Thursday 5 March 2009

Red Tape Holds Europe Together

It's not meant as an insult, and it seems obvious, but it's true. And it's amazing to think that after all this time, the nature and need for European bureaucracy is so misunderstood. The standard calls by Eurosceptics for the end to the Brussels bureaucracy and for the EU to be turned into a free trade area, either don't understand the nature of the single market, or want less free trade. But some are waking up to the necessity for the EU, and the bureaucracy that it entails. That's not to say that I back all of the rules and regulations that come out of "Brussels", and I'm not supporting the equation of: bureaucracy is necessary, and therefore good, and therefore we need more.

Yet it's becoming clear that the EU is not equipped to deal with the crisis. The Commission's vague hints at a plan to help Europe, weak and ineffectual sounding even at the time, highlights the powerlessness of the EU to hold together and support its single market, which is the heart of the EU.

We need to dismiss this view that the single market is somehow equivalent to free trade areas in some way. It is so much more, and if we loose it now, we will all suffer. The single market is based on countries coming together to build a market between them which will be as integrated and free as domestic markets. This is clearly more than a free trade agreement, which merely deals with tariffs, but leaves other financial controls and non-tariff barriers in place. These restrict trade, and so for an effective single market there is a need for common rules to prevent national ones from distorting trade. Which requires common institutions and a common bureaucracy. The European bureaucracy is the life-support machine for the single market, and for the most free international trading system in the world.

The argument that the EFTA would be a good replacement is highly debatable. The success of the EFTA to date probably rests to a large extent with the success of the single market - EFTA members are buying into a more liberalised trading system without joining it: if the single market falls, then barriers to trade will rise up again, and an EFTA can't deal with this nor compensate for this. To tear the EU bureaucracy down, or diminish it now would be a grave mistake.

On the contrary, it needs to be strengthened, both in terms of power to deal with the crisis, and in democratic legitimacy. The current Commission is ineffective and without any power or imagination to lead in the crisis, rejecting proposals out of hand for fear of the member states' reaction, while the member states become more and more of a threat to the single market as they retreat into veiled protectionism and incoherence. Max Bergmann seems to hint that more political aspects are needed in the EU. I would agree with this, as far as democratic accountability is needed, both for its own sake (the single market economy affects us all, and should be more accountable) and to bring back confidence in the system. It will also give the EU the legitimacy to be pro-active in crisises.

This isn't political union, but the macro-economy needs to be dealt with at the macroeconomic level, and it should be accountable and effective. Europe needs good economic governance, and it needs it now. If we can't protect and support our single market, it will fall - and take us with it.


  1. We often see (wild) claims on how much "Brussels regulation" costs British) business. When are we going to see comparable figures for what 30 different regimes would cost them?

    And if the rules are the same all over the European Economic Area, the competitive position of firms from different member states should be the same, shouldn't it?

    In addition, what anti-Europeans describe as (horrendous) regulation often is based on rules aiming to safeguard consumer rights, health, basic social rights, the environment etc. Should it all be scrapped?

  2. Grahnlaw, this is a point I make all the time. Firstly, when we see the UK zeal for regulation in areas not covered by EU law, it's not beyond the realms of imagination that the regulatory burden could be WORSE without the EU. Then add in the costs of companies that want to sell outside their own country having to comply with the different regulations of all the others and you see how spurious the argument is when put in these bald terms.

  3. An additional thought - has any research been done into how often Commission proposals for legislation are at the request of the Council? My feeling is that this is much more the case nowadays than say 15 years ago.

  4. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have some sort of "model EU" project in citizenship classes (I don't know if every country has some version of a citizenship class). The class is divided up into groups and in each group, each student represents a member state (not all have to be represented).

    They start off in the position of the EEC having just been set up (though it'd be good to discuss what kind of EEC they would have created in the first place), and with a list of interests of their countries. Then each week they get a problem senario and have to work out how to deal with it, and if any changes need to be made to the EEC/EU.

    It'd help inform students while letting them explore alternative models/political viewpoints. Though I suppose it wouldn't really be an interesting task, and could be time-consuming.