Charlemagne writes about European Commission officials.
I would not be astonished if a majority of the [British] public assume that EU officials are primarily motivated by pay, perks and privileges. Actually, from Mr Farage’s point of view, I suspect the truth is still more worrying. EU officials, in my experience, want “more Europe” because they want “more Europe”. … EU officials live in a world in which nationalism is the great evil. … They are often highly educated, in a geeky sort of way … The town’s defining ethos of anti-nationalism is often admirable. EU officials are easy to get on with, and a decent bunch in my experience. But it brings problems: I find a lot of people in this town at best naive about how much integration public opinion will accept, and at worst a bit hostile to democracy. Get a Brussels dinner party onto referendums, and hear people rave about the madness of asking ordinary people their opinions of the European project.
I found this pretty interesting because I was thinking about writing a piece last week about how Charlemagne himself represents a political tendency that is “a bit hostile to democracy.” The occasion of this critique was his linking to a piece that he wrote under his own name before he worked for the Economist which is all about how one needs to have restraints on national level democracies for the European project to work.
The internal market was always an overtly political project, which required leaders like Mrs Thatcher to swallow their doubts and sign away great slices of national sovereignty in the hope of prising open other nations’ closed markets. The paradox cannot be escaped easily. A single market is good, perhaps even vital, for Britain’s national interests. But if you want the single market to work, you need a strong Commission, and that means the Commission has to tell national governments what to do. … The Commission is also threatening court action against Poland, for blocking a bank merger, and against Spain, for proposing a shotgun marriage between two Spanish utility giants after one of them was eyed up by a German suitor. The forces at work behind such mergers are hardly pretty — populism, election-year panic and the defence of cosy local cartels.
I think these arguments are defensible – although I certainly don’t agree with the underlying political principles that animate them. But they surely don’t smack of faith in democracy, and carry a distinct hint of skepticism about “asking ordinary people their opinions of the European project” when it comes e.g. to cross-national market regulation. That way lies “populism,” “election-year panic” and all manner of other things that are “hardly pretty.” Far better to delegate this sort of thing to specialized institutions, which can be trusted not to give in to popular pressure.
I’m not particularly holding Charlemagne (or, rather, David Rennie) up for specific and personal criticism here. I find him an unusually – and indeed sometimes admirably – clear minded exponent of a set of views that I disagree with vigorously. Precisely because he is so clear minded (and also sometimes able to entertain facts and ideas that cut against his views), I learn a lot from reading him.
But this also means that he provides a good window on a certain vein of market liberal thinking about the European Union, which I think has some worrying internal contradictions. On the one hand, (here, I sketch a broad, but I think not inaccurate outline) market liberals like Rennie genuinely believe that democracy is a good and wonderful thing. They worry (and for good reason) that many in Brussels and in various national capitals view public approval as at best a hurdle that has to be cleared in order to create a proper European Union, and at worst as a positive menace. But on the other, they also believe that the European Union – properly conceived – should really be a free market, with appropriate institutions (primarily the Commission and ECJ) to keep member states in line on market integration issues, and a Council of member states that can reach agreement on other topics where there is some potential for real agreement.
The problem is twofold. First – there is no evidence whatsoever that the kind of market integration that liberals like Rennie like, and would like to see prevailing against populism and election year pressures, have even a smidgen more democratic legitimacy than the kinds of integration that they worry would go too far. You can plausibly argue that democratic publics might want to delegate some aspects of economic decision making to independent transnational agencies. You can’t reasonably argue that the ‘people’ have been asked whether they want to do this, any more than they have been asked about other aspects of integration. I’ll go further – if national referenda were held tomorrow on e.g. the powers of the European Central Bank, and the Commission’s competition authority, I’d bet a large sum of money that both these would be rejected by thumping majorities across a majority of EU member states.
Second – the part of the European governance system that is most ‘democratic’ (and hence most likely to counterbalance the anti-democratic tendencies of e.g. the Commission and the Council’s permanent staff (which not many people focus on – but which plays a quite important role in policy making) – the European Parliament – is exactly the part of the EU that market liberals most detest. They frequently fulminate about grandstanding, self-regarding, self-serving actions by MEPs. Which is fair enough, insofar as MEPs do indeed tend to be self-regarding, self-serving grandstanders. But perhaps not so fair, insofar as this is a nearly universal tendency among democratically elected politicians, including (as the last couple of years have unhappily demonstrated) those serving at Westminster. That politicians tend to be venal is not in itself an argument against democracy.
As I’ve said before, I’m reasonably sure that the real reason why pro-market liberals don’t like the Parliament is because they would really prefer the European Union to be a technocratic exercise in market governance, with a minimum of actual democratic politics to muck it up. But – and this is the point – you can’t have it both ways. If you want to criticize people who want further integration as being a wee bit insensitive to the need for democratic legitimacy, you can’t simultaneously maintain that we need a tough, powerful Commission to prevent member state governments from yielding to the temptation of listening to what their voters want. At the least, you need some theory of why Commission powers over the market are democratically legitimate (while the other stuff that you don’t like is not) – and this seems to be signally lacking in the market liberal account. There’s no good way that I can see to root such a theory in the actual preferences of democratic publics, and market liberals profoundly dislike the only other plausible source of legitimacy – the European Parliament.1 The best argument that I think market liberals can come up with is that these kinds of arrangements are what the public should want if it were properly informed – but this would be exactly the kind of wishful thinking and projection that Rennie/Charlemagne very rightly disparages in Eurocrats.
1 An alternative might be to argue that market-making powers are unproblematic, since they are delegated within member states all the time. Andrew Moravcsik has made this claim in various places. However, this claim seems to me to be profoundly unconvincing – because within national democracies, these powers can easily be taken back if they are abused. Not so much if they occur in an international context such as the EU, where member state unanimity is required to make Treaty modifications that might be necessary to rein in insubordinate institutions.