Alphen, Netherlands. 2 December. A senior European Council official last week described the European Commission to me as “Europe’s twenty-ninth state”. This got me thinking about the instinctive unease millions of we ordinary Europeans feel about the concentration of unaccountable powers taking place in Brussels. Edmund Burke and Thomas Payne would undoubtedly have seen a passing resemblance between Brussels today and Louis XVI’s corrupt ancien regime (read Tocqueville) and George III’s remote and incompetent colonial government of British North America prior to the American and French revolutions. So, where does the EU’s twenty-ninth government sit between Tom Payne’s principle of rights or Burke’s ideas about representation and taxation?
With growing public scepticism over ‘Project Europe’ and with paralysis hard-set between those that pay and those that receive the EU has become unreformable. Instead, Europe’s unofficial leader Chancellor Merkel has retreated into a kind of muddling through. Faced with Merkel’s caution and innate public scepticism hard-line federalists such as Guy Verhofstadt and his Commission friends have of late resorted to talking only about the Euro and how to save it through deeper integration. They thus avoid the bigger constitutional implications that such integration through the back door implies.
Burke was no fan of democracy but he did believe in representation. He believed government demanded a level of intelligence and knowledge that at the time was to his mind only to be found amongst the elite…recognise it? Indeed, Burke thought democracy would lead to demagoguery because it would arouse dangerous passions amongst the Great Unwashed. Burke also warned that democracy could lead to the persecution of minorities if the ‘protection’ they enjoyed from the upper classes was removed. Today’s debates over intra-EU immigration and free movement captures just a smidgen of Burke’s concerns.
Payne’s thinking was genuinely revolutionary. His Rights of Man provided the philosophical underpinnings for both the American and French Revolutions. Indeed, by placing the rights of the individual front and centre Payne was consciously cutting Hobbes’ Leviathan down to size. Leviathan trades absolute freedom of the individual for a form of security by imposing equality - all individuals transfer all rights to Leviathan in return for security. Paine instead believed in a form of utopian egalitarianism based upon an optimistic view of human nature.
What Payne failed to realise was that far from building communities his concept of universal rights could actually destroy them. Indeed, the essential difference between Burke and Payne came down to a view of community which was expressed in their war of words over the role of religion. As Alexis de Tocqueville also suggested universal rights could create dangerous competition between individuals.
However, both Burke and Payne rejected unelected, arbitrary and remote government. And it is at that philosophical juncture at which the European Commission now resides – part Leviathan, part Rights of Man and part guardian of elitist experiment. As Leviathan it is meant to ensure ‘fairness’ by establishing a level playing field between EU member-states. It uses the Rights of Man to justify its role as the initiator of European legislation under the Lisbon Treaty. And, it sees itself as the true guardian of the elitist concept of political union.
In the absence of effective oversight the Commission has been encouraged to compete for power with the very states that created it. What is dangerous is the yawning legitimacy and sovereignty gap between me the citizen, the discredited European Parliament and the EU’s twenty-ninth state.
In that light the constant attempts of the Great Unelected to extend their powers look to many of we the citizenry (and would certainly have appeared to a latter day Payne) as an attempt to shift arguments over power and its acquisition to one of competence. This was the essential argument of Thomas Hobbes back in the seventeenth century and in their respectively corrupt forms it is what the ancien regime and British North America became.
The parallels are striking. Commission no-president-of-mine Barroso even echoes Hobbes when he warns that without further integration Europe will return to a ‘state of nature’ and “warre of all against all”. This is dangerous self-serving nonsense.
Both Louis’s ancien regime and British North America ultimately fell because the costs they imposed were balanced neither by effectiveness nor representation for those outside the ruling caste. The danger for the Commission is that as it seeks to replace the nation-state as the government of Europe it will be seen more as Hobbes’s unforgiving Leviathan than either Payne’s Rights of Man or Burke’s representative government. That is why the Commission is not nor must it ever be the first or the twenty-ninth EU state.
When a form of governance is believed neither to be just nor effective by the people in whose name it governs in time it will lead to rupture. Just look at history.