“Britain is not in the single currency, and we’re not going to be. But we all need the Eurozone to have the right governance and structures to secure a successful currency for the long term.And those of us outside the Eurozone also need certain safeguards to ensure, for example, that our access to the Single Market is not in any way compromised. And it’s right we begin to address these issues now. ” [Cameron’s speech]
No, it would have been right to begin addressing these issues at least a good two or three years ago. There is no news peeking round the corner in Cameron’s otherwise well written, historically charged and accurate, yet nevertheless rather dull and uninspiring speech.
War on our continent has become unimaginable, as the horrors of an occupying force, death and starvation have become almost repressed in our collective European psyche. Yet it never has been just about war – it was about reconstruction too. We did not create the High Authority (the Commission’s predecessor) solely to prevent war; Europe’s visionaries had something else in mind, something which shows in paraphrasing Hallstein, who early in our EU history had the nerve to lack the characteristic of modesty, describing himself as ‘sort of a prime-minister of Europe’.
But even in the 50’s and 60’s one will find a debate with a similar bottom-line. The United Kingdom valued its sovereignty (and rightly so, especially so soon after the war) and was unwilling to concede powers to an economic community that had the objective to become more than a mere free-trade zone. It was not alone in this, Charles de Gaulle, a charismatic but rather stubborn former French president, envisioned a Europe of nation states, i.e. an intergovernmental body.
To him and what is now known as ‘the empty chair crisis’ do we owe the Luxembourg compromise. The Luxembourg compromise is a fine way to underline both the union’s weaknesses and strengths. A compromise is by its very nature not the ideal solution. An apparently unproblematic perspective. Yet we would kid ourselves if we deny a place to compromise, which has not just been our main mode of transport towards better cooperation, it has proven to be an asset and instrument against stagnation. Even when the economic bloc lacked one of its founding members, it remained alive and able to function. The decision making process proceeded to majority voting despite the French demands, who were satisfied by the introduction of the European code of ‘vital national interests’, which to this day will help a member state blocking new legislation even though it finds itself isolated or part of a minority. The fact that countries are in some circumstances willing to back a neighbour, even though they might be in favour of the legislation, shows a common purpose and understanding that has become part of a European political culture. When political theorists, philosophers, journalists or politicians point towards a democratic gap, it is there that one should look, not because there is one, but because there isn’t.
What’s the point of putting this into writing, one might ask. Well, what is put at stake in many contemporary debates is nation state versus european state. What is actually happening, however, is nation states cooperating with other nation states by means of an intricate network. A network that finds its beating heart in Brussels, but would quickly cease doing so if, for instance, weekly meetings of the Committee of Permanent Representative would fail in its deliberative tasks. The European Union is not there merely because we agreed to the Treaties (if anything half of what the Treaties stipulate has never become reality anyway); it is there because, over the years, we have put chess pieces into place that can exert a causal role on system and society and, depending on which peace one picks, this role will exert greater or lesser influence, but there is nothing beyond this causality.
Still don’t get it? Mr. Cameron wants to repatriate powers. I know he states it more subtle than that by saying “power must be able to flow back to member states, not just away from them.” This was indeed promised by European leaders at Laeken, and carefully written down into our treaties (it is known as the principle of subsidiarity). But it is hard to turn a process upside down that has been shaped and consented to by member states, including the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern-Ireland. Brussels’ power has always been granted with plenty of checks and balances, which makes it all the more disappointing that in member state politics the blame for what is being disliked so frequently falls on Brussels, while credit is swiftly ascribed to or claimed by the government holding office. This is, of course, nonsense. The Council, Committee of Permanent Representatives and the ties between an MEP and his or her national political party are three pillars that, on their own, should suffice in giving the government plenty of opportunity to express its dismay.
In any case, national capitals are strongholds with a causal effect much greater than any of the intermediate institutions they need to reach results in Brussels, even though both are essential nevertheless. Brussels is a mighty piece indeed, but why should this be surprising? It is, after all, the epicentre of what our politicians have been working on for decades and, moreover, it is mighty only because it is a hub – it is the place where 27 nation state leaders meet in the Council; the place where the European Parliament resides. Much like London is the financial centre of the world, to which no bank can claim individual credit but will nevertheless claim its place in the network, the member states partaking in the EU should think along similar lines. The ideological side of federalism versus (more) intergovernmentalism should be rendered moot. It is not about a choice of terminology, it is about choosing what is the best way to aim for prosperity, global influence and public safety and health.
We are currently stuck in the middle with each other, so to speak. We would almost be able to say we live in a different world then when the Treaty of Paris was signed in ‘51, yet the debate remains essentially the same. What direction is it we want to go in and will it involve a one or two-tier structured European Union:
“And those of us outside the Eurozone also need certain safeguards to ensure, for example, that our access to the Single Market is not in any way compromised.”
David Cameron is right in asserting this, but also slightly naive. Thinking that anyone can expect to remain at the forefront of the European Union’s internal market, of which – regardless of your political views – the Euro has become an integral part, a currency of which many are fond and proud, is probably misguided. European leaders were wrong to think a new currency would work without centralized economic governance, if they really ever thought it would anyway. Ironic, perhaps, but even though the Lisbon Treaty was a defeat for federalists in the sense that it came without the promises of grandeur and change citizens always found in previous treaties, the Euro held a pathway to integration that was quite unforeseen. What we don’t need according to Mr. Cameron, however, is more of the same because it
“…will not secure a long-term future for the Eurozone. More of the same will not see the European Union keeping pace with the new powerhouse economies. More of the same will not bring the European Union any closer to its citizens. More of the same will just produce more of the same – less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs.”
What the speech lacks, rather problematically, is how he envisions this. “Completing” the internal market would involve an eventual enlargement of the European Monetary Union, permanent stability mechanisms, European-wide oversight for the financial sector, partial tax-harmonisation that will undoubtedly come to involve coordinated policies and harmonisation of consumer and copyright law. The list could go on for a while, yet all of these steps will involve more, not less of the European Union. Sell that to your backbenchers before wasting our time.