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…).
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.
ALL THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION ARE TAKEN BY A COMBINATION OF THE CEU AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
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.