Alphen, Netherlands. 19 December. One of America’s Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton said, “It is not tyranny we desire; it’s a just, limited, federal government”. He could well have been speaking for 2014 Brussels. 2014 has been another bad year for the EU nation-state. Federalism is creeping forward via the back-door at an inexorable rate and national leaders with the exception of Angela Merkel look ever more like powerless puppets trying to mask the extent of their own impotence. The EU leadership vacuum emboldened federalists sufficiently to hijack the May 22 European Parliament elections and seize the European Commission. The false legitimacy upon which Jean-Claude Juncker based his coup d’états was both impressive and dangerous and frames the central question for this coming year; who rules Europe?
Two reports this week demonstrate just how hard it will be to answer that question. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) this week published the last seven of the so-called Balance of Competences reports. The previous batch of reports on a whole host of issue pertaining to the impact of the EU on British governance all reflected the FCO’s assumption that more Europe is better. However, these final reports sneaked out cynically before Christmas to avoid too much debate implied something else: an EU engaged in an existential struggle with the member-states and a Brussels that uses maximalist interpretations of treaties to interfere ever more deeply into national governance and life. Moreover, the ‘subsidiarity’ that David Cameron keeps hopelessly banging on about as critical to EU reform is seen by the Brussels institutions as a bit of a joke and a form of lip service to increasingly irrelevant national legislatures and executives.
The second report was scribed by Sonia Bekker, a respected, Dutch left-of-centre academic at Tilburg University. Entitled “Revitalising Europe 2020 to strengthen the Social Dimension” the paper appeared on the web-site of the think-tank Policy Network and warned against the drift towards an ever more bureaucratic union.
Bekker is no Euro-sceptic, far from it. She applauds the aim of the Europe 2020 strategy to ensure 20 million fewer Europeans are at risk of poverty and many more actively participate in the European labour market. However, she highlights what she calls the growing contradictions in EU “socio-economic governance” and suggests ever more EU regulation is more a curse than a solution.
Specifically, Bekker questions whether taken together the Stability and Growth Pact, macroeconomic imbalances procedure, budgetary co-ordination, the so-called euro-plus pact and the Europe 2020 strategy itself actually amount to coherent policy. She points out that these initiatives emerge from a range of different treaty areas and implies that the EU is in effect trying to enmesh the member-states in a giant spider’s web of over-regulation. She also points to the growing gap between the rules imposed on Eurozone and non-Eurozone members.
Critically, she also concurs with the FCO’s concerns about EU mission creep. Specifically, she highlights the European Commission’s “Country-specific Recommendations”. In the past such recommendations were broad suggestions for actions that a member-state might take at the most macro-economic of macro-economic levels. However, the Commission is now ‘instructing’ member-states in areas such as healthcare and social security and using social funds to discipline member-states. This tendency reflects a maximalist, back-door federalist approach that was seen to good/bad effect by the judgement this week by the European Court of Justice instructing Britain over its use of visas for non-EU citizens. The aim: not to solve Europe’s manifold problems but to extend EU competences. Bekker states, “National challenges are often far too complex to formulate feasible and effective solutions at EU level”. She also calls for more not less subsidiarity. “The key targets are the Europe 2020 goals and countries should have enough space to find their own way towards these over-arching goals”.
Now, I am a pro-European, EU-sceptic who like Abraham Lincoln and John Locke has a profound mistrust of distant, effectively unaccountable power, which is what the EU is fast-becoming. Equally, I am not prepared to press the Armageddon button and call for the dismantling of the EU just yet. Indeed, it is still my firm belief that a reformed EU can play a vital role in building a stable Europe and aggregating and exerting European influence in the world. The tragedy for Europe is that the endless back-door, functionalist power grab by federalists far from helping Europeans solve its manifold problems is causing political paralysis.
However, for such a vision to be realised back-door federalism must be stopped. In its place a new political settlement is needed that preserves the primacy of the nation-state, establishes clear rights and protections for those member-states not in the Eurozone, and properly embeds state power in a legitimate but subordinate institutional framework with accountability first and foremost guaranteed by national parliaments working in harness. THAT would represent a true balance of competences.
Sensible members of the European elite know full well that a European super-state can only come with time and a profound shift in political identity. If they try and rush it millions of us would struggle to prevent it. My grandfather did not fight for liberty and democracy in World War Two to see it emaciated and strangled by a distant, super-bureaucracy overseen by a sham parliament in which I do not believe.
In reality what Jean-Claude Juncker and his ilk seek is a twenty-first century European realisation of Hamilton’s just, limited federal government. Unfortunately, no-one actually knows what precisely ‘just’, ‘limited’ and ‘federal’ mean in twenty-first century Europe. In other words the EU is a political experiment and as such it is not one that is working. Today, the EU is political paralysed as weakening states no longer sure of their sovereignty tussle with a powerful but as yet insufficiently strong Brussels probing to extend its competences.
It is political paralysis more than any other fissure or friction that is preventing Europeans from addressing the root causes of its many problems. Moreover, it is political paralysis that sooner or later will trigger a social, economic and political explosion if not addressed.
Who rules Europe 2015? Who knows.