Global Affairs

EU's 'ever-closer' union moves ever further away

Popular backlash whips European Union's irrelevant institutions and ideological straitjacket that ignores national electorates' wishes

LONDON • "Determined to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe." That's the first and arguably the most famous line from the treaty which founded the European Union more than half a century ago.

It was never very clear what that sentence meant. Some argued that the treaty's aim was to merge all of Europe's nation-states into one, while others suggested that the reference to an "ever-closer" union was just a manner of speech, an aspiration rather than a precise political agenda.

Over the decades, however, this argument was of little concern to any but the most pedantic of academics. The European project remained a classic example of the concept that travelling is often better than arriving, that the process of developing the EU was more important than deciding about the final destination.

No longer, however.

A recent poll conducted throughout the continent indicates that barely a third of EU citizens now support a closer union, just as many think that European governments have gone too far in merging their affairs, and are now expecting that some of the powers conceded to European institutions should be returned to their national governments. In short, the journey is now no longer important; the final destination is currently being questioned.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Probably the most significant reason for the popular backlash against European institutions is the realisation among voters throughout the continent that despite its claim to be a purely functional, practical organisation, the European Union is actually a deeply political entity, imposing a particular and singular ideological straitjacket on all its member-states.

European politicians ignore this popular backlash at their peril, for it is no longer confined to just those pesky British who always appear to be against European projects.

Support for the EU's central principle is dwindling even in founding EU member-states such as France and the Netherlands. Nor is it confined to centre-right, nationalist movements, the traditional defenders of the powers of states against European institutions. Doubts about the direction of the EU are also shared among centre-left European politicians.

To some extent, the European Union is a victim of its own success. With the exception of the East Europeans, who only joined fairly recently, no EU citizen under the age of 40 remembers a time when immigration and customs controls were enforced across the continent's borders. And only those aged 80 or above would have any recollection of World War II, the last time major European countries were at war with one another. Therefore, the main achievements of the EU - such as the liberty to live and work anywhere in Europe, to engage in any kind of business and to import and export any conceivable product or service without paperwork or taxes - are now taken completely for granted. There is no point in expecting ordinary voters to continue paying their respects to the EU for making all of these happen.

And the attempt by some EU officials to warn that such achievements could be reversed if the EU is not constantly given more powers is not taken seriously by the European public, and is also factually untrue: Germany and France are not likely to declare war on each other even if, by some misfortune, the euro currency were to disintegrate.

IRRELEVANT INSTITUTIONS

Another reason why people are increasingly put off by the EU is the organisation's inability to create institutions which relate to ordinary citizens. The EU is seen as a remote cabal of unelected but well-paid bureaucrats. And, yet again, the Brussels-based organisation is more a victim of circumstances rather than the culprit. It is difficult for EU-wide institutions to be considered relevant as long as the first loyalty of the overwhelming majority of Europeans remains with their nation-state. There is no Europe-wide political party and the EU itself cannot create one.

But as long as that doesn't happen, the result is a stilted structure which is more than a federation but less than a union, one in which European MPs and other top decision-makers are supposed to work for the benefit of the continent, but really cast their votes along old national lines.

Add to this the fact that not only the EU, but all international institutions are inherently boring since all of them spend most of their time issuing arcane but necessary rules and regulations, and it's easy to see why the Union is not at the top of anyone's popularity chart.

Undoubtedly, the economic downturn in Europe does not help either. For decades, the EU justified itself with the argument that, as incomprehensible and as unloved as the organisation was, at least it helped to deliver prosperity. But that's patently no longer true, and being associated with economic decline is unlikely to improve Europe's image.

IDEOLOGICAL STRAITJACKET

Yet probably the most significant reason for the popular backlash against European institutions is the realisation among voters throughout the continent that despite its claim to be a purely functional, practical organisation, the EU is actually a deeply political entity, imposing a particular and singular ideological straitjacket on all its member-states.

That fact came into stark evidence in the case of Greece, which early this year elected a far-left government determined to end the country's austerity policies by adopting socialist measures to boost the national economy. But after six months of battles with European institutions, the Greeks were told that they could do nothing of the kind and were literally forced to return to the same policies of austerity which they thought they had left behind.

A good case can be made that the current Greek government deserved to be rebuffed. The country is bankrupt and it was proposing to experiment with other nations' money. Furthermore, the newly elected Greek government had no clue what it wanted to do. It merely sought to rewrite the rules in the European club without consulting the others.

Still, the brutal way in which the Greek government was silenced and the decisive way in which the wishes of the Greek electorate was ignored sent shivers down the spines of many other European politicians, even those who otherwise had no sympathies for Greece's neo-communists.

But the reality was that an ideological straitjacket has operated in the Union since the mid-1980s; it's just that few noticed it. It was put in place by Mr Jacques Delors, the longest-serving and arguably the greatest of all presidents of the European Commission, the EU's executive body.

And this ideological framework survived for over a quarter of a century because it was of a peculiar kind. It decreed that all European workers should enjoy lavish welfare benefits, but also enforced a single market and thrust Europe into a globalised world economy.

Because it offered everything to everyone, it was popular with both the left in Europe, which equated the EU with traditional socialist welfare policies, and with right-wing politicians, who saw in the EU their only salvation from the old welfare state. In short, Europe was everything to everyone.

The snag is that this Delors formula is no longer working. The euro is dominated by the German approach to the management of the currency, one which does not tolerate deficit spending.

Workers' rights have to be slashed, if only to keep up with the competition and save resources for exponential spending on health and pensions demanded by an increasingly ageing European population.

And globalisation is no longer seen as an opportunity but as a threat, one which hastens Europe's decline on the world stage, as well as well as generating large and unwanted immigration pressures.

The result is a perfect storm, in which both traditionally left-wing and right-wing politicians are increasingly suspicious of the EU. The Delors consensus is broken and nobody has a clue what should replace it.

The European Union is not about to implode, as some British commentators predict. Nor are the Europeans likely to retreat into their old national shells. Europeans still feel a responsibility and a duty to each other. What other continent would have spent €400 billion (S$625 billion) to save a small and otherwise not very important country such as Greece from the mistakes of its own rulers?

Still, it is a fact that, at least for some time to come, the EU will be obsessed with nursing its own internal divisions rather than promoting global markets and good governance. And it will face criticism from all quarters.

Perhaps that's not the end of Europe's integration. But it certainly is the conclusion of the most idealistic and hopeful phase in that process. The "ever-closer" union will have to wait.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'EU's 'ever-closer' union moves ever further away'. Print Edition | Subscribe