Wednesday 21 July 2010

European Theology Season opens early on Euroblogs

Is it yet another sign of climate change? Usually Eurobloggers hang on for another week or so before they start musing on identity crises and the meaning of European integration, but today 4 bloggers started to ponder the purpose and direction of European integration: Charlemagne, Jason O Mahony, Eurogoblin, and Grahnlaw.

Grahnlaw ended his post with this line (and perhaps I'm just imagining the weariness):

"There is no end in sight for blogging on the high politics of EU fundamentals."

Integration Doctrine?

No doubt some people do see European integration in somewhat doctrinal terms, but it's not something I've seen a lot of Eurobloggers do (indeed, it's noteworthy that Open Europe recently seemed to advocate greater discussion on the "Integrate or not to Integrate" question rather than focusing on policy*). Charlemagne is right to say that doctrinal thinking on integration - to see opponents as nationalists and integration as a higher goal - is wrong. But it's important to note that there are many shades of integrationalism and that being for integration is no indication of being against subsidiarity and healthy local government. For example, I don't think even the most ardent federalist would support a single European social security system (the clue's in the name "federalist" - federalists believe in political power at several levels).

Anglo-Saxon Europeans

Eurogoblin has called himself an "Anglo-Saxon European": greater democracy at a European level is good, but the Council is and should remain the most powerful institution, and member states should remain the primary form of political organisation. In a lot of ways, I agree: member states do a lot of things better than the EU, and the subsidiarity principle needs to be strengthened and given greater practical effect. However, I don't think that the Council should remain ever-mighty forever: it needs reform to be made more transparent, open and responsive to national parliaments. It is the focus on the national and intergovernmental character of the Council that gives it political licence to work in the secrecy of diplomacy and intergovernmentalism.

"Rather than creating a centralised federal super-state, my support for the EU stems from my belief that the barriers between states should be melted away. I want a genuine European single market – with goods, services, capital, labour and knowledge swimming backwards and forwards across borders. Europe is working to reduce the arbitrary power of the state over the individual, and to let citizens travel, settle or conduct business wherever they want. The EU is a tool of decentralisation – encouraging devolution of powers to regions and local administrations and helping to settle (peacefully) nationalist conflicts."

Again, here I'd like to point out that federalism emphasises power being dispersed to different levels (though I think Eurogoblin was relying on "centralised federal super-state" as a turn of phrase - it is, after all, a cliché of European politics). It's hard to see, however, how the EU could be a tool for decentralisation without interfering in the make-up of member states, which would surely entail a massive centralisation of power in the first place. Unless it was only meant to be an example of federalism to be repeated within member states.

I actually think that integration is a flawed process and not a panacea - and, perhaps ironically, this leads me to the conclusion that a more politicised EU would be better. This would entail greater political prominence of the institutions and greater political competition within them (and also greater public participation). Especially if the dismantling of barriers is to make sense. Which leads me to the next point.

A political Union or a Union that's political?

People have argued against a more political EU because they say that the EU cannot get the support to decide on redistributionist policies, so therefore the EU should restrict itself to the internal market. Now the internal market will never be complete, in the same way that national markets aren't complete: economic and business innovation mean that regulations will always be evolving. Nevertheless the internal market has made remarkable progress and it pretty integrated. Further integration and barrier-breaking would necessarily entail a degree of redistribution: of chances and opportunities in the market, etc. As the conflict over the services directive show, further market integration is not a non-political question. Should we integrate further in the free movement of services and people, there will need to be choices on what level of European protections need to be set.

The EU is a lot more "redistributionist" in its decision-making than is realised. What about CAP and the Structural Funds? Are decisions of more or less regulation not increasingly about market protection, worker protection, etc., and do these decisions not affect the incomes and lives of people? The Euro, as we have seen, redistributes risk - not only in the sense that ratings agencies treated Greece the same as Germany, but the whole European economy is integrated: after all, Greek debt is owned by French and German banks.

Integration has brought economic development and growth, as well as greater freedom for citizens across the continent. But simply liberalising everything doesn't help everyone equally: there are losers in this process. Let's flip the question of greater democracy in the EU on its head: instead of "can a democratic EU retain the support of the people?" let's ask, "can an EU focused on a closed-off Council make these decisions and retain public support - or would a more democratic EU be better placed to make these decisions?"

I believe in further integration and democracy because I believe that not everyone benefits, even though integration and the internal market are necessary for our economy(ies). An integrated market provides the best guarantee for prosperity, but we need the scope for greater political involvement to decide how we run it, and to decide how we can make it work better for those who have lost out. This requires greater political integration; more pan-European elections that offer a choice in competing policies. This also necessarily means that the EU level will become more prominent versus the national egos in the Council, but the member states will remain in control of most of the areas that affect citizens lives. Put simply, we need greater integration and participation in the areas we are already "integrated" in, and more political control, because integration isn't perfect, and we all need to be involved in making sure it works for us.

*I disagree completely. The more the Euroblogosphere examines the policy questions, the more mature it is and the greater impact it can have, rather than just being an online club for discussions on integration theories. Discussing integration is good and necessary, but we shouldn't withdraw into a theoretical bubble.

UPDATE: Grahnlaw has written another article on the subject.


  1. I was indeed using "centralised federal super-state" as an oft-(ab)used turn-of-phrase, but there's also nothing in the doctrine of federalism that prevents government being centralised (at the expense of the component states).

    You argue that you don't see "how the EU could be a tool for decentralisation without interfering in the make-up of member states, which would surely entail a massive centralisation of power in the first place" - but I see a big difference in legislating on behalf of member-states and setting the boundaries for legislation (e.g. preventing non-discrimination between citizens of different member-states).

    The so-called "anglo-saxon" model of European integration (anglo-saxon because the UK seems to drag its feet the most in the EU) is that democracy doesn't works very well outside of national politics. I agree with this - which is why I think the Council will always have more legitimacy than the Parliament.

  2. I'm not sure how non-discrimination is part of decentralisation - if anything it's just centralisation (perhaps you can clarify its discentralising effects?). I don't think that the EU institutions have any way of setting boundries on how far a national government and local government operates. Setting boundries and actually legislating are just degrees of centralisation, surely, rather than promoting actual decentralisation?

    Democracy didn't exactly just spring naturally from nation states either (wasn't the old debate that democracy couldn't work in nation states because it was only suited to city states?). It is certainly harder to have a pan-European debate on issues, but giving people the chance to shape power-winning coalitions in the EP and the make-up of the Commission would promote engagement and make voting in EP elections a more rational choice.

    At the moment, debate on the big topics of European politics are funnelled through the Council prism, and it's hardly a picture of transparency, reasoned debate and good governance. For example, it has been decided that the City of London and low levels of regulation are in the UK's national interest. That's no matter what government is in power. Is it really in the national interest? There has been no debate in the UK on this really; the approach towards European regulation of financial markets has just been a lazy labelling of national interests. I don't feel that it's in my interest, but then my support and the support of other citizens aren't exactly being courted. On top of that, Council ministers don't need to really debate this in an accountable way.

    I'm not saying that we need to switch to the other extreme of majoritarian democracy; and I recognise the work and limitations that need to be overcome to facilitate debate. However, I believe that people will accept decisions at a European level as legitimate if they feel that they are electing people that are making the arguments for why things should/shouldn't be done at a European level, and what.

    There is more to the anti-integration argument of demos that a lot of integrationists have accepted, and I admit that. But "demos" has been painted as a zero-sum concept: it's either there or not. In my view it's a dynamic thing, and the value of participation in transnational politics is often underestimated. People will vote if it can be shown that it matters, and the charge that transnational democracy has been *proven* not to work is based on only 17 years in the EU (counting from Maastricht). In that time the powers of the EP have vastly grown, but a clear connection with the executive has not been made to pull Euro-elections out of the "second-order" category.

    I'm not saying that it will work perfectly and that it can replace the legitimacy of member states - it won't and it can't (and in any case isn't the aim). But it's too early to write off transnational democracy.

    [Note: a bit like the article, this is partially aimed at countering your arguments, and partially seizing an opportunity to jump on my soap-box. It's just ended up focusing on you a bit, whereas I've used it as a good counter-argument to my own before expanding on the area].