Why the EU is Failing

News flash: The very day of this writing, former president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso announced that he has been hired by the banking firm, Goldman Sachs, in a “non-executive advisory role.” Goldman Sachs was the bank that advised former Greek governments how to paper over their excessive debt, and then speculated on that same debt. José Manuel Barroso was EU commission president at the time. You can understand why the average European citizen doesn’t like the EU when news of this sort comes out just after the Brexit vote.

Oh, yes – Barosso’s main job will be to mitigate the impact of Brexit – hah!

Note: This is not part 2 of Brexit, as I promised – that will come soon. I think this is needed first. Warning: it’s very long, this post is – but read it anyway.

In the flurry of post-Brexit hand wringing, I think there is an important point to be made, and the leaders of Europe aren’t going to make it, so I will (never say I don’t have hubris…).

J’accuse !

Yes, I accuse each and every European government, regardless of its political colour, of deliberately fomenting hate for the European Union among its nationals. Most European newspapers and magazines also bear responsibility for this.

“How’s that?” you say? Simple. Great statesfolk have always been scarce, but these days, they are rarer than ever. With the demise of Michel Rocard, we’re one more short. And one less is a significant difference. Most political leaders today – not only in Europe, just about everywhere – are venal, self-serving people who are terrified that if they lose an election they’ll find themselves on the unemployment lines. They care more about holding on to power than they do about leading their nations forward, and even less do European leaders care about building the Europe that EU founders dreamt of in the ashes of World War II. Result? Any time they have bad news to impart to their electors, whether or not Europe has anything to do with it, they blame it on “Brussels” – as if somehow, the bureaucrats in that city could dictate to nation-states, without anyone voting on it, and without any recourse.

I bet you think that.

This is the real big lie that I referred to in my last post about Brexit, and also the big sneer referred to in Mark Baker’s comment on it.

How undemocratic is the EU?

To answer that, you have to bear with a bit of institutional exposition (sorry). Europe has lots of institutions, but there are four that we’re primarily concerned with here, and it’s unfortunate that they have similar names, which confuses everyone:

To make matters worse, there is also a Council of Europe, which is not an EU institution at all, but a separate international organization that predates the EU. The European Court of Human Rights depends on the Council of Europe, while the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is an EU institution.

Any decent content strategist would tell these people they need to rename their institutions to provide clarity.

The EU, it must be restated, is not a country.

It is, in fact, an organization of governments of sovereign nation-states. As such, it is subject to the whims of the electorates of 28 – sorry, 27 – countries, who swing from one end of the political spectrum to the other, as witnessed, for example, after recent elections in Poland. The highest level of EU governance is the European Council, which is made up of the heads of state and of government of the member countries. It has a permanent president, currently Donald Tusk, of Poland, and a number of other “ministers” destined to represent European policy on specific topics to the world. The European Council decides on the EU’s overall direction and political priorities – but does not pass laws.

Laws are made by a mysterious interaction between the Council of the European Union (CEU) and the European Parliament.

The CEU is a variable feast, depending on what they need to discuss – but it is the working body of all the members. Its presidency rotates to another member state every six months. It can be composed of all 27 finance ministers, for example, or only those of the Eurogroup – those who use the Euro as its currency (currently 19 countries). If the subject is immigration, it will be the interior ministers who meet. If education, ministers of education, and so on. Ministers in the CEU have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings.

The European Parliament is elected by European citizens throughout the EU. Representation is by country (and region), basically proportional to population, with some adjustments for smaller states.

All EU laws must be approved by the European Parliament.

In addition, it must approve any enlargement of the EU and any international agreements (such as the free trade agreement currently being negotiated with the United States). It elects the president of the European Commission, and approves the Commissioners s/he names. Although it has never happened, the parliament can vote to censure the commission, which forces it to resign. Ordinary citizens have the right to petition the parliament to propose actions or request investigations. It discusses monetary policy with the European Central Bank, as well.


In other words, representatives of governments elected by citizens, and MEP’s (Members of the European Parliament) elected directly to Europe by citizens.

Does this seem undemocratic? It does have flaws, but it’s far from the image of beady-eyed bureaucrats in the basement of some building in Brussels deciding how much curve a British cucumber can have…

Oh yes – there’s the European Commission. That’s the part most people hear about most of time, and it’s the unelected organization many blame for making their lives miserable. The Commission is the executive branch of EU decision making, and there are commissioners to cover as many subjects as there are cabinet ministers in a typical national government. As mentioned above, the president of the commission must be elected by the parliament. The commission proposes laws that the CEU and parliament will then debate and vote on. It is supposedly politically independent, though I personally think that’s a lot of bunk. Mr. Barroso was a perfect example of a highly politicized commission president.

There is also a judicial branch, with the CJEU at the top of the structure, and with lots of administrative, financial, and other courts underneath. Unlike the Commission, it truly is independent.

Returning to the lie and the sneer…

In short, there is no decision of the European Union that is taken without involvement of elected governments and/or European MEP’s. Any government that blames Brussels should recognize that in so doing, they are blaming themselves. They show an arrogant disdain for the institutions they have helped create, and for their own citizens, when they dump on Europe all year long, and are then surprised at the high rates of abstention in European elections. Dear Mr./Ms. prime ministers: You want people to love Europe? Stop badmouthing it! NOW!


Daniel Cohn-Bendit, in an interview in Le Monde on June 30, stated that the great accomplishments of the EU have largely been forgotten. For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, Cohn-Bendit was one of the leaders of the May 1968 student revolution in France that brought an early end to the presidency of Charles Degaulle. He was known then as “Danny le rouge” – “Danny the red.” He has since become a leader of one of the European ecologist parties, and a fervent supporter of the European Union.

“When they talk about a successful project, they attribute it to themselves,” he explains, “but as soon as there’s a problem requiring compromise, they throw it onto Brussels in front of the voters. It’s a frightening political cowardice.”

Here are a few important accomplishments of the EU, just to redress things:

  • It may be a cliché, but it is no small feat that at least Western Europe has been free of war, and largely in economic prosperity, for nearly 70 years. The European Union and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, have a lot to do with that.
  • The Erasmus student exchange programme has encouraged and financed exchanges of thousands of students between EU member countries, encouraging intercultural understanding and language proficiency. Both my daughters have benefitted from this programme.
  • Galileo, the European satellite navigation system that provides an alternative to GPS without U.S. government surveillance. Currently, 14 out of 30 satellites have been successfully placed in orbit.
  • The Euro – Greek crisis notwithstanding, the existence of the single currency has protected the Euro Zone from much worse, after the sub-primes debacle and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, among other events. It has also simplified the lives of millions of people who live and work in different countries.
  • Europe-wide funding of projects for scientific research
  • Common Agricultural Policy – although Europe has had a hard time taking common stands on some issues, there has been a fairly successful common agricultural policy in place for many years, which has benefited farmers in most European countries, including the UK.
  • Free circulation of goods and people – something the Brits are only now beginning to realize was not just about Polish plumbers coming to take away their jobs…
  • Europe-wide access to healthcare under the same terms any resident has in their home country, at no cost to citizens.

There are more, but this will do for now.

But it’s still not working…

Again, there’s a long list of reasons why the EU is not making good on its promise, nor on the dream of a united Europe. Here are just of few of the ones I consider important:

  • Returning to the beginning of this post, the venal nature of politicians, who, as Danny Cohn-Bendit stated, take personal credit for European accomplishment, blame Brussels for failures, and don’t take the time to explain to their voters what the European Union is  or is not, what it does, what it doesn’t do.
  • The Euro – yes, it’s an accomplishment, but only half a one. You can’t have a single currency without harmonized monetary and fiscal policy, but that’s what we’ve got. The British quite rightly understood, right from the beginning, that the Euro was as much, maybe more, about politics as it was about economics – but more about that later.
  • Tax competition – the lack of harmonized fiscal and monetary policy means that individual member states have that power, which they guard jealously for themselves. This is what allows Ireland or Luxembourg to compete for multinational industries to locate on their territory by giving special tax breaks. It’s also what permits major companies like Amazon, Starbuck’s, or Google to get away without paying hardly any taxes in Europe.
  • The nature of European politics – since the European Commission president is chosen by the parliament, and laws are made by CEU and parliament together, the predominant political flavour determines the politics of Europe. Currently, and for some time, the dominant current has been what is known as neoliberal. To be clear, since the term gets used differently in different places, this refers to economic liberalism, based on deregulated free markets, according to the Chicago school of thought (see Milton Friedman, for example). Policies connected to austerity in government spending, especially after the Greek crisis, have been blamed for alienating ordinary citizens, increasing the gap between rich and poor, and giving rise to populist parties on the right (and some on the left), such as France’s Front National, or the Partie de Gauche, Spain’s Podemos, or the Austrian Freedom Party. This current holds the majority in the Council of Europe, the CEU, and the European Parliament – and they voted for José Manuel Barroso, and more recently, for Jean Claude Junkers. Who voted for them? The European citizens – the same ones who complain, of course.
  • The Greek crisis – anyone who tells you they didn’t see this coming is lying through their teeth. Here’s the story. When the Euro was created, there was widespread sentiment – much of it coming from Greece – that it would be impossible to create a single currency without Greek participation. Remember, the Euro is about politics as well as economics. The only problem is, Greece didn’t meet the criteria for joining the Euro. So an agreement was struck – the Greeks had three years to put their house in order. Only problem – they never did. No, that wasn’t the only problem. The other problem was that the rest of the Euro Zone knew it, and turned a blind eye. When the crisis broke, it sent the Euro spinning, but it was too late. The rest of Europe, who could have forced their hand before the crisis occurred, took their vengeance out – not on the Greek government, but on the Greek people. The Greeks then went and elected the Tsipras government to fight back. This not only enraged the neoliberals, it rendered them ballistic with fear – what if similar anti-system parties (left or right) got elected in their countries!  So they crushed Greece even more. How do you ask someone who has only 400€/month pension to live on to take a further cut? Yet that’s what they did. How to win friends for Europe!
  • The refugee crisis – a shameful blot on the record of Europe, if ever there was one. Twenty-eight nations could not agree on how to save people fleeing for their lives from drowning in the sea, nor accept the survivors in an equitable manner. Some of the blame for this rests with new populist governments in countries like Hungary or Poland – but only some. Even more shameful is farming the dirty work out to Turkey, a country not specially known for honouring human rights;
  • Expansion before deepening integration – UK was largely responsible for that. Ah, but they’re leaving – finally!
  • The United Kingdom – ah, but they’re leaving – that’s in my next post. Promise.

What about Germany?

Germany’s role in this story is pivotal. But Germany’s role doesn’t exist without France. For decades, it’s been the Franco-German “couple” that was the motor keeping the EU going. The two great enemies of two world wars finally made peace, and even more astonishingly, made friends. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the EU. The problem in this relationship is a mix of political circumstance and personalities.

Let’s go back to that nagging question of the Euro. I keep saying the stakes for the Euro are political, as much as economic. The British point of view was, give up control of your currency and you lose national sovereignty. But that’s exactly the point. That was the intention right from the start.

It was our old friend Danny Cohn-Bendit, at a seminar in Paris before the Euro came into existence, who enlightened me on this. He reminded us Germany had no great enthusiasm for the Euro, that it was very attached to its strong Deutschmark. So why did the right wing government of Helmut Kohl plunge into the Euro? It was his tradeoff to French President Mitterand for German unification.

Kohl saw his chance to make history when the wall came down. Mitterand was very reluctant to let him do it. People were afraid that a unified Germany would gain control over the Euro, and dominate the European economy. But, as Cohn-Bendit explained it, Germany (West Germany, at the time) was afraid of its own demons. Germany didn’t WANT to dominate the European economy, it didn’t want to dominate anything, at least not overtly. In fact, Kohl gave Mitterand a measure of control over Germany’s economy by accepting the Euro, in return for Mitterand’s grudging agreement to let him bring East Germany into the fold.

“But wait!” you’ll say, “Germany DOES dominate the Euro and the European economy.” And indeed, it does. Enter Angela Merkel. Frau Merkel does not have the same historical memory as Herr Kohl. She was raised in the East, daughter and granddaughter of Lutheran pastors. West Germany was obligated to do an enormous soul searching after World War II, and generations after the war bore guilt for what the Nazis wreaked on Europe, not because they were forced to, but because they were taught to by their parents and teachers. In the East, no such introspection took place. Students were taught that the Nazis were the enemies of the Communists, and so the socialist government of the German Democratic Republic could not possibly have any responsibility for what the Nazi’s did. Frau Merkel’s historical memory centres more on the pre-war misery that saw people bringing wheelbarrows of coins to buy a loaf of bread, than it does on the wartime atrocities of Herr Hitler and his cronies. It’s also significant that the former East German Länder are where most of the extreme right political activists come from in Germany.

That difference of memory, the fear of runaway inflation, coupled with the austerity of her upbringing, forged a very different political attitude in Angela Merkel than in any previous postwar German leader. Merkel is probably not such a doctrinaire neoliberal – but she does know that she doesn’t want to prime the growth pumps with government money, because that’s how you cause inflation. She is so sure of that, that she’s been able to convince her partners (mostly neoliberal, remember) in Europe to impose that austerity on everyone else. The crisis just helped her. Give up sovereignty? Why should she? She is not responsible for the Nazis, Mitterand is dead, and Kohl is an old man. Not only that, François Hollande is ineffective. He has the lowest approval rating of any French president of the Fifth Republic, while Angela Merkel has maintained consistently high approval ratings in Germany – at least until recently.

France and Germany need to get in sync again, and start feeding – not the German economy, not the French economy – but the European economy. When things get better for everyone, people will soon forget how much they dislike Europe, and remember how much good it’s done for them. Until the next political swing, at least.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (www.transformationsociety.net), a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium (www.information4zero.org) and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

12 thoughts on “Why the EU is Failing”

  1. You may well be right in all the details, Ray. But I think in the end it comes down to something much simpler. Do people think of themselves as European first or English, German, French, Greek first. Except for some among the young, it seem that the answer is the latter. Canada and the US are both federal states. In Canada the residents of every province would identify themselves first as Canadians, except in Quebec. In the US it is the same, except maybe in Texas and Vermont. We are Canadians who live in Nova Scotian, not Nova Scotians who are also members of the Canadian Confederation.

    In Canada, the federal government manages transfer payments between have and have not provinces to equalize the provision of provincial services like health care. Ontario paid out billions in transfer payments over the years, and became a net recipient more recently as Alberta and Saskatchewan boomed. Provincial finance ministers bicker endlessly over the math, but no one in Canada resents the system. We are all Canadians and we help each other out.

    Until the people of England feel that they are Europeans first and that it is their natural duty to help out their fellow Europeans in Poland, the political will for a more integrated Europe is not going to be there. I suspect that the backers of the European project hoped that such clannish feelings would disappear. Looking down on people for affection for their own is a core part of the big sneer, perpetrated by transnational liberal elites who are in fact more insular in their connection to their own kind than the people of the average working class town. (Interracial marriage, from what I have read, is more common among the poor than the rich.) And so they have never really done much to foster a feeling of Europeanness. They have sought to be post-national rather than super-national, and as a result have created no home for the affections of ordinary people.

    People do not have to hate “them” to feel a special and laudable affection and responsibility for “us”. Yet Europe never seems to have become, or even attempted to become, an “us”. To get anything done politically, you need an emotional appeal to the needs of “us”. Lacking a European “us”, to what can the politicians of Europe appeal except their existing national “us”?

    There is little point in complaining about politicians not pulling strings that are not attached to anything. European union may make all the economic sense in the world, but until Europe becomes to locus of identity for English and French and Poles the way Canada is the locus of identity of Albertans, Newfoundlanders, and Manitobans, I can’t see how the project moves forward.

    1. Mark, thanks for your observations. While much of what you say may be true, it also smacks, just exactly, of the British “justification” for sabotaging the EU all these years. I’ll explain what I mean by that in my next post on this blog.

      Let’s be really clear. Despite Churchill’s rhetoric, the EU is not, and will never be, a United States of Europe. Even the most ardent European Federalists don’t believe that. The most successful federal states are those of the New World – U.S., Canada, Brazil – I might even add Mexico, since its problems are not related to its federal nature. That’s understandable, because these countries were conceived as federal more or less from the beginning, and developed a federal culture very early in their history.

      Europe’s history is different. Germany is a federal state because the U.S. imposed that structure on them after the war. Spain has a bastard structure that looks like federalism but really isn’t. Belgium went federal to create more division, not to unite. And Switzerland is more a loose confederation of independent cantons than it is a federal state, yet the Swiss still feel Swiss, even as they bicker amongst themselves.

      With the exception of Québec, and the northwest corner of New Brunswick, state or provincial lines do not mark language barriers, and the cultural differences that one does find are rather smaller than those you find at the borders of EU member countries. Remember, in Europe, even without border stations checking passports, another language and culture is always a day’s drive away. Sometimes that happens inside the same country (Spain, Belgium, Finland, Switzerland for example). You can’t expect the same kind of adherence to a pan-European ideal that US’ers have for the US or Canadians have for Canada. Also, ask any First Nations people in North America how they feel, before making too many affirmations of faith.

      Comparing the EU to these countries is looking back at what is and was, rather than looking ahead. And the EU is clearly oriented to something new. It is, in my view, despite many, many missteps, still the most interesting political experiment going on on the face of this planet (there – I’ve managed to bend US political rhetorical style around a European subject – do I get points?).

      The EU is attempting to create something that has never existed before: a supranational body that provides not just economic exchange and infrastructure, not just top-down control as in the age of empires, but lateral cooperation, voluntary sharing of sovereignty, for the common good. And it DOES work. Just ask Spain, Portugal, and most of the former East Bloc members of the EU who have benefitted enormously from European structural funds. Why does Greece want so desperately to remain inside the EU despite the crushing punishment the EU is administering to it?

      You might say that the vision of a politically integrated EU with common social, monetary, and fiscal policies at top level, and devolved national, regional and local autonomy (the “Europe of regions” rather than “Europe of nations”) is an idealistic dream, and you might be right. But so is democracy, and yet democracy, shaky as it is, has thrived for quite a while now on many continents and in many forms. The democracy of the last 200 years, however, is sick. It’s up to new idealists to help heal the ailing patient, and the EU provides one mechanism for doing that, however haltingly.

      1. One point of clarification – I mention Switzerland in a number of contexts that might seem to imply it is an EU member. If anyone has any doubts, it is not. Switzerland does have a number of bilateral agreements with the EU, and is a signatory to the Schengen treaty that provides free circulation of people across borders.

      2. Yes, I recognize that the EU in not an attempt at creating a United States of Europe and that such a project would be very difficult. It took war in the US and the threat of war in Canada to make it happen.

        But given that, that leaves it as an attempt to build a union without affection or identity, and it is very hard to see how that happens. You complain about politicians in various countries appealing to national rather than European sentiment, but what can we expect if there is no European sentiment to appeal to?

        > “lateral cooperation, voluntary sharing of sovereignty, for the common good.”

        But how do we define common here? Unless people feel affection and identity with each other, it is not the common good. When Fort McMurray burned, ordinary people all over Canada donated goods, money, and services in huge amounts, even though Fort McMurray is one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest provinces in Canada.

        Logic says that aid should flow from the rich to the poor. Human nature says that where there is affection and identity, aid will flow from the poor to the rich, and that where affection and identity are absent, aid will be a trickle even from the rich to the poor. There are exceptions for extraordinary events like the tsunami of a few years back, but these are occasions when we are touched by a sense of common humanity: affection and identity spurred temporarily by extraordinary events.

        “And it DOES work. Just ask Spain, Portugal, and most of the former East Bloc members of the EU who have benefitted enormously from European structural funds.”

        Well sure, the transfer of money works for those who are receiving the money. But it is also clear that being in receipt of funds from people for and with whom you feel no affection or identity does not generate any kind of gratitude. It does not build the affection and identity that might lead them to willingly send funds the other way one day.

        And the fact that the EU is an attempt to build a union not based on affection or identity is perhaps made even more difficult by the fact that it is promoted and run largely by a supranational elite that does in fact feel affection and identity for the members of its own class. This severs the bonds of affection and identity between the Europhiles and the people of their respective nations.

        I am not for a moment suggesting that national identity and affection are natural, right, or inevitable. They are relatively recent in origin and in many cases artificially created. Perhaps it was the experience of the nation building of Europe, and it consequences, that made the architects of Europe want to build a union not based on identity or affection at all. But how do you appeal to the common good without a sense of commonality?

        A few of the anit-Brexit protesters in the UK seem to have been proclaiming themselves Europeans first. Maybe the seeds are there for a United States of Europe after all. But it seems to me that the current European project was conceived by Mr Spock: a union based on logic rather than affection or identity. It is not hard to understand the suspicion of those motivators in the European context. It is just really hard to see how a union built without affection and identity can hope to withstand the challenge of other affections.

  2. Thanks Ray for the very well-written, thought-provoking article. I shared in on FB.

    We met at the Content Strategy workshop in Paris several years ago, when that Icelandic volcano erupted. We stayed at the same tiny hotel, and I then had to scramble to find a way home after all the flights were canceled.

    Best regards, Regina Schwarz

    Gesendet mit der Telekom Mail App

    1. Hi Gina, nice to hear from you, and thanks for the compliment. What do you think of my analysis about Germany? Does it match with your experience as a German resident?

  3. Mark,

    >”Perhaps it was the experience of the nation building of Europe, and it consequences, that made the architects of Europe want to build a union not based on identity or affection at all. But how do you appeal to the common good without a sense of commonality?”

    Not quite true. In the aftermath of WWII, there was a lot of emotional need for a pan-European project. The problem is, they moved too slowly, and now, many people no longer sense that. Many in Europe today, in the aftermath of Brexit, think the moment for a deeply integrated Europe is past. Paradoxically, the Brexit might result in providing just what the UK always wanted, a new kind of EU based purely on economics.

    On the other hand, some others propose a 2-speed Europe – deeper integration for those who want it (perhaps only the six founding nations – plus a few more, maybe…), with the Euro as its common currency, a looser association for the others, with access to the deeper integrated group being open to those who really want to play.

    1. >”And the fact that the EU is an attempt to build a union not based on affection or identity is perhaps made even more difficult by the fact that it is promoted and run largely by a supranational elite that does in fact feel affection and identity for the members of its own class. This severs the bonds of affection and identity between the Europhiles and the people of their respective nations.”

      This, alas, is also true.

      1. And is in many ways a case of the biter bit. It was the national elites that from the 16th century to the 20th (more or less) fostered national feeling among populations whose natural affections were more to the village than the nation, so that they could win popular support of the military and trade policies that they then wanted. Now the descendents of those elites find the common folk resistant to the transnational projects they now want on the basis of that very nationalism.

  4. I have just bookmarked this article as a useful reference for the next time that I meet someone who appears confused about the EU or the next time that I get confused myself.

    With the existance of the European Council, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of the European Union, Council of Europe and vested interests out there to confuse many, there is work to be done to simplify the labelling of these various “objects”. We could do with electing an information architect (Ray?) to sort out the mess.

    There may be some sources of inspiration from the Swiss way of doing things. Can anybody confirm how lobbies could prosper in a loose confederation of independent cantons?

    Thanks Ray for this excellent series of articles for my morning commute.

  5. Andrew, thanks for your kind words.

    Interestingly, the one government in Europe that has been making the most effort to render its on line communication coherent and usable to its citizens is….

    The U.K.

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