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3 Questions on European Integration and Citizens’ Connection to Europe / Elizabeth Meehan

By Sat 2 Feb 2013May 10th, 2017Future of Europe, report & speeches

The notes in your programme for this session ask three questions:

1. Does the challenge to state sovereignty posed by globalisation make closer European integration more compelling?

2. Do citizens feel connected to the EU in a practical and meaningful way? and

3. Is a European ‘Republic’ possible?

In exploring the questions, I make some references to two of the concerns that lie behind the idea for this seminar; the so-called north-south tensions (I say ‘so-called’ since, geographically at least, Ireland is not ‘southern’); and the relationship between states and the central EU institutions. On this point, I mention, not only actual member states, but also would-be states.

1. Does the challenge to state sovereignty posed by globalisation make closer European integration more compelling?
From the very beginning, there was a widespread sense amongst political leaders and the interested public that ‘pooling’ powers enabled member states to act more effectively in achieving and maintaining ‘the good society’ – one of security, justice, solidarity, and so on. Most, though not all, nationalist movements within the large member states also recognised that the modern world was necessarily interdependent. The Scottish National Party, for example, argued in the 1970s for ‘Independence in Europe’ and others made similar cases.

There were, of course, exceptions to the idea that sovereignty was more effective when ‘pooled’– notably in sections of British political parties. As noted in the outline for today’s seminar, these British voices are now louder and more widespread but are also heard elsewhere – for example, the Czech Republic.

However, if the interested citizen were to look to political leaders and experts for guidance about whether today’s crises make closer integration more compelling, he or she would find little consensus and much uncertainty. Broadly speaking, the analyses display either: disagreement about the proper measures taken or to be taken and the processes of taking them – incrementally within existing treaties or through constitutional reform; or a degree of certainty about what needs to be done – closer economic and political union – but a sense that doing it will be impossible.

An initial confusion lies in the question of what the crisis is about. Is it the need to save the Eurozone or is it to save the EU? For a while, the two objects of concern seemed to overlap completely – hardly surprising, given the interaction and interdependence of EU economies. Saving Greece would save the Euro and that would save the Union, including its non-Euro members. Thus, at all costs Greece was to be kept in the Eurozone. From this summer, however, opinions have been voiced in Germany that a Greek exit (and, by implication, other departures) would not be as daunting as it had once seemed.

Leaving aside the possibility of deep global recession being sparked-off by multiple exits (perhaps for this afternoon’s discussion), the prospect opens significant political questions about a new version of what used to be called ‘variable geometry’ or a multi-speed Europe. Might there be an EU polity with a federal core with a single fiscal policy and moving in the direction of political union? Surrounded by a group of non-Euro states who may or may not opt-in to the core? – there is debate about whether this would be possible or permitted. And then the UK, either with so many opt-outs that it makes almost no sense to describe it as a member, or out altogether as its opt-outs become increasingly intolerable to the others?

The idea of a United States of Europe (as a whole entity or a core within a periphery) is on the agenda of political groupings across the spectrum in Germany. This does not stem from idealism but reflects a view that political union is necessary and, indeed, inevitable. In other countries, some politicians, including some holding EU office, also think that there is a ‘compelling need’ to change the Treaty of Lisbon in a federal direction. But other politicians and citizens in the other countries, as well as citizens in Germany, ‘recoil from the goal of political union’.

Expert analyst and former politician, Alan Dukes criticises the processes of dealing with the crisis, notably the ‘muddling-through’, country-by-country approach, and points to failure to tackle the problem that, in a multi-state monetary union, a monetary and fiscal problem in one country is a problem for the whole. Conversely, another analyst argues that: ‘One of the positive aspects of the euro crisis is that it has provoked Europe to engage in a profound debate on the form and degree of federalism it needs’. The idea that a degree of federalism is required lies in the need for a monetary union to have a clear enunciation of rules and allocation of competences, not just on the monetary policy side but also on the fiscal policy, or ‘spending’ side. Believing that measures taken hitherto do not go far enough in this direction, he calls for ‘a healthy exploration of fiscal federalism’ – that is, the normative framework for allocating functions to different levels of governance and the appropriate instruments for carrying them out.

However, the idea of a European Commission role in monitoring macro-economic and fiscal policy (up to possible sanctions from the Court) is proving unacceptable to the larger member states. A continuing attachment to the idea of national budgetary sovereignty trumps a move to more fiscal federalism. In any case, a fully rounded monetary, economic and fiscal regime would be, it is said, ‘a decisive step to political union’ – from which, as noted, many politicians and most citizens ‘recoil’. So, what is actually emerging has been described as ‘a system of governance under which debtor countries have to accept fiscal policy prescriptions and structural reforms imposed by creditor countries’ – while the latter remain free to conduct their own policy with no ‘meaningful interference’.

As Sir Stephen Wall, former British diplomat and president of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies, points out: ‘It is hard to detect either the political leadership in Europe, or the popular support, that will transform the governance of the Eurozone and, with it, the long-term political and economic prospects of Europe as a whole.’ The topic is, however, the subject of a European Citizens’ Initiative which you can read about in the excellent handbook that has been put together by the Green Foundation Ireland and is on its website. This brings me to my next sections – on citizens and the possibility of a European Republic.

2. Do citizens feel connected to the EU in a practical and meaningful way?
According to one commentator, we – that is, except for the perennial ‘sceptics’ – became accustomed to enjoying the fruits of integration coming via the four freedoms of the Treaty of Rome – free movement of goods, capital, services and people – and the fundamental values of the EU – respect, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, human rights, etc. These, after all, entrench at the EU level the similar freedoms and values that grew-up and flourished in the older member states and were reclaimed in the newer ones. The choice of venue for today’s seminar reflects connections between shared European values and the aspirations of the Society of United Irishmen for a tolerant, non-sectarian society and equality in the polity. Moreover, very close to the end of his life in 1847, Daniel O’Connell, involved with the early United Irishmen, was hailed by a large crowd of radicals in Paris wishing to pay tribute to the man whom they thought of as ‘the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe’.

It was an ambition in the 1960s that citizens of the EU would recognise their commonality and attribute their situations to their common membership of the Union. This ambition could be said to have been realised only partially with, for example, class factors coming into play. But the down-swing of the economic pendulum has brought what has been described as an ‘overwhelming’ reversal back to the national interest as our reference point for understanding the crises. Moreover, according to the same commentator, this reversal is fuelled by the language of politicians. In building ‘firewalls’ to prevent ‘contagion’, they seem to suggest that dysfunctional economies are ‘riddled with disease’ and ‘ready to poison the lifeblood of healthy economies’. The language also seems to link economic performance to the general moral character of entire political communities – the stuff of the north-south fracture.

A weakened sense of connection with the EU is also to be found among citizens in creditor states. In Germany, for example, many people apparently think they would be better off without the Euro. The German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle suggested in September of this year that: ‘We need to rediscover what the value of Europe is. Europe needs a new raison d’être. If Europe manages to persuade its citizens that it is a good thing, it will be possible to deal with the crisis.’

But the problem is that those values I mentioned, of the EU and each of its member states, do not seem to have a powerful enough impact in the current crisis to ‘strengthen the feeling that we are all part of the same political entity’ or system of solidarity. Nor are they strong enough in the current situation to make the EU – and further integration – look like a solution rather than part of the problem.

In connection with the resurgence of the national as the reference point, I might briefly mention the potential rise of small nation states. Catalonia, Flanders and Scotland can be used to illustrate that what citizens really want is government closer to home, not a closer economic and political union based in Brussels but led, as it were, by the Berlin perspective. On the other hand, in Scotland at least, the independence perspective is one of ‘soft power’ – Scotland in a multiplicity of unions or alliances and comfortable with the idea of shared sovereignties. At the same time, UK politicians who want to leave the EU also defend an unreformed UK. The prospect of a UK that has left the EU and remains unreformed at home could have an impact on how people decide about the future of Scotland – as much as the spectres raised in London and Brussels as to whether Scotland could be a member state.

3. Is a European ‘Republic’ possible?
I have two preliminary points here. The first is to note that a ‘Republic’ requires a public space. And the second is that, in asking this question, we should insert another word: Is a democratic European ‘Republic’ possible?

My remarks so far seem pretty bleak about whether there can be a public space for the free exchange of ideas, common actions and solidarity. In addition to the lack of ‘pulling power’ at the EU level of shared values, the political discourse of firewalls, contagion and moral weakness undermines the European public sphere. Explaining the crisis in this way misleads the public by not highlighting causal factors common to all: for example, that the crisis arises from economic systems that are not particular to any one state; that there were serious errors in the global banking and financial services sectors; and that there were design faults in EMU. However, two Spanish citizens have written an open letter, a letter to our fellow European citizens, in an effort to start a discussion that goes beyond stereotypes of both northerners and southerners. It was published on 31 October 2012 but, so far, has not attracted many responses.

I now turn to the possibility of a democratic European ‘Republic’. So far, commentators have tended to focus on the detrimental effect of the crises on democratic national republics; for example, the imposition by creditor countries of constraints on the internal affairs of debtor countries, thereby circumventing voters and leading to the formation of technocratic governments in Greece and Italy.

Of course, there has always been talk about the EU’s ‘democratic deficits’; that is, the lack of opportunity for popular input, the ‘closed door’ character of decision-making institutions, and the relative weakness of the European Parliament. And there have been efforts to ameliorate the ‘deficits’; such as the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament and the strengthening of its powers, more transparency in the Council of Ministers and the administration, the idea of European citizenship, and the new possibility for citizens to join with one another in initiatives proposing policy change. This last innovation fits in with an exhortation by a trio of European thinkers. They urge European citizens to understand that they will be able to retain welfare states and cultural diversity only by pooling resources to try to influence the global policy-making agenda.

On the other hand, commentators seem to agree that the crisis has exacerbated a sense of powerlessness to shape EU policy. But one of them goes further. She suggests that issuing ultimatums and imposing solutions may mean more than undermining national democracy and demonstrating an ineffective EU-wide democracy. Rather, the crises raise the question of whether democracy is ‘surplus to requirements’ in the process of deepening integration.

I don’t think I’d be quite so pessimistic about that prospect. Chancellor Merkel is said to have has proposed another constitutional convention on the future of Europe, an idea that attracted only a ‘lukewarm welcome’ in other capitals. There are obvious drawbacks. It could not be undertaken in time to re-establish a common public space, let alone one that could cope with the current crises. It would involve consideration of major institutional reforms, likely to be controversial, including finding ways to ensure an effective accountability role for the European Parliament so that economic governance was not in the hands of an unaccountable administration. If it were to be anything like the American constitution-building that inspired the Society of United Irishmen, it would have to involve the public directly and through public debate, as in the pages of The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers. This can be done as shown by Iceland’s recent constitutional convention. But can it be done in time and would it be too complicated in a public space the size of the EU? I leave these for discussion.