Interesting times for the European Union’s constitutional project. The French are looking decidedly wobbly on the new European constitution, which they vote on next Sunday. The Dutch, who will be voting soon after, appear to be strongly opposed. This all sounds dreadful for pro-Europeans. However, I’m going to make two predictions. First, the unexceptionable one – I don’t think that the constitution has much chance at all of being ratified. If it somehow gets over the French hurdle, it’s going to come a cropper at the British one. Then the risky one – I reckon that the European Union may be on the verge of acquiring real political legitimacy for the first time, exactly and precisely because of the vociferous debates which are starting to get going.
So why am I more optimistic than I have been for years about where European integration is going? A bit of a history lesson first. Political elites have bought into the European project from early on, on the basis that it means peace on the European mainland, and more trade and higher economic growth for everyone. But there’s been a radical disconnect between the EU’s rather vague, lofty aims of “ever closer union” on the one hand, and the actual day to day business of European politics on the other. Neither of these inspire much popular support or interest – while most European mass publics have vaguely been in favour of further European integration, it’s been because their leaders have told them that it’s a good thing. This has given these leaders a lot of leeway to do what they want at the EU level without the general public knowing what’s happening. It’s also allowed these leaders to blame ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ for choices that they have made themselves, but which they know will be unpopular with voters. In short, the EU is a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing – it’s succeeded in part because its day-to-day activities sounds so boring to outsiders.
The problem with this, of course, is that over time, the European Union has begun to leach legitimacy, as it has become ever more powerful and less accountable. Hence the long-lasting debate over the European Union’s “democratic deficit” and how best to solve it. The primary solution over the last fifteen years or so has been to give more power to the European Parliament, which on its surface is the most ‘democratic’ of the EU’s institutions. The problem has been that European voters don’t pay very much more attention to the Parliament than they did when it was a toothless congeries of windbags, so that the Parliament is accumulating power without much in the way of democratic responsibility (when people vote in elections to the Parliament, they usually appear to be more interested in rewarding or punishing the party in power in their national government, than in rewarding or punishing Parliamentarians themselves for their performance). The predictable result has been various shenanigans and shadowy stitch-ups behind closed doors (the so-called ‘early agreement process’ is especially non-transparent).
Thus, we have a set of institutions (the European Union) which are increasingly politically powerful, but which don’t have much democratic legitimacy. Andrew Moravcsik argues that this isn’t really a problem – he claims that the European Union institutions work under tight constraints that are set by the member states, and concern themselves with the kinds of technical policy details that are best handled through delegation in any event. But he arguably overestimates the degree to which democratic controls actually work to constrain EU institutions, and he certainly underestimates the political importance of EU decisions. Colin Hay makes a very good case that the forces structuring European economies are better understood as the consequences of the political decisions underpinning economic and monetary union, than of the abstract pressures of ‘globalization,’ however you might like to define it. While EU policy is shrouded in technocratic gobbledygook, it has very substantial political consequences. Nor are these consequences what you might expect. The European Union is typically perceived by English-speaking non-experts as a vaguely social-democratic bureaucratic leviathan, in part because of criticisms from the British government and the British tabloid press over the last couple of decades. In fact, its most important impact has been to further neo-liberalism by creating European markets, and by wearing down the particularities of national economic systems that are incompatible with these markets. The European Union has taken over vast swathes of economic decision-making, and effectively taken them out of democratic control. It’s no wonder that people on both the left and right are beginning to get upset by this; what’s more difficult to explain is why it’s taken them so long to begin to mobilize their frustration.
All this means that the traditional means of furthering European integration – agreeing new treaties among heads of government, and then getting them ratified by a supine public (when the public is consulted at all) won’t work any more. Nor will tearful appeals to that public to pass the Treaty on the nod, because of the inherent worth of Europe, gloire nationale or whatever-you’re-having-yourself work very well either. For better or worse, the European Union is becoming increasingly politicized. Nor is this likely to change in the future. But exactly because it’s becoming politicized, it’s starting to become politically present in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. As best as I can tell, the question is beginning to change from one of whether Europe, in some abstract and ineffable sense, is ‘good,’ to one of what kind of Europe is good (as usual, the UK is the glaring exception to this generalization). The debate over Europe is beginning to come together with the various national debates over models of capitalism and reform. This is especially clear in France, where Nicolas Sarkozy has been defending the European Union – but also arguing for a specifically neo-liberal model of what the European Union would be (we need the EU, he tells us, to overcome national opposition to painful but necessary economic reforms). In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder is planning to launch a Europe-wide initiative to protect the social-democratic model in a speech on June 13. And within the EU itself, the recent decision by the European Parliament to remove Britain’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive was portrayed by both sides as a blow in the fight over whether Europe should adopt a liberal-reformist or more traditional social-democratic model.
Thus, a new debate is beginning to emerge over what kind of European Union we should have – a Europe that’s more aligned with the social-democratic model, or a Europe that’s closer to the classical liberal approach; protection versus free markets. Very obviously, those who are starting this debate are in part motivated by opportunism. Schroeder has his eye on improving the SPD’s position for the national elections after the disastrous results in Nordrein-Westfalen (and shifting attention from his unpopular domestic reforms). It has surely not escaped Sarkozy’s attention that he’s defending Europe in terms that are likely to prove embarrassing to his personal enemy, Jacques Chirac. But the debate isn’t just about short term political gains (there are clear signs that the SPD is on the verge of a substantial shift to the left). Nor, I should acknowledge, is the neo-liberal side of this debate bereft of good arguments. Some of the European Union’s initiatives to create more competitive markets have had clearly beneficial consequences, weakened the power of national monopolies to trample over consumers etc. Furthermore, there’s a real danger that the more protectionist elements (including those on the right) will align with the people who don’t want Turkey to join the European club – something that would do real long term damage.
Underlying merits aside, the fundamental point is that these arguments are less obstacles to European integration than the birth pangs of a European Union in which voters actually begin to pay attention to what’s happening at the European level. The European Union is becoming a political space, in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. Ernest Gellner argues somewhere or another that the moment at which the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire became irreversible was when its peoples stopped complaining to the capital about how oppressed they were, and just started doing their own thing without reference to imperial politics. We’re arguably on the cusp of the opposite switchover in the EU – people are beginning to articulate their grievances with the EU as it is, and to propose alternative ways of doing things. Domestic political parties are beginning to align themselves with different models of what Europe should be. This wasn’t possible as long as Europe was a vague set of aspirations that political elites from left and right could agree on, but that the public didn’t care about. And it arguably lays the foundations for a much more robust European Union than has existed in the past. To the extent that the general public is aware of the EU, and that parties campaign on different visions of what the EU should be doing, the importance of the EU (and its legitimacy as a space for policy making) will be reinforced. Of course, there are plenty of things that could go wrong with this. The debates that are about to get going will be quite vociferous – it isn’t impossible that they’ll tear the Union apart, or (more plausibly) send it into another couple of decades of stasis. But these latter possibilities seem to me to be the less likely outcomes by a quite considerable degree.
Update: Laura Rozen has some interesting letters on the constitutional debates in Holland and France from correspondents in those countries. There’s also a very interesting story in the FT suggesting that Oskar Lafontaine is about to jump ship from the SPD to join other SPD dissidents, and perhaps the PDS in a leftwing umbrella movement.