“THIS is what you have to do if you want the people to build statues of you on horseback in the villages you come from.” Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was trying to stiffen the resolve of his 12 colleagues on the committee that was drafting a constitution for the European Union. He was doubtless joking, but the joke made a serious point. European unity has been driven forward by people such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Jacques Delors and Mr Giscard d'Estaing himself (all of them French, as it happens).
Many of the “founding fathers” of European unity emerged from the second world war with a profound suspicion of populism. Germany has consistently refused to hold referendums on crucial steps towards European unity such as the euro, citing Hitler's misuse of referendums as a reason for leaving such decisions to elected politicians. Some committed Europhiles frankly acknowledge that, at times, they have deliberately disguised quite profound changes as mere technical adjustments to avoid causing popular alarm. Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and the EU's longest-serving head of government, explains: “We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don't know what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”
Carried to extremes, such an approach could be sinister and undemocratic. But those in favour of an elite-led Europe point out that all these decisions are made by elected leaders. If ordinary voters object, they can always take their revenge at the ballot box. But the hope is that each step towards “ever closer union”, although potentially controversial at the time, will eventually come to seem inevitable and a good thing.
In many ways this method has worked. Plenty of European Union policies seemed visionary, or even reckless, when first suggested, but have come to be accepted with the passage of time: the abolition of frontier controls, the establishment of a single currency, even the admission of relatively poor countries such as Spain and Portugal in the 1980s or Poland today.
Visionary leadership is all very well if the statesmen get it right. But if they make a big mistake without having first secured popular backing, they could be in deep trouble. And even if voters are prepared to accept individual steps in the process of European integration, they may eventually object to the cumulative effect.
Step by step, the EU has expanded its frontiers and its activities so that in its present shape it is unrecognisable from the modest coal-and-steel community of the early 1950s. Whether or not the EU is intent on turning itself into a “United States of Europe”, as some critics claim, it has already acquired a great many state-like characteristics: a currency, a central bank, a parliament, a civil service, a supreme court, a military staff, a diplomatic corps, even a flag and an anthem.
So far, it has managed to do all this without exciting much popular opposition. No national government in the EU has ever lost power because of an electoral revolt against European integration. Even so, there is growing evidence that Euro-fatigue and Euroscepticism are spreading from traditionally critical members such as Britain to countries that used to be much keener on the European project.
Nearly half a century after its birth, the EU's approval ratings remain pretty feeble. In the most recent Eurobarometer, just 43% of EU citizens said they had a positive image of the Union, against 21% with a negative image. Even in Germany, one of the weightiest founder members, only 39% thought the country had benefited from EU membership, against 38% who thought it had not. A previous Eurobarometer found that almost half of EU voters would not mind, or indeed would be “very relieved”, if the EU were simply to disappear.
Evidence from the ballot box is not much more encouraging. Sweden and Denmark both voted in referendums against adopting the euro. (Most countries embraced the euro without a referendum.) Even Ireland, which has arguably benefited more from EU membership than any other nation, initially voted to reject the Nice treaty that paved the way for EU enlargement, and had to stage a second referendum before coming up with the “right” answer.
Recent elections to the European Parliament have not been heartening either. Although the parliament has steadily gained more powers over the years, voter turnout has fallen equally steadily. It reached a new low of 45.7% in the elections in June this year; not bad, perhaps, by anaemic American standards, but much lower than in national elections in Europe. The parliament was meant to connect the EU directly to the European public, but most European parliamentarians remain much less well known than national politicians. Moreover, there may be no institutional fix for the EU's “democratic deficit”, because there is no real European demos—a population with a sufficiently strong European identity to breathe life into common democratic institutions.
A comparison with the United States of America clearly shows up where a putative United States of Europe is missing out. America has a common language, national media, a national identity forged through a couple of centuries of shared history and a population that is famously willing to move from state to state. None of this applies to Europe. According to one EU survey, about half of all citizens of the pre-enlargement Union speak only their mother tongue. That rules out any real pan-European media, which in turn ensures that political debate across the EU remains staunchly national. And although almost all barriers to Europeans working or studying across the Union have been removed, most EU citizens remain determined homebodies: only 1.6% of them live permanently in an EU country other than their own. No wonder that national identities remain much stronger than any loyalty felt towards the EU.
So what?, ask the defenders of the EU. The whole point of the Union is that it does not pose a threat to national identity. Instead, it is a forum for European countries to co-operate in, while preserving their national identities and democracies. Yet even some of the architects of European unity are beginning to wonder whether integration has been overdone. In a recent speech in Berlin, Ben Bot, now the Dutch foreign minister and before that one of the longest-serving ambassadors in Brussels, argued that the EU had developed too fast for many of its citizens, causing many of them to fear a loss of national identity and yearn for the “familiar old world, the nation state”.
Individual member countries worry about different aspects of the EU. In Austria, Euroscepticism has been fed by the rules on free movement of goods, which allow endless convoys of huge lorries from other EU countries to grind across fragile Alpine passes. It may seem petty, but many Austrians feel that the EU is threatening the very look and feel of their country. In France, people are concerned that an organisation invented by French statesmen, and until recently largely francophone and run on French administrative lines, has been captured by the dreaded Anglo-Saxons. Rather than serving as a bulwark to preserve French culture and influence, the EU is now being portrayed as part of an assault against them.
Yet there is also a more general problem with the political underpinnings of the EU. The steady advance of European integration has taken the EU into some of the most sensitive areas of national politics, at precisely the time when the traditional justifications for European union—peace and prosperity—have become less compelling.
In their day-to-day interactions with government—in schools, hospitals or welfare offices—most Europeans are still dealing with national rather than European institutions. But the creation of the euro, with a single interest rate and monetary policy for the euro area, has put the EU at the heart of economic life. It has also made national budgets subject to EU supervision: Portugal imposed swingeing budget cuts at the behest of the EU, and Italy may be about to do the same, despite the weakening of the stability pact.
The regulations introduced to make the single market work have also sometimes delved deep into what the British call the “nooks and crannies of everyday life”, occasionally making the EU an object of scorn and anger. British market traders have been prosecuted for failing to introduce metric weights and measures, as required by EU law. Dutch window cleaners were outraged to discover that their standard ladders were too long to comply with EU health-and-safety regulations. Such feelings are exacerbated by the widespread belief that EU institutions and spending programmes are corrupt and wasteful.
Waiting for a common immigration policy
Over the past decade the European Union has also increased its hold on social policy, leading to a clash of political philosophies between free-market Anglo-Saxons and welfare-minded continentals that can leave both sides unhappy. It is an article of faith in France that Britain practises “social dumping”, undermining French industry by refusing to impose decent minimum standards on employers. The British, for their part, are convinced that the French and the Germans, finding themselves unable to reform their welfare systems, are seeking to impose their own inefficiencies on everybody else through EU regulations.
The expansion of the EU into foreign policy has broadened the scope for disagreements and bitter feelings, as demonstrated over Iraq. And the “progressive framing of a common defence policy” promised in the new EU constitution could, in time, become equally contentious. Historically neutral countries such as Ireland and Sweden were given an opt-out from the defence aspects of the European Union, but that may not be enough to allay concerns about the “militarisation of the EU”.
The new European constitution also gives the EU a role in what may now be the most fraught political issue in Europe: immigration. Over the past 30 years immigration from developing countries, and particularly the Muslim world, has changed the face of western Europe. The number of Muslims in France is estimated at 4.5m, or about 7.5% of the population. In the Netherlands' four biggest cities—Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht—the majority of those under 14 are the offspring of immigrants from non-western countries, most of them Muslim. Such striking social changes had provoked political reactions even before September 11th 2001 and the al-Qaeda attack on Madrid this year. But the terrorist threat has made race relations in Europe worse and fuelled the rise of anti-immigration and far-right parties.
In Austria, the Freedom Party led by Jörg Haider managed to force its way into a coalition government. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, came second in the presidential election of 2002, eliminating the socialist candidate. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn caused something of a political revolution by running on an anti-immigration ticket in the 2002 election before he was assassinated.
Might the EU itself aggravate this anxiety about immigration? Any commitment to admitting Turkey may get a hostile reception in Austria, France and the Netherlands, mainly because of the likely consequences for immigration. The new European constitution could also cause trouble because it gives the EU the beginnings of a common immigration policy, in particular through common rules governing political asylum. This matters because in recent years most new immigrants from the developing world in countries such as Britain and the Netherlands have been asylum-seekers. Although there is no provision in the constitution for European countries to lose control over the level of immigration they are prepared to accept, such nuances may be lost in any referendum campaign.
Eleven countries have already promised to let their people vote on the European constitution. These referendums could throw the EU into the sort of crisis that puts the integration process into reverse or even causes the EU to split.
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