At a recent event organised by the Spectator, Matthew Goodwin, an academic who has made his name with studies of the far right, suggested that the European Union was falling apart, and that in time Brexit, for its trauma, will be seen as the right move for Britain. Supporters of the EU are so mired in the crises of the moment, from Brexit to the Italian budget to refugees to governmental corruption in east Europe, that they are not asking deeper questions abut the Union. In the spirit of moving the debate along, I want to talk about three fundamental problems that need to be fixed, and one that doesn’t.
The one that doesn’t is a lack of democracy. This is a nearly universal complaint, but it is a proxy. It is an old rule about complaints: often what people say isn’t the real issue. In the EU’s case the real issue is that people feel that they don’t have enough say in key things that affect their lives, such as who can move into their neighbourhoods. The answer to that isn’t making EU institutions more transparent and accountable, and still less directly electing officials. In practice these will tend to centralise power and create yet more aggravation from those who get outvoted. There is as yet no European polity, and little solidarity between Europe’s extremes. These are necessary prerequisites for democratic structures. The European parliament is a democratic failure for this reason: the only useful purpose its elections serve is as a vehicle for protest votes – but that is because the voters don’t care about the consequences. Decisions in the Union are made through a consensus or near consensus of democratically elected heads of state – which is as good as it is ever going to get. Instead we need to look at the issues that are causing the deepest friction, in particular the free movement of people, or the greatest institutional stress, such as corrupt and populist governments, or both, like the Euro.
Let’s start with the free movement of people. This is so difficult is because free movement is in fact very popular. People like the idea that they can up sticks and move anywhere in the continent where the opportunities are better or the climate is nicer. This is, above all, what inflames passions amongst Britain’s Remainers. And it is why Europe’s politicians created the Schengen passport free zone. But for those people who find themselves surrounded by newcomers, it feels that they have lost control over an important aspect of their lives. And the biggest stress of all comes from people who originally come from outside the continent to live here, though we shouldn’t forget the stresses created by Poles and Lithuanians in Lincolnshire, or British “expats” in Spain. There is an undoubted racist undertone to this, but liberals need to understand that behind this is the feeling that rural and small town residents have of lost control. Democratisation, in this case, means more local control on who is entitled to residency, work and benefits. Of course this would mean that those choosing to keep foreigners out should lose the benefits of having foreigners come in – but people need to make that calculation for themselves, rather than have it imposed on them from on high.
The next problem for the Union is the way that corrupt elites can take control of governments with weaker national institutions, and bend them towards favouring insiders. Often this is done under the guise of populism, as in Hungary and Poland; sometimes it is a bit more obvious, as in Bulgaria and Romania. The elites running these countries are able to take the benefits of EU membership while ignoring its institutional norms, such as free speech and the rule of law. The more skilled practitioners, like Hungary’s Victor Orban, are then able to portray the EU’s complaints as an outrageous attack on their own democracy. Here what is needed is a bit of rebalancing of EU institutions to give the majority more leverage. Time is on the EU centre’s side: few things are more unpopular than corruption and sooner or later voters will endorse the rules-based EU institutions. But the majority need to be able to exert more subtle pressure on the backsliders than currently. The EU budget is an obvious place to start.
And so we come to the Euro. As with freedom of movement the problem is that the Euro both very popular, and has a capacity to create extraordinary friction. The Euro is popular because it is, for most people (Germany and the Netherlands excluded), a better store of value that any local currency would be, as well as a more flexible unit of exchange – two of the key functions of a currency. Meanwhile governments like the reduced cost of borrowing that the Euro brings. Germany and the Netherlands, meanwhile, derive much of their wealth from trade and doubtless appreciate that a floating currency would tip the terms of trade against them. And yet a single currency brings many problems with it, especially when combined with the fiscal rules that prevent countries from properly managing their business cycles. This can create unnecessary hardship, as well as dangerous frictions between the currencies haves and have-nots. The new Italian government is about to challenge the system to breaking point. It wants to loosen the fiscal rules to stimulate its economy, for which there may be a perfectly decent case, while at the same time rolling back reforms that would make the Italian economy more efficient. Interestingly, it is not finding this as easy as it thought, since its manoeuvres have raised its cost of borrowing without the EU institutions lifting a finger. But doubtless they will succeed in engineering a damaging confrontation. Most people think that they way forward is to create stronger institutions at the centre of the zone so that resources can be moved around within it more freely. The Germans object, though, and so there is impasse.
The solutions to each of these three issues are not clear. But what I think is clear is that they will require a new EU treaty of some sort. At the extreme it may mean closing down the existing union and creating a new one – or at least for the core countries to threaten this. That will require the crisis to deepen. They also mean that some of the fundamental rights and freedoms on which the Union has been built will have to be rethought. The sooner that people start that rethinking, the better.
But before we despair we must remember the things the Union does well. First is that it makes continental commerce easier, especially since the Single Market was instituted in 1992. Second, it is more effective than any national institution in taking on global multinational businesses, whose anti competitive practices are an increasing global problem. Third, they help its smaller members to stand up to bullying by countries inside and outside the union. Ask yourself why Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump dislike it so much? And fourth, it does regulation pretty well. A recent example of this is the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). This is a welcome push-back by the European public against the abuse of data by commercial and other interests. It is very unlikely that individual governments would have done as good a job. Their local political agendas are too full to make room; crucial elements would have been watered down by local vested interests. Even in Brexit Britain you hear very little protest against what is a very irksome set of requirements; people feel that something needed to be done. There are many other examples. And, of course, it makes sense if each country’s regulations are compatible with each others. It is not that EU institutions are immune to special interests, but that it is better placed to handle them than national governments.
And there is such a thing as a shared European identity, based on a shared history. This may get stronger. Europeans used to see the rest of the world reflected in its own image – a result of its period of empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries. As other continents emerge from that shadow, Europe looks a smaller place – but it becomes more obvious what unites it. It stands against the free-wheeling capitalism of America, the totalitarianism of China, the theocracy of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the cynical kleptocracy of Russia. It does so based on centuries of learning things the hard way. As the EU struggles with its raison d’etre something more cohesive should emerge. That is my hope.