The Value of the EU

In their responses to my essay, Douglas Carswell, Samuel Gregg, and Guillaume de Thieulloy raise many interesting points but also repeat several tropes that bear little relationship to European realities.

While their central claims are somewhat different, all three converge on their scepticism about Europe’s need for “pan-European systems of governance at all,” as Carswell put it. They also paint a picture of an ossified and dysfunctional attempt at such a system, which has faced constant rejections by European electorates “when allowed to vote on the issue,” and has benefitted only a narrow class of Brussels mandarins.

While my initial essay was critical of the approach to integration that long dominated the European debate, it does not take much to see that Carswell, Gregg, and de Thieulloy risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A view of the EU as a pure drag on Europe, economically, politically, and culturally, is untethered from facts. It also implies the possibility of an alternative in which the current 27 member states are not bound together by any common rules and do not share any common platform for joint decision making—supposedly at little or no cost. Such a counterfactual is a delusion.

It is “not as if European integration has been a success,“ Carswell quips. I beg to differ. Following the fall of communism, accession to the EU was essential for pro-market reforms in Central and Eastern Europe—not because of an explicit pressure from Brussels but because of a simultaneous economic opening-up of a dozen or so countries, which created a massive competitive pressure on fiscal and regulatory policy, with results that ought to be celebrated. Poland’s real incomes have tripled since the early 1990s. For the relevant counterfactuals, it is enough to look at the likes of Ukraine and Moldova. The EU’s single market and new tools of competition policy (both intellectual brainchildren of British Conservatives of the 1980s) led a substantial economic liberalization across Western European economies in the 1990s, dismantling national monopolies, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and eliminating heavy-handed industrial policy and cronyism. In fact, even in the UK’s case, the accession to the European Economic Community played an important role in kickstarting productivity growth following the disastrous experience of the post-war years and setting the stage for Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms of the 1980s.

More broadly, those who want the EU gone have to grapple with the fact that the bloc does many useful things. The gains from having a single European market are large and well-documented. Because the single market means not just an absence of conventional forms of protectionism (such as tariffs and quotas) but seeks to dismantle non-tariff barriers, it necessitates the existence of a layer of common rules—at the very least to allow for mutual recognition. Carswell’s points about the EU’s falling share of global output and its absence of economic dynamism are well taken. The former, however, is primarily an artefact of rapid catch-up growth in previously underdeveloped parts of the world—something to be celebrated! The latter, meanwhile, is primarily a result of domestic, not EU-level policies—as the UK itself is learning in the post-Brexit era.

The EU often acts heavy-handedly and counter-productively, including in its regulation of the (highly incomplete) single market. Yet, contrary to the view taken by the three critics, a majority of Europeans do not want to see the EU gone—quite the contrary. Public support for the EU is at its highest levels since 2008. In practically all EU countries, the bloc is seen in a positive light by at last double digits compared to negative views. In Ireland, the most pro-EU country in the bloc, the breakdown is 76 percent against 5 percent.

In fact, the UK’s departure from the EU has had the opposite effect of what Gregg suggests when he speaks of the “shattering” of the EU’s “aura of inevitability.” While not a catastrophe for the UK, Brexit has turned out to be a lingering nuisance with very little actual upside. Practical demands of life make it inevitable that a country that seeks a close economic and political relationship with the EU—from Norway, through Switzerland or Ukraine, to the UK itself—will end up following many of the bloc’s rules, only without having any say in their content. Politically, the experiment has successfully dissuaded most of the EU’s continental critics from even contemplating following the British example. Compared to the era before 2016, no relevant voices in European politics are suggesting that their countries ought to leave—not even the likes of Marine Le Pen, Alternative for Germany, or Viktor Orbán.

Examples of formalized intergovernmental cooperation—as opposed to efforts to move the integration machine forward—illustrate a broader trend seen across the EU.

To varying degrees, Gregg and de Thieulloy suggest that the EU’s technocracy stands in tension with the continent’s Christian roots. In de Thieulloy’s account in particular, Christianity is intricately tied to the idea of a nation, which has been supposedly under attack by the hubristic and arrogant architects of the European project. The real story of the links between the nation-state, Christian thought, and European federalism, however, is far more complicated.

As the political scientists Brent F. Nelsen and James L. Guth explain, the idea of a European polity, or a “universal res publica Christiania,” runs deep in Christian and particularly Catholic thought. The EU’s founding fathers from Robert Schuman, through Alcide de Gasperi, to Konrad Adenauer did not lack in Christian spirituality. Even Jean Monnet, though he ended up with a technocratic-functionalist view of European integration, was culturally a Catholic.

To be sure, there is a debate to be had about the extent to which the EU has remained true to the ideas of advances by personalist Catholic thinkers, such as Jacques Maritain (cited by de Thieulloy), Denis de Rougemont, or Emmanuel Mounier. For instance, Carswell is correct in noting that the (distinctly personalist) notion of subsidiarity, as implemented by the Maastricht Treaty and the Edinburgh Guidelines, does not provide a binding constraint on the EU’s prospective powers.

Yet the relationship between Europe’s Christian heritage and the European project are far more nuanced than either Gregg or de Thieulloy admit. More importantly, the efforts to create a European superstate have proven very ineffectual and have been largely halted. Carswell dismisses my observation that the EU is increasingly an intergovernmental (as opposed to supranational) entity as “lofty talk” while Gregg sees “little evidence of any willingness on the part of Europe’s political class” to even contemplate it. The former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who urged in October 2016 to end the talk about “United States of Europe” —“because Europeans don’t want it”—would beg to differ.

Moreover, it is simply a fact that practically every consequential European initiative of the past decade was intergovernmental—not shoved down the throats of reluctant Europeans by a Brussels bureaucracy. The most consequential innovation of the Lisbon Treaty is its institutionalization of “enhanced cooperation” between nine or more member states, allowing them to exercise the Union’s non-exclusive competences, which are not being exercised by the EU as a whole (Article 20).

Enhanced cooperation, which provides an alternative to the “community method” that requires everyone to participate in new integration initiatives, has already been used to create a European patent system and an EU public prosecutor office—in both cases with some countries opting out. Efforts at common defense policy, under the umbrella of Permanent Structured Cooperation in the Area of Defence and Security (PESCO) follow the same intergovernmental blueprint. Not only has Denmark chosen not to participate at all, but actual PESCO projects (development of a European drone, formation of European battlegroup) all involve varying coalitions of members.

Most importantly, much of the institutionalized response to the Eurozone crisis in 2010-2012 took the form of intergovernmental treaties between Eurozone members, outside of the scope of EU law. Contrary to the popular notion of the ‘diktat’ of unelected bureaucrats, Eurozone finance ministers have a final say over loans and guarantees through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM)—another intergovernmental body—and over the reforms required of countries in distress. Likewise, the Fiscal Compact, tightening the provisions of the Stability and Growth Pact, is an intergovernmental treaty, joined even by a number of non-Eurozone governments.

Formalized intergovernmental cooperation—as opposed to efforts to move the integration machine forward—illustrate a broader trend seen across the EU. Examples abound: The response to the refugee crisis in the form of Chancellor Merkel’s deal with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the EU’s response to escalating Russian aggression against Ukraine; or the fact that varying coalitions of both members and non-members participate (or not) in core EU projects such as the Euro or Schengen. The EU’s governance has become increasingly unbundled, flexible, and intergovernmental.

Given its complicated institutional legacies and the difficulty of adapting to a changing world, there is an important debate to be had about where the EU goes from here. Yet that debate is helped neither by caricaturing the EU as a nefarious bureaucratic superstate in the making, nor as an ossified, crumbling shell awaiting its inevitable collapse.