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The British vote to leave the European Union has triggered a debate — or as Spiegel puts it, a raging power struggle — in the rest of Europe about the proper way to respond. The leaders of Europe are divided, first, about how uncompromising the EU should be in negotiating the terms of the British exit:
For those in favor of a strong and powerful EU, for those who always saw the UK as a bothersome obstacle in their path, the British withdrawal process can’t proceed fast enough. Plus, French President Hollande and others want to use Britain as an example to show the rest of Europe how bleak and uncomfortable life can be when one leaves the house of Europe. Hollande, of course, has good reason for his approach: The right-wing populist party Front National has threatened to follow Cameron’s example should party leader Marine Le Pen emerge victorious in next year’s presidential elections. European Commission President Juncker wants deeper EU integration. German Chancellor Merkel does not.
The even more important question is what the European Union is to become. Is the lesson of Brexit that the remaining states must pursue a closer union, or is it that they must return powers from Brussels to national governments? Both answers make sense. It’s clear that the EU as presently constituted isn’t strong enough to deal with crises of the kind Europe has faced in the past decade. It’s also clear that it’s strong enough to alienate a significant portion of Europe’s population.
For Germany, handling this deftly is a matter of national survival. Germany exports nearly half of its GDP to the rest of Europe. It must at all costs preserve the free trade area. If Britain leaves without consequences, other countries might follow suit. This will not be a disaster for Germany if the free trade area is preserved. But if tariff barriers go up — as Marine Le Pen advocates, for example — and a trade war ensues, it would be a grave threat to Germany’s prosperous and stable postwar existence.
And from this follows the big question: Without the EU as a mechanism for peacefully channeling German energy and ambition, would the postwar peace of Europe at risk? Anyone who says, “Don’t be silly, of course it wouldn’t be” should not be so confident. To say that is to confuse the state of Europe as we’ve mostly known it in our lifetimes with Europe’s natural state. As far back as we have records, Europe has been, mostly, at war. To argue that this could never again happen on the Continent is to ascribe to the theory that humanity learns from experience. Perhaps it does. Or perhaps it only learns for a few generations, and then forgets.
The psychological impact of this vote shouldn’t be underestimated. Many Ricochet members, I’ve noticed, see Brexit as a cause for celebration. For many in Europe, however, it marks the end to what they have long understood to be a project for European peace. Accounts such as this are common:
It was only as I stepped onto Bonn’s underground that I realized I hadn’t gone by bike – my thumb going into overdrive as I frantically scrolled through the latest news. Sardined into the early morning tube, I suddenly heard a little “Scheiße” over my shoulder. Turning round, a burly German in his 50s nodded at my phone. “Sorry,” he said, with an awkward smile. My eyes began to well up – not for the first time that morning, and most certainly not the last.
Working in an international newsroom comes, naturally, with its fair share of devastating news: bombings, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, natural disasters. But never have I experienced such a somber mood as on Friday. “It’s not as if someone’s died,” I later saw someone tweet. The heavy weight in the newsroom said different.
There is a good deal of sadness and fear in Europe right now. This continent doesn’t trust itself, and for good reason.
Good intentions, at least, preside on both sides of the power struggle. The goal is somehow to put a stable, peaceful, tolerant, and prosperous Europe back together again; the debate is about how to achieve this. Both camps see Brexit as a deeply disturbing warning that the EU must change; both see it as an opportunity to change it. But on one side are the protagonists of “more Europe.” They include European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Parliament President Martin Schulz. On the other are the majority of Europe’s heads of state and government, led by Angela Merkel. Drearily but predictably, Europe’s bureaucrats believe — probably earnestly — that the solution lies in giving them more power. Europe’s individual heads of state and governments think the solution lies in giving them more power.
“The next weeks will be decisive,” said French President François Hollande. “Europe must show its solidity, its solidarity, its capacity to propose initiatives for and with Europeans.”
Continental Europe’s center-left, unlike Britain, had a plan for the Brexit contingency: It drew up blueprints for a more federalist Europe with a common budget and much deeper political integration. Before the polls, Germany’s SPD wrote a position paper, called “Re-Founding Europe,” which it published immediately upon receiving news of the British vote. It’s a direct challenge to Merkel’s policies. Europe, says the paper, needs the courage to “risk something grander.” Schulz, though, like Juncker, wants to transform the Commission into a “true European government.”
Now, before you say, “Who asked Schulz?” — he and Juncker were elected, following months of campaigning on this very platform.
The Democratic Deficit: A Quick Detour
Let’s take a quick detour here. I’ve noticed that many members of Ricochet believe that the European Union is essentially undemocratic and unaccountable, and indeed, many in Europe feel the same way. It’s worth asking why so many feel this.
This charge is often made in bad faith. The EU is at least as democratic than its member states, and in the case of Britain more democratic; after all, Britain still maintains an unelected and hereditary peerage. Any basic constitutional change in the EU requires unanimous consent from all 27 member states, followed by domestic ratification in accordance with that state’s constitution. This is a more exigent threshold for constitutional change than in any other modern democracy.
Before it can be placed on the agenda, legislation in Brussels has to secure — seriatum — consensual support from national leaders in the European Council; a formal proposal from a majority of the Commission; a two-thirds majority of weighted member state votes in the Council of Ministers (in practice, a consensus); absolute majorities in the European Parliament (which is directly elected); and transposition into national law by national bureaucrats or parliament, all of whom are elected or appointed in keeping with national customs and laws. It’s in fact impossible for Brussels to legislate secretly, quickly, or in the interests of a single narrow group, which can be said of no other extant Western democracy. It makes much more sense to criticize the EU for being ineffectual than for being undemocratic. It is ineffectual because it is too democratic. The threshold of consent required for achieving anything of significance is too exigent.
Nearly every critical EU decision-maker – national leaders, national ministers, European parliamentarians, national parliamentarians – is directly elected. Any European citizen can vote his or her representative out of the European parliament. European law is then translated into domestic law by parliamentarians who, in turn, can be voted out. The only actors in the legislative process who aren’t directly elected, or directly responsible to someone who is, are the European Commissioners and their officials — and the Commission’s power has steadily declined in recent decades; except in a few regulatory areas, such as competition policy, its authority is weak, and its ex ante agenda control has been overtaken by the European Council, which is directly elected. Control over amendments and compromises has been assumed by (directly-elected) European Parliamentarians.
Hungary, 1956. The difference between the Soviet Union and the European Union should be obvious.
It is true that some decision-making bodies are insulated from direct democratic control: the European Central Bank, the European Court of Justice, competition authorities, trade negotiators, and fraud investigators. But this is true of every Western democracy. National governments customarily insulate these functions from popular pressure, too. That’s what’s meant by an “independent” judiciary and an “independent” central bank. The independence of both is vital to their legitimacy.
To liken the EU to the USSR or other totalitarian regimes is grotesque. Every member of the EU willingly signed on to the project, with many states voluntarily undertaking huge democratizing reforms to meet the accession criteria, reduce their state sectors, and strengthen their democratic institutions. Those who liken the EU to the Soviet Union either know nothing about the EU or are engaged in a denial of the Soviet Union’s crimes. The photo to the right, above, shows what happened to Hungary when students there declared they no longer wanted to be in the Soviet Union. By contrast, Hungary held a referendum on joining the EU on April 12, 2003; 83.8 percent voted in favor. Hungary’s admission was celebrated with fireworks, street parties, and the Ode to Joy. See the photo below. Even as Britain voted to leave, the Western Balkan nations were impatiently pounding on the door, eager to be let in.
Hungary joined the EU after an overwhelming majority of Hungarians voted to do so.
But if this is so, why do so many people feel it’s undemocratic? Uncharitably, one could say that people think this because they’re too lazy to look up how it works. It is also because national politicians tend to blame the EU for their policy failures, so better to avoid suffering the electoral consequences. The Leave campaign, for example, blamed Britain’s housing crisis and the NHS shortfall on the EU. But these problems devolved from national policy, not from the EU, and neither problem will be rectified by withdrawing from it. Indeed, the NHS will have a critical staffing shortage without EU employees.
Likewise, many of the charges of “absurd EU over-regulation” are fantasy. Some poor bureaucrat in Brussels compiled a table of Euromyths; the list is extensive. No, it isn’t true that the EU funds African acrobats and trapeze artists. No, it’s not true that the EU has banned bendy bananas. But clearly something has given rise to the widespread sense that EU law is alien and suffocating.
The answer to the question, “Is there a democracy deficit?” is a matter of definition and fact. But no matter the definition or fact, it matters that people believe it to be so, even if it isn’t factually accurate. Politicians must attend to what people believe.
The deeper problem, I suspect, is not a democratic deficit but an insufficiency of power. The European Parliament doesn’t represent an EU State, because that state doesn’t exist. It doesn’t represent individual EU members; they have their own parliaments. So who does the EU Parliament represent? Europeans generally. Everyone and no one. Like almost everything else in the EU, the Parliament is neither national nor truly supernational, the first because its national affiliations are so diluted, the second because there is no European state to which it owes allegiance and for which it acts.
Nor does the EU Parliament have the proper powers of a democratic parliament. The Council of the European Union, which sits in the EU Parliament, is not elected by the Parliament but by member states. It’s the transitivity of voting (Citizen X votes for Hollande who votes for Schultz therefore X has effectively voted for Schultz) that results in the widespread sense that there is insufficient accountability. Parliament and the Council in turn appoint the enormous cadre of unelected civil servants and elect the members of the EU Council, which can’t on its own initiate legislation. That must be undertaken by the EU Commission, whose president is in turn selected by the EU Council and whose members are approved (not selected) by Parliament. Parliament has no true right to dismiss or even to review members of the EU executive branch.
Still more significant: Real power in the EU is held by its permanent cadre of civil servants, who make the laws and the regulations, and by shifting alliances among EU heads of state. It’s France, Germany, and Italy for the moment; but during the pile-up on Greece it was France and Germany with an assist from Spain. This is not a problem that will be solved by any nation’s withdrawal from the European Union, however. Europe has always been characterized by balance-of-power coalitions, from the Grand Alliance in the wars against Louis XIV and Louis XV and the stately quadrille to the Concert of Europe to the Triple Alliance.
How Can They Fix It?
This detour, I hope, makes the nature of the problem clearer and suggests avenues for rectifying it. Some form of pooled or shared sovereignty seems to me a necessity for Europe. No single European state can cope with such severe and transnational threats to European security on its own. Agreements for collective defense are bound to be signed anyway, whether under the EU aegis or by means of separate treaties. It makes perfect sense for Europe to have a common foreign, defense, and trade policy. The United States is overstretched and greatly resentful of the European defense burden. Leading politicians of both major American parties charge Europe with freeloading. Any responsible European defense planner must see that this has long-term implications.
What remains of the EU needs to secure its borders, maintain internal and external security, undertake a rational shared strategy to cope with inward migration, and either complete the EMU or abandon the Euro. Absent a common policy, Europe can’t possibly hope to cope with these challenges and security threats. All of this is long overdue; and it’s true that without Britain to hold it back, it’s easier to imagine solutions.
All of this is ultimately for Europe to decide, not us. But the United States has a massive interest in European stability and security, and we should be involved, diplomatically, in representing this interest. That’s why it vexes me that for some reason, American conservatives seem eager to see the EU dissolved. This is not at all obviously in our interest, although it’s in our interest to see the EU reformed so that it doesn’t dissolve, or to see it replaced by another mechanism for European economic and security cooperation. Doug Sanders makes this point in the Globe and Mail:
You might think [from the rise of isolationism in US and Brexit] that barrier building and isolationism are naturally, and perhaps rationally, conservative responses – a rejection of a liberal elite’s international cosmopolitanism and an embrace of national self-security. Yet there is nothing ideologically inevitable or politically rational: It is an artifice of electoral politics, created by opportunistic politicians who could just as reasonably make the opposite case.
That was apparent in the runup to Britain’s vote on its European membership, which was triggered by a devastated economy, an angry population and a deeply divided governing party. After an ugly campaign in which the tabloid press denounced the Leave campaign as “doctrinaire Marxist socialism” and all major parties supported Remain, almost 70 per cent of British voters voted to stay in Europe. Yes, we’re talking about the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in the political and trade bloc that would become the European Union. It was virtually the same referendum as last week’s, with the same arguments – except left and right were precisely reversed.
Europe’s insurgent parties, from hard left to far right, are now poised to challenge the basic tenets of the European consensus. They are broadly sceptical about the EU, resent the United States, and prefer Putin’s Russia. They want borders closed, migration low, and trade protected. Sinn Fein has called for a vote on reunifying Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish National Party is poised to demand a second independence referendum. The National Front in France, the PVV in the Netherlands, the AFD in Germany, Lega Nord in Italy, and the FPO in Austria have all called for referendums in their countries. But no one would be well-served by the fracturing of Europe into mini-states run by nationalists or communists who would quickly wreck Europe’s economies.
The coming months will be critical. The relationship between the European Union and its member states can — and must — be reconsidered. Whatever the causes of the perception of a democratic deficit, it must be fixed. And the US should help. This is one of the rare times and places where skillful American diplomacy could make all the difference. Sadly, I’m not sure whether we’re apt to see this clearly.
Anyway, please contribute, and I’ll keep writing about it.Published in