Essay: We Ought To Be EU-Skeptic
In the run-up to the European election, we ought to be more skeptical of the EU. The union's fundamental design flaws could lead to its disintegration. An essay by former German President Roman Herzog.
The European Union is in a deep crisis. The reasons for the crisis are manifold, and would, each on its own, have been endurable, even over decades. In the present situation, however, they have become intertwined and so will persist. If those responsible don't face up to them decisively, the long-term prospects for Europe do not look good.
The debt and currency crisis makes it abundantly clear there is something very wrong with the constitutional structure of the EU, as well as with the political conduct of particular members. One doesn't know which is more puzzling: that some new members could trick their way into the euro zone and into the EU itself with false figures, or that those in Brussels failed to notice bogus applications.
Average citizens, even halfway informed about current developments, will be concerned and will expect reassurance above all on two points: They would like the prosperity achieved in Europe to be reasonably secure, and they will also want Europe to be strong enough for Europe's voice to be heard in the newly forming world concert. Such citizens deserve to be understood.
The description of the "new tasks" may sound brief. In reality it encompasses a huge program, which only a very strong institution would be capable of mastering. Whether today's EU is able to display this strength is open to doubt, therefore this issue is worth pursuing in greater detail.
In hindsight, the EU has not been strengthened by the numerous new entrants of recent years, but weakened. Political strength of the kind needed today in Europe is something fundamentally different from size, especially mere territorial size. It is delusional to think that an institution like the EU simply has to be as big as possible for it to be strong and capable of surviving under pressure.
Size can equally make it become rigid and inflexible, because of excessively fast growth and even more so because of the challenges of internal uniformity. This is particularly risky at a time such as ours, when every day brings new risks and problems -- but also new opportunities. In such situations, size can be an advantage. But it can only be agile and quick to respond if it limits itself to the most essentially shared issues, and doesn't try to play the all-encompassing superstate.
The bigger an institution becomes, the more fragile its inner homogeneity. Political and ideological consensus, without which such a community of states has no real chance of long-term survival, was present for all the new entrants in the past decades. But our current debt crisis showed that economic homogeneity was awry. Of course, not all members can be equally strong economically.
The EU has always accepted economically stronger and weaker states; the weaker were supposed to be helped to rise to the level of the stronger. But this much should surely have been ascertained: whether a candidate for entry could be expected, with the help of the EU, to reach an economic level which would allow it to stand on its own two feet within a reasonable period of time.
Let us leave the examination of the EU's reality aside for the moment. It is evident that the state of affairs in the EU is a sorry one. The idea and the reality are poles apart, and corrections will have to be made above all to the reality if the EU is to achieve what European citizens expect of it. The awkward predicament, however, is that this will require considerable changes to the EU treaties and these are difficult to renegotiate, as they require the assent of all member governments as well as member parliaments.
Of course, it is harder to get 28 member states into one camp than six, particularly when the 28 contain groups with quite different historical experiences. This has obviously been the case since the entry of the former Eastern Bloc countries. For half a century these states had to suffer the pain of handing over their sovereignty to Moscow, and now joining the EU has again forced them to endure sensitive incursions into their sovereignty.
It is entirely understandable that some of their politicians have a highly skeptical attitude to further changes. But in turn, those other states in Europe, which are already prepared for further integration, must have the right to form smaller circles and, for example, throw their combined weight on the scales in world politics. The treaties include a specific instrument for this purpose: "enhanced cooperation". This is sometimes perceived with some skepticism as "two-speed integration," but it is one which would allow courageous individual states to move forward and with them advance the integration of the whole -- the same kind of moving forward as the act of founding was for the original six.
All this has only one catch: Enhanced cooperation along these lines requires the permission of heads of state, and this permission has to be unanimous. This is hard to understand. As mentioned before, while there has to be sympathy for the eastern members not wanting to accept further losses of sovereignty, no individual member state of the EU, however small, should be in a position to prevent others from closer cooperation. This is the most serious weakness of the Lisbon treaty.
Another potential threat to European integration is the already excessive production of standards in the EU. Comprehensive law-making can be an indicator of the power of an institution: the great European works of codification in the last century make this case. But it is also a question of what legal substance is being displaced by new laws, and this is especially pertinent when the lawmaker is acting within a strongly expanded territorial framework, when his theme, therefore, is not "modernizing the law," but rather "unifying different legal regions," as of course is the case with the integration of Europe. The incessant, often senseless legislating activity in the bodies of the Union which has led to 60-70,000 printed pages of legislation, is therefore not a sign of abundant creative energy in the EU. Rather, it is a cause, or a contributing cause, of its creative and therefore political weakness.
The process itself is an obvious one. The larger the area to be standardized, the more one has to abstract away from the peculiarities of the individual region and what has been "abstracted away" has to be replaced by armchair decisions and woolly constructs. The process then ends with the citizen affected not feeling understood by the lawmaker and withdrawing his or her trust!
What is at stake here is nothing less than the democratic substance of the Union. Discussions about the democratic deficit of the EU tend to end with a demand for direct elections for individual roles within the Union, or for expanding the powers of the European Parliament.
While I will not quibble with these demands, there should also be a recognition that beyond individual measures, democracy demands a bond of trust and understanding between the bodies of the Union and the citizens of the Union, and here things are not as they should be. Not least evidence of this is the usual complaint about the "European public" -- the European demos -- having failed to materialize after more than half a century's efforts -- whatever such a polyphonous public might actually look like.
The larger a public institution, the harder it is to create both understanding and trust. If the parliament's powers are too limited, that may be a bad sign for the way EU contracts deal with parliamentarianism, but that is only one element in democracy. At the same time, when citizens of the Union no longer feel they belong, because too much is decided above their heads without knowledge of their aspirations and without empathy for their circumstances, the democratic character of the union is called into question.
- Part 1: We Ought To Be EU-Skeptic
- Part 2: 'We Will Not Get By in the World with Western Ideas Alone'
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- The book may be purchased here.
- We have also published Will Straw's essay on Britain's relationship with the EU from this same volume.
- Heading for the Margins: Why Is Britain Running Away from Europe?