Italy’s government is an enemy, made up of “populists” and occasional critics of the EU. No allowances are made for them, even though Italy has gone through political upheaval similar to or greater than France’s.

All this should be a reminder that there is nothing much to envy about European Union membership. If you’re a relatively wealthy Western European nation, it is a source of instability. Brexit is treated as a “shambles,” but to an outsider it looks orderly and civilized compared with what is happening in the European Union itself. The immediate political effect of the Leave vote was to strengthen the U.K.’s most long-lived mainstream parties: Tory and Labour. Meanwhile, on the Continent, the traditional political parties in European Union member states continue to shrivel and die. The Yellow Vest protests have moved on from French cities to Brussels. So-called populists parties continue to make gains.

The European Union is a brilliant and insidious construction. Franco-German interests are obviously paramount. But it attracts the political class of smaller countries by removing difficult questions of governing from their parliaments and providing offices of authority without accountability that seem to have more shine than their national governments. Because Germans don’t want to be seen as utterly dominating the bloc, the political offices at the very top are doled out generously to second-tier members such as Belgium, Poland, Slovakia, and Portugal.

That lack of accountability is an important advantage. Theresa May has to answer a British public about the deal she negotiated with Brussels. Who would hold Brussels accountable for bungling the other side of the negotiation? If Britain crashes out and pulls continental business interests down with it, all because European negotiators were too intransigent, who gets to fire those negotiators? Who holds them accountable? No one. They have nothing to fear.

The EU’s high-handedness, blatant favoritism, disdain for elections, stifling political orthodoxies, and mulish unresponsiveness are the primary cause of political instability across Europe. But most of all, the problem is that the European Union is not really a governing institution in the normal sense of the term. It doesn’t really do the primary jobs of government, such as providing law and order and reconciling diverse interests in a functioning society. Instead the European Union is a teleological project; it is pursuing a goal. Its function is to create “more Europe.” That is, it exists for itself. It uses the existing “pooled sovereignty” of its member states to attempt to drain more sovereignty away from the member states. That’s why power resides with an unelected body, and why it ignores or retries any national referendum that doesn’t endorse the preexisting goals of the European Union.

The European Union has shown that it can change speeds, not that it can change course. Unable to correct, it must and will crash spectacularly.

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