The EU must reform if it is to survive
Central European politicians – led by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and the leader of the Polish Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński – often see the European Union as a threat to Hungarian/Polish values and political choices. In this they are right, at least as far as their own policies and presumably their own supporters go.
The conservative electorates of these Central European states are opposed to mass immigration, dislike many liberal policies (such as gay marriage) and support strong assertions of national independence. The European Union has, especially over the past two decades, become increasingly ambitious in their efforts to integrate both the economies and policies of its members: with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, the European Community (as it was then called) took a very large step towards European integration, uniting its member states in what has developed into today’s European Union.
The centre cannot hold
But this narrative from Brussels ignores the movement away from integration, which is the real story of the Union presently – indeed, it has been for the last several years. The EU’s determination to plunge towards an “ever-closer union” is – apart from the special case of French President Emmanuel Macron – now merely rhetorical.
While the new, largely right-wing nationalists are the most potent force opposing it, the move towards a European federation has always had prescient critics from the liberal wing of politics, among the most powerful of whom was the late Tony Judt, most notably in his 2011 book, A Grand Illusion?
In it, he wrote that “however desirable in principle, an ever-closer bonding of the nations of Europe is, it is impossible in practice, and it is therefore imprudent perhaps to promise it…. I don’t wish to suggest that there is something inherently superior about national institutions over others. But we should recognize the reality of nations and states, and note the risk that, when neglected, they become an electoral resource of virulent nationalists.”
That last warning is very much to the present point, in two ways. In the Central European states of Hungary and Poland, the ruling parties have been elected legally and in the latter’s case overwhelmingly. They use their majorities to bolster their own rule by harrying and weakening independent judiciaries, liberal media and other institutions.
Michael Ignatieff – the scholar, journalist, former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party who now heads the Central European University in Budapest, one of the targets often attacked by Viktor Orbán – told an audience in Oxford in April that “the nationalist counter-revolution is legitimized by democracy. Under majority rule, legislation and other measures against liberal institutions are undertaken in the name of the people. We are accused of exacerbating inequality—and thus any defence we mount for academic freedom is seen as a defence of privilege and of a caste.”
However, as Damir Marusic of the American Interest magazine writes, a citizen from the former-communist, Central European states might “listen to the incessant complaining coming from democratic determinists in Brussels and bemusedly scratch his head. His legitimately elected leaders are merely protecting values dear to him and his country from a bunch of messianic foreigners preaching an idealistic universalism he’s never signed up for, and that he doubts exists.”
The second point is that liberals everywhere have neglected Judt’s advice and ignored nationalism and the national parliaments’ claim to sovereignty: indeed, they have often denigrated nation states as decaying holdovers of a less enlightened era. Instead, they have seen the EU as a model of the future, pacific and projecting only soft power.
Yet, at the same time, they have accepted that it must be integrated by hard, technical means through extending European power and influence over budgets and economic targets and through the creation of the euro itself, a financial innovation introduced for the political end of greater integration. That currency creation was done prematurely, with the users of the currency at widely different economic levels and with no possible recourse to the mechanism which had helped nations absorb economic shocks: a devaluation of the currency.
The Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in March, 2015 that “it has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency—above all, the kind of fiscal and banking union that, for example, ensures that when a housing bubble in Florida bursts, Washington automatically protects seniors against any threat to their medical care or their bank deposits.”
The economic adviser to Pope Francesco, Federico Nicolaci, believes that the eurozone crisis has shown that “a form of unity based on economic utility is highly unstable: with the dwindling of material advantages, nothing remains to keep the EU countries together, thereby paving the way to centrifugal tendencies. What we see today is precisely the lack of political willingness of richer EU countries to share with the poorer not only rules and institutions, but also burdens and benefits.”
The heaviest blow came last month in a column from the influential economic commentator for the Financial Times Martin Wolf (who has supported the currency for years), which began by saying that “The euro has been a failure. This does not mean it will not endure or that it would be better if it disappeared. The costs of a partial or complete break up are far too great. It means that the single currency has failed to deliver economic stability or a greater sense of a European identity. It has become a source of discord” – and concluded that “Good fences make good neighbours. A currency of one’s own is a good fence. It is such a pity this was forgotten”.
Should the rest of the EU members thus follow Britain out of the institution—to perform a “EURexit” which would return these nations to full national sovereignty, with their own currencies once more? To be sure, the Union has grossly inflated its palliative effects on post-war Europe.
It has not, for example, been the only or even the prime reason why war did not again descend on the continent: that is owed much more to the United States for injecting Marshall Aid into impoverished economies, shouldering the main burden of common defence through NATO and, for the most part, underpinning the values of democracy and liberty.
For the Central European states, whose economies have benefitted greatly from EU subsidies, the choice is even less attractive. Though most (except Slovakia) have retained their own currencies, the loss of subsidies would be a hard blow.
A decision to leave (a Polexit, Czexit, Hexit, Slexit) is anyway unnecessary to preserve the policies taken by these governments. The hesitation which the EU has shown in confronting government policies and legislation in Poland and Hungary of which it disapproves is both because there is no obvious mechanism for intervening and because these administrations can claim a democratic legitimacy which the EU cannot.
The American economist Dani Rodrik has consistently pointed out this democratic deficit – writing that “it is clear that the EU rules needed to underpin a single European market have extended significantly beyond what can be supported by democratic legitimacy. It was this which is at the core of Britain’s decision to leave the EU – with all the economic risks that is already bringing.” Rodrik, in a separate essay, comments that “the Brexiteers’ call to ‘take back control’ captured the frustration many European voters feel.”
Yet, even with all its faults, the Union ought to be preserved if it is shorn of its imperial mission and radically reformed; essentially, to shouldn’t follow the direction the French president wishes to take it.
The EU’s outstanding benefit has been to foster greater cooperation among the European political, business and academic elites. It allows elected representatives and officials to understand at a depth never before possible the issues and problems, both singular and common, with which all states’ governments must wrestle, and encourages joint actions on the protection of the environment, joint research programs and joint approaches to terrorism and crime.
Nor are these advantages confined to the elites. Cheap air travel, intra-European tourism, the spread of English as a common language, the almost-weekly staging of European sports contests, the popularisation of recipes and restaurants drawing on different national and regional cuisines, the cheesy, immensely-enjoyable and popular annual Eurovision song contest have made Europeans more familiar with each other in an unprecedented way, a development which the EU encourages and for which it provides a framework.
But the positive benefits of the EU should be sustained by national parliaments, without the constant prod of a Commission dedicated to transforming cooperation into integration. The European parliament, in this, is largely irrelevant: as the Oxford-based Polish political scientist Jan Zielonka writes, “the system of representation embodied by the European parliament is opaque, probably beyond repair…(It) should probably be allowed to do what it does best, a kind of auditing and monitoring of European institutions with no pretensions to act as a sovereign pan-European representative assembly.”
Zielonka has been among the few scholars to attempt a sketch of what a different EU could look like; one which, had it been on offer, might have staunched the large disaffection in the UK which prompted Brexit. Though Britain is treated as a chauvinistic pariah which will be given a hard time by the EU pour encourager les autres, an unease at the remoteness of the Union is sensed by millions.
Zielonka’s alternative – adumbrated in two long essays, “Is the EU Doomed? (Polity, 2014. LSE Review) and “Counter Revolution: Can Open Society Survive?” (Oxford University Press, 2018) – is suggestive rather than detailed. He urges liberals not to continue striving for the nirvana of a United States of Europe but to propose “new visions of democracy, capitalism and integration”. This is, as he recognizes, a tall order, one which he believes will take at least a decade to produce something like a new consensus. Instead of a “sovereign” and more-integrated Europe, he sees in the activities of civil society, aided by networks created by social media and online, a new form of politics in which sovereign power, for the present, stays with the nation state. Regional and city councils and civic bodies are often more important than national, certainly than European, governance.
Liberal society should be increasingly underpinned by a “polyphonic Europe” which “embrace(s) the basic principles of effective governance: functional coordination, territorial differentiation and flexibility.” It would cease to attempt to strengthen top-down governance, instead setting standards of openness, fairness and transparency within which networks of actors develop local democratic centres that have real meaning for people: institutions they can both influence and benefit from.
The vagueness of these ideas reflects the early stages of thinking about the deployment of a different sort of EU. They will also struggle to be heard from under the remaining power structure of the centralised European concept, still drawing its moral force from the idealism of the early pioneers, like Jean Monet and Altiero Spinelli, who saw the creation of a united continent as a prophylactic against future wars produced by national enmities and egoism; these potential conflicts were likely to be even more hideous than those they had witnessed and lived through.
The task ahead for those who wish to have the EU survive is to force a reform of the Union which would recognize that, for the foreseeable future, national parliaments and parties will be the centres of political decision making, sovereign in their territories, but they should still be committed to maintaining a close cooperation with other EU states on a range of issues – security and defence, the environment, immigration, education and so on.
These agreements will take the form of treaties which are debated and accepted by parliaments and may be changed or modified by subsequent governments – or by the same governments, if the agreements are seen to work badly. It will be a complex Europe – but not one facing the need to follow a path towards an integration which will remain elusive.
It has a much better chance of working than the current, shaky order – and it is one to which the states of Central Europe, only a few decades removed from the forced integration of the communist bloc, could recognize as both free and useful.
This article is adapted from the author’s essay, “Why Macron Cannot Integrate Europe” originally published in The American Interest.
John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.