Harding gave the talk "Building the EU without Europeans during a brown bag lunch presentation at the University of Missouri on Sept. 19, 2011.
“Yes, but what is a European?”
The question, posed by one of my students during a discussion on the EU, should have been easy enough for me to answer.
And yet I found myself stuttering and stammering as I searched for an answer. I waffled for a bit about European values – freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law – but realized any American or Australian could also lay claim to these values.
In the end I settled on a statement of the blindingly obvious. “A European is someone who lives in Europe.”
I didn’t convince myself, let alone the class. I left utterly dejected and deep in thought.
The more I mulled the question over the more I came to the conclusion that after over half a century of European integration and over 200,000 pages of EU laws, we still have little idea what Europe is, what it stands for, what binds its people together and where it is going?
Until recently these could have been dismissed as existential questions – of interest only to policy wonks, Economist readers and Brussels eurocrats.
Then came Europe’s most profound economic crisis since the 1930s. Like the United States Europe is in the midst of a deep depression. Unemployment is high, growth low, banks are collapsing and indebted governments are running out of money. Some countries, like Greece, Ireland, Portugal and possibly Britain, Spain and Italy, face the prospect of a generation of penury.
Even the American press, which does its best to ignore the EU, has been forced to focus on Europe’s economic woes. I was both amused and appalled to read a lead article in USA Today yesterday that stated: “For the first time in recent memory, Europe isn’t just a playground for vacationers.” “Decades ago Americans could easily ignore developments in the Old Country,” it continued, before coming to the startling conclusion that developments in the world’s largest economy – the EU, not the US as the report erroneously claimed - “are also our problems.”
On top of this economic crisis, the European Union is also in the midst of its deepest political crisis since its foundation in 1957. Its most ambitious project – the creation of a single currency – is in danger of collapse. The principle of the free movement of people – another cornerstone of EU integration – is being challenged. Visionary leadership – whether at the EU or national level – is in very short supply. And a disgruntled electorate is turning its back on the European Union and mainstream parties and turning in droves towards anti-EU, anti-immigrant populist forces.
But there is a third crisis that gets little press but – I think – underlies the economic and political woes Europe faces. And that is a profound identity crisis faced by a people who don’t know what Europe is, where it ends, what it stands for and against, what direction it is heading in and what common ties link them to their neighbours.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these questions.
First off, what is Europe – or where is Europe, if you prefer?
In the second century A.D. the historian Tacitus reported on a heated discussion in the Senate about how far east the Roman Empire should expand. Two thousand years later, a similar debate about where Europe’s eastern borders lie is raging across the continent.
The EU treaty is clear about which countries can and cannot join the bloc. “Any European state” which respects the basic principles of the Union may apply for membership, it says. But this begs the question of where the continent starts and ends.
There is general agreement, among cartographers at least, that the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans represent the northern and western limits of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea marks a natural divide with Africa – which is why Morocco’s application in the 1960s was rejected. But when it comes to defining the continent’s eastern edges, it seems there has been little progress since Roman times.
The Ural mountain range in western Russia is widely seen as Europe’s north-eastern border, firmly placing Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova within the EU’s orbit – if and when they become fully-fledged democracies. But what about the continent’s south-eastern frontiers? Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are all members of the Council of Europe - Azerbaijan even won the Eurovision Song Contest this year. But can we honestly imagine them in the European Union? Kazakhstan recently presided over the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe but I don’t think many Europeans – or Kazakhs for that matter - would consider themselves a European country. Russia, which is partly in Europe, could apply to join the EU but thankfully they don’t want us and we don’t want them.
Then there is Turkey. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stated bluntly that Turkey cannot join the Union because it is not in Europe. Many Europeans would agree, pointing to the fact that 90% of Turkey’s landmass is in Asia, its dominant religion is very different to Europe’s and extending the club’s borders to the fringes of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia will bring the chaos of the Middle East to Europe.
On the other hand the Ottoman Empire was called the ‘sick man of Europe’ – not Asia - and its borders once stretched far into central Europe. Turkey has been admitted to every other European club – the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the EUFA football league…even the Eurovision Song Contest. And nobody would deny that a chunk of its territory, including most of Europe’s biggest city Istanbul, lies on the old continent.
Asked whether it was time to settle Europe’s frontiers once and for all, former EU Enlargement Commissioner Gunther Verheugen said: “I do not foresee a debate about the borders of Europe. It makes no sense.”
Given European leaders disastrous attempts at drawing up borders in the past, notably at Versailles in 1919 and Yalta in 1945, it is easy to see why some politicians are reluctant to set the EU’s eastern frontier in stone. But not doing so is only likely to cause confusion and sow the seeds of frustration among those queuing up for EU entry. It also makes it more difficult to develop a sense of European identity when there is no clear definition of what is Europe and where it ends.
Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU in the 1950s, said: “Europe has never existed…one has genuinely to create Europe.” Modern day Supporters of the EU’s unlimited expansion claim Europe is not a geographical entity at all but a union of values. This has led some – notably Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi – to argue for Israeli and Russian membership of the Union. But if one accepts this reasoning, what is to stop the United States, Canada or Australia - countries which share many common values with European states - from joining the EU? And if all states are potential members, what is to prevent the EU from becoming a “regional organization of Europe and the near east,” in the words of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing?
Those who argue for an ever wider union – or even an even deeper one – often fall-back on the argument of common European values in an effort to prove that Europeans share a set of immutable ideals that bind them together. Yet they are often sketchy as to what those values are.
The Dutch government held a series of seminars about European values during its presidency of the EU in 2004. “European fundamental values are sacred,” intoned former Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende at one event. But when it came to defining those values, he was fuzzier. “We have been discussing the idea of Europe for the last 12 hundred years. But we cannot grasp what it means, we cannot pin it down,” he said.
Values matter because they are the glue that binds a country together. They help define what society stands for and against. In a highly provocative book called ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe’, the American writer Christopher Caldwell writes that: Europe cannot defend its values against Islam because “you cannot defend what you cannot define. There is no consensus, not even the beginning of a consensus, about what European values are. A united Europe would have nothing to fear from Islam, but Europe is not united.”
Michael Emerson, a think-tanker and former EU ambassador to Russia, made a bold attempt to define the principles underlying the EU several years ago. His “Ten Commandments” for the bloc state: “Thou shalt be truly democratic and respectful of human rights and the rule of law; Thou shalt guarantee the four freedoms of movement (goods, services, capital, labor;) Thou shalt provide for social cohesion between people, regions and states; Thou shalt ensure sustainable economic development for the benefit of future generations; Thou shalt reject nationalism and favor the multiple identity of citizens; Thou shalt assure federative multi-tier governance; Thou shalt assure secular governance and favour multi-cultural pluralism in society; Thou shalt promote multilateral order in international affairs; Thou shalt abstain from threatening or using force against others without just cause; Thou shalt be open, inclusive and integrative towards neighbours that adhere to the above.”
It is difficult to argue with any of that but I imagine it would be difficult for any Americans to argue with it either. Well, Democrats anyway!
It also smacks of a motherhood and apple pie philosophy that suffocates in its inclusiveness, while mystifying in its sheer vagueness. Personally I can’t see Europeans uniting around rallying cry of ‘federative multi-tier’ governance or chanting: ‘What do we want? Multi-cultural pluralism. When do we want it? Now.’
The great British essayist Timothy Garton Ash also made a stab at defining European values in an essay entitled ‘Europe’s New Story’. Quite rightly, he wrote that the shared political narrative that existed in western Europe during the Cold War crumbled with the fall of the Berlin wall. “Most Europeans now have little idea where we’re coming from; nor do we share a vision of where we want to go to. We don’t know why we have an EU or what it’s good for. So we urgently need a new narrative.”
Yet the six strands he wove his new European story from – freedom, peace, law, prosperity, diversity and solidarity – are hardly unique to Europe and camouflage a host of differences between EU states.
For example, all Europeans believe freedom is vital but not all are willing to defend it. In a recent GMF opinion poll, 64% of Britons thought war was sometimes necessary to obtain justice, while only 22% of Italians and 28% of French and Germans thought the same.
So what about peace? The EU was founded after World War II to banish the spectre of war from the European continent forever. It hasn’t. Whilst its members have kept the peace – no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting – the European Union’s fringes have been anything but peaceful. There were bloody uprisings in Budapest, Prague and Bucharest during communist times and wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya and most recently Georgia after the fall of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then there were the Balkan wars of the 1990s. “This is the hour of Europe,” declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as storm clouds gathered over Bosnia. But instead of demonstrating Europe’s strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and finally Kosovo merely demonstrated Europe’s impotence. A club with pretensions of global power could not even stop slaughter an hour’s flight from its capital.
The rule of law is a precondition to join the EU but some states – such as Belgium and France - are much better at calling for new legislation than adhering to the laws that have already been passed. In others - notably Bulgaria, Romania - corruption is rampant while in Italy the mafia makes a mockery of justice in the southern half of the country.
Prosperity. Most EU states are rich compared to the rest of the world. But some of the richest European countries – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland – have never joined the Union yet have healthier economies and higher standards of living than the EU average.
All EU states have got richer since the bloc was founded in 1957. But so have most countries in the world. Compared to its main competitors in Asia and North and South America, European growth has been feebler over the past decades. And who would argue that the EU is likely to get comparatively more prosperous over the decades to come? No wonder a recent GMF opinion poll showed that Americans thought that Asia was much more important to America’s future than Europe.
But it is when it comes to diversity and solidarity that European values appear to come most unstuck.
The European Union prides itself on its differences – in theory. Its motto is ‘united in diversity’ and it is true there are few places on earth with such a mish-mash of cultures, languages, landscapes and peoples in such a small place. But diversity doesn’t equal tolerance and the existence of differences doesn’t mean an acceptance of them.
I was amused to read the reactions on the websites of Flemish newspapers when Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders suggested a fusion of Flanders and the Netherlands. “If Flanders joins up with that people of busybodies, violent hooligans, murdering youths and nuts them I'm joining an armed rebellion!” wrote one. “It's bad enough being with the Dutch at the same camp site! A union with Morocco or Mongolia would be better. There they don't pee against church walls and they don't eat fried croquettes from snack vending machines.”
Across Europe it is the parties advocating less diversity and more intolerance that are gaining ground. In recent elections in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary - and even progressive Sweden and Finland - voters have exhibited the sort of fears, phobias and prejudices that can only be described as the flipside of the European dream. Xenophobic, mean-minded, nationalistic, pessimistic and resistant to change -- these are increasingly the hallmarks of European voters, whether in EU referenda or national campaigns.
In a gushing book entitled ‘The European Dream’, American author Jeremy Rifkin asserts, somewhat prosaically: “The European dream is a beacon of light in a troubled world. It beckons us to a new age of inclusivity, diversity, quality of life, deep play, sustainability, universal human rights, the rights of nature and peace on Earth.”
If there ever was a European dream, it was based on a sense of solidarity among fellow members of the 27-nation club. Try telling that to the French - who railed against mythical Polish plumbers stealing their jobs during the debate on the EU constitution. Or the Dutch, who balked at transferring large sums of money to poorer members of the bloc. Or the Germans, Slovaks or Finns who have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to offer a lifeline to Greece. Or the northern European states that refuse to accept refugees and asylum seekers washing ashore on the beaches of Spain, Malta, Italy and Greece.
Instead of borders being erased – the great dream of the Schengen Treaty – they seem to be coming back in fashion. France recently set up frontier controls on its border with Italy in order to prevent a ‘flood’ of migrants from the north African countries it went to war to liberate. Denmark has also angered its neighbours by revoking some of the Schengen Treaty’s passport-free travel provisions.
Writing about Brussels the travel writer Jan Morris writes in ‘50 Years of Europe, An Album:’ “I could hardly see the memorial to Robert Schuman, the father of the new Europe, among the unkempt dripping trees. It was going to cost countless billion francs, a passer-by told me, to do the place up. ‘The price of history,’ I said sententiously. ‘Yes, and who’s going to pay it?’ said he?”
‘Who’s going to pay it?’ It’s the question on every Europeans’ lips as the euro contagion spreads westwards across the Mediterranean from Greece. The answer from most politicians and taxpayers is a resolute ‘not us’ or at least ‘not unless we have to.’ So much for solidarity. So much for a Common Currency. So much for a European Union.
At the Congress of Europe in 1948, Winston Churchill said: “We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being European as of belonging to their native land, and…wherever they go in this wide domain…will truly feel at home.”
Some hope. After over half century of unification there is less mobility than when Churchill made his speech – roughly two percent of Europeans live in another EU state. And in opinion poll after opinion poll voters identify themselves much more with their nation state than with Europe. As former European Commissioner Chris Patten has said: “The nation is alive and well more potent than ever in some respects. It is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance.”
I would tend to agree. In fact I’d even go further and say the nation is too big for many people to associate with. Europe has 20 more countries than in 1988 due to the splintering of countries like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and others. And there will be more on the way if Belgium, Spain or Britain shatter.
Just yesterday I read a front-page article in the NYT entitled “A British Soccer Team? What’s that? Ask Scots, Welsh and Irish.” It was about a plan to have a British soccer team representing Britain in the London Olympics next year. Quite logical – except there is no such thing. Instead we have Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish teams and all but the Engish are against joining Team GB. Said the head of the Scottish football federation – “We need to protect our identity and we have no interest in taking part.” The Welsh former goalkeeper Neville Southall asked: “What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well it’s not my flag; my flag’s a dragon.”
The journalist helpfully points out that “It is sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend how deeply tribal Britain is, and how resistant to the idea that there is a unifying notion of Britishness.”
Not just Britain.
In Belgium, a country that is considerably smaller than Missouri, there is such a vicious division between Flanders and Wallonia that there has not been a government for over 450 days - a world record. Not that there is much to govern over. Almost all federal powers have been devolved to the regions.
I have now lived in Belgium longer than my native Wales. When I tell Belgian friends I have been living in their country for 18 years they often say: “Alors, tu es presque belge?” I laugh and chirp “How can I be something that doesn’t exist?” But deep in my heart I know that even after 18 years I am not even one percent Belgian. Welsh? Definitely. British? Well, my passport says so – so that must be true. European? Maybe. But Belgian? Impossible.
This is not to deny that one can have multiple identities. Many Europeans are Catalan, Spanish and European. Others are Muslim and French. But national identities cannot be artificially created – they are forged early on and never go away. As the Jesuit’s used to say: ‘give me a child until he’s 7 and I will give you the man.’ The same is true of nationality.
Marmite, marmalade, prawn cocktail flavour crisps, cricket, warm beer, snooker and darts, patient queuing, embarrassed silences, sodden moors, slow trains, windswept beaches, drunken girls in mini-skirts, terraced houses, strawberries and cream, pasty faces, Wimbledon, Bruce Forsyth and the theme tune to Ski Sunday. That is Britain. That I can relate to. That made me who I am.
Ostend beach, snails and eels, King Albert II, La Brabanconne, lace curtains, the Vlaams Belang, madame pipi, kissing men’s cheeks, carnaval, garden gnomes, 55% taxation, FC Brugge, Zwarte Piet, priority to the right and gingerbread biscuits. That I can’t relate to.
Some authors, such as T.R Reid in the United States of Europe, have argued that a new generation of E-Europeans has emerged who drink the same cocktails, shout for the same football teams, wear the same clothes, celebrate Europe Day on May 9 and cheer along to the Eurovision Song Contest – that annual kitchfest. “The people of the New Europe – and particularly members of generation E – are moving towards a common European culture,” he writes, with a mix of hopeless naievity and journalistic hyperbole.
I don’t know anyone – even in Brussels – who celebrates Europe Day and a common European culture is the preserve of a tiny band of young, well-educated and often rootless cosmopolitanites.
But in some respects he is right. Political Europe may be poorly but Europeans are slowly coming together in other ways. Most Europeans care more about the result of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League European soccer final than the European Parliament elections. Thanks to no-frills airlines like Ryanair and easyJet, Europeans are criss-crossing the continent like never before, enabling Polish doctors to do weekend shifts in British hospitals and Italian travellers to discover the delights of Seville, Krakow and Porto for the price of an osso bucco. Brits with no great fondness for the EU cheer on French, Spanish and Portuguese soccer stars playing for their ‘local’ clubs and afterwards head to the pub to drink Belgian and German lagers. And Irish employ Lithuanian builders who hire Ukrainian workers to build their dream houses back home.
Of course, much of the credit for this is due to the EU for scrapping national airline monopolies, ending quotas on foreign soccer players and granting Europeans the right to live, work and stand for election in any member state. But Europe will ultimately be built by Europeans, not Brussels edicts. Indeed European integration owes as much to brash entrepreneurs like easyJet’s Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary as EU founding fathers Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet.
It is also undeniable that compared to Americans, Asians or Africans, Europeans do have certain things in common. They are wary of war – having lived in its shadow for centuries. They reluctantly accept high taxes as a price to pay for cradle-to grave welfare services. They enjoy their generous holidays and sometimes lengthy lunch breaks. They expect good public transport and are concerned about the environment. And most have a shared heritage anchored in Greco-Roman thought and civilization, Christianity and the enlightenment values of tolerance, secularism - even if they are not aware of it.
In an article entitled ‘What is a European?’ in 2002, the novelist AS Byatt asked the German writer Hans Magnus Enzenberger whether he felt European or German. He replied there were no such people as Europeans but, after a short pause, added: “On the other hand…if you took me up blindfolded in a balloon and put me down in any European city, I would know it was Europe, and I would know how to find a bar, and the railway station, and a food shop.”
There is something to this. Standing on the Charles Bridge in Prague, or lazing on La Concha beach in San Sebastian, or tucking into fresh goat’s cheese in a farmers market in rural France and you just know you are in Europe. Just as – standing on a flyover above a 12 lane highway in Los Angeles waiting for a bus that no longer existed was one of the few times I’ve felt homesick for Europe in my life!
Seen from the outside Europe is still an oasis of peace and prosperity. It is a continent thousands from Africa and Asia are willing to risk their lives to reach. Despite its current troubles it is seen in incredibly positive light. This is not only confirmed by polling but by anecdotal evidence I assembled last year for a multimedia project on how the rest of the world views Europe. We asked people all over the world what they thought of Europe and here are a few things they said. In Shanghai: “handsome men, beautiful ladies,” Rich – and friendly,” “Mona Lisa,” “harmony and happiness,” “kind hearted people and delicious food – maybe,” “blue sky and green grass.” In Mexico City: “Well educated and cultured,” “cities, lakes, forests,” and from one teenager who’s perhaps read to many fairy tales: “Many gorgeous women. Lots of wealth and gold.”
I think we’d all agree Europe is a fantastic place. But enjoying the delights of Europe doesn’t mean that Europeans are about to shed their local, regional or national affinities and usher in the age of ‘homo europeanus.’
“There is no European people,” writes Geert Mak in his magisterial book ‘In Europe’: “There is no single all-embracing community of culture and tradition that binds together Jorwerd, Vasarosbec and Keffalonia. There are at least four of them: the Northern-Protestant, the Latin-Catholic, the Greek-Orthodox and the Muslim-Ottoman. There is not a single language, but dozens of them. The Italians feel very differently about the word ‘state’ than do the Swedes. There are still no truly European political parties and pan-European newspapers and television stations still lead a marginal existence. And, above all, there is very little in the way of a shared historical experience.”
He continues: “People need stories in order to grasp the inexplicable, to cope with their fate. The individual nation, with its common language and shared imagery can always forge these experiences into one great cohesive story. But Europe cannot do that. Unlike the United States it still has no common story.”
There are huge differences between states in America but at the end of the day Americans feel American and are proud of the fact. Their hearts beat faster when they sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ or watch their athletes winning gold medals in Olympics. Many are willing to die for their country in far off wars. Most know their constitution and roughly how their political system works. They speak the same language and are obsessed by the same sports. They all love Mexican food, if not Mexican people.
The European Union, on the other hand, has created common institutions, laws and even a currency. It has created all the symbols of a nation state – a burgundy passport that places the European Union above one’s own nation state. A flag that is only voluntarily waved at the Ryder Cup golf championships between the US and Europe. It even has an anthem – Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ - that doesn’t have lyrics and no one knows is the EU’s anthem. What it lacks is a people who share a common culture, language or narrative – or at the very least are able to identify with the political construct that has been created in their name. “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans,” was how former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek put it.
The problem is that you cannot manufacture Europeans like toy soldiers. It takes time for a people to evolve and imposing artificial political contructs on disparate peoples has ended in failure or disaster throughout history. The European Union is different from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia because it was not imposed by force. But there are some similarities – the resentment towards the political elites in the capital, the feeling of trampled on identities and the desire for self-determination in ‘the provinces’. For the first time in my 20 years in Brussels the collapse of the European Union is no longer science fiction but a real – if somewhat unlikely – possibility.
The European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny – “ever closer union” in the words of the Treaty of Rome that founded the then EEC in 1957. We are now discovering that regional and national differences are not dissolving and that Europeans think and act very differently from each other. The British view of the state’s role is very different from the French. The Greek or Italian concept of the law is very different than in Sweden or Denmark. The Latvians have a very different view of Russia than Germans and what an Irishman is prepared to pay in taxes is very different to a Dane or Belgian.
And here we go to the heart of the eurozone’s travails once more. When the single currency was founded at the start of the 1990s there was a naïve belief that by having the same money all the nations of the eurozone would somehow converge. In short, the Greeks would become more German. Instead, weaker economies simply piggybacked on the strength of the euro, borrowing staggering amounts of money at low interest rates to prop up a welfare system that is unsustainable and a housing market that is grotesquely inflated. Necessary reforms – like making it easier to hire and fire workers, restraining wages and trimming a bloated public sector – were simply shelved.
Now there is nothing wrong with differences between peoples and countries, of course. The European Union is a way of managing differences peacefully so that fudged compromises in drab Brussels conference rooms replace skirmishes on battlefields. And it has done this rather well. The EU has, by and large, been a force for good both within Europe and on the world stage. But compromising on food packaging legislation and laws on the curvature of cucumbers is not the same as compromising on border protection, defence policy and taxation. Brits and Irish will simply not accept Belgian levels of taxation, the French will never agree to scrap the EU’s generous farm subsidies and no nation will send its sons and daughters to fight for the EU if a majority in Brussels supports the use of force but they oppose it – as Germany demonstrated with Libya.
“Europeanness remains a secondary, cooler identity,” writes Garton Ash. “Europeans today are not called upon to die for Europe. Most of us are not even called upon to live for Europe.”
This is the crux. It wouldn’t matter what the European Union was or what Europeans are if the EU remained the sort of NAFTA-style trade bloc it was until the early 1990s.
But when a state loses its right to veto laws it opposes and decisions are taken by majority voting, it loses sovereign control over large swathes of public life. When a group of states join together to create a common currency with common rules it goes without saying that they have to be able to trust each other to stick to the rules. And when countries hand over control of their external frontiers to others – as is the case with Schengen, they have to feel confident those countries can do the job.
It matters to ordinary citizens too. If a German worker retires 10 years later than a Greek worker, the German has every right to ask why he should be paying part of his hard earned taxes to Greeks so they can work less. Likewise a poor Briton on a housing estate has every right to ask why he should be subsidizing rich French – or British - farmers.
The problem is that we have transferred massive powers to the European Union without fully trusting either the EU or its member states to use those powers fairly or efficiently. This reveals a striking breakdown of trust and legitimacy.
Firstly, trust. The French don’t trust the Bulgarians and Rumanians to guard their borders so they are shut out of Schengen. The Germans don’t trust the Greeks to spend their money properly so they hand it over in drips and drabs. The Poles and Balts don’t trust the EU to defend them against aggression from the east so they rely on NATO and the Americans. And the Brits don’t trust Europeans to do anything better than they can themselves – except perhaps dress more stylishly and cook tastier food.
Secondly, legitimacy. The EU has amassed extraordinary powers, but this has largely been done by stealth, without consulting the people and without many of the basic safety valves we take for granted in most democracies. For example, nobody asked the German people whether they wanted to give up their beloved Deutschmark. The government simply took that decision for them, arguing that a single currency would be bound by strict rules (that were later torn up by the French and German governments) and that a currency union would not lead to a transfer union from rich to poor states – which has proved to be false.
In democracies if we don’t like a government we can vote it out. In the EU this is impossible. The European Commission and its president – the nearest thing the EU has to an executive arm – are both unelected. The President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy is unelected. The two legislative arms of the EU – the European Parliament and Council of Ministers – are largely made up of elected officials. But few Europeans bother to vote for the former and changing your government in the latter is unlikely to change the collective policy of 27 national governments.
So the EU does have a democratic deficit and has failed to convince voters that it has an added value in a globalised world. In recent opinion polls, less than half of respondents said membership of the Union was a ‘good thing.’ 53% of Europeans do not think their voice counts in the EU, according to a 2009 Eurobarometer opinion poll - compared to only 38% who believe they are listened to.
The EU’s response to this wave of euroskepticism is to ask for more powers to govern states’ political and economic affairs. There is some logic here. After all, the euro’s current woes can be traced back to the decision taken at Maastricht 20 years ago to have an economic and monetary union without a real fiscal, economic or political union. So states agreed to common interest rates, inflation targets and debt levels but were free to decide how much to tax their citizens, what welfare and pension payments to make, what employment policy to pursue and so on. Sooner or later the flaws in the system were going to be exposed and the markets would react – as they have so brutally.
So the EU faces a blunt choice – accept the status quo and risk the Greek contagion spreading, further massive bailouts to indebted states and the collapse of the euro. Or agree a huge transfer of powers to the EU to create a kind of United States of Europe with common fiscal and economic policies and some sort of political union.
Neither option is particularly attractive. The former will lead to the probable collapse of the single currency, the liquidation of many of Europe’s top banks and a prolonged economic recession in Europe and the rest of the world. No wonder Americans – from President Obama to people I meet in airports – are so concerned about what’s happening in Europe.
The latter option – let’s call it the United States of Europe one - might save the euro but will further alienate the EU from the people it is meant to represent and will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of euros in bailout funds.
Supporters of the EU have often compared the club to a shark -- if it stops moving forward it will sink. The goal of an “ever closer union” among peoples and states is even written into the Union’s founding treaty, as if it were an historical inevitability – like the collapse of capitalism was for Karl Marx. For over 50 years, European states have voluntarily handed more powers to Brussels and the bloc has never stopped moving forward, despite numerous crises.
Now, for the first time in its history the EU is in uncharted waters. The question is: will it sink or will it swim?