European Union is more than a trade deal, it's a set of ideals

  1. Could Trump be right that the EU has had its day?
  2. Brexiteers forget Britain's role in creating modern EU
  3. Can the EU be judged a success or a failure yet?
  4. Challenges ahead for the EU

Essay by Jean-Jacques Subrenat.

Will the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union be the beginning of the end for the 27-nation alliance intended by its founders to make nations so reliant on each other as to make war unthinkable?

Against the background of the Brexit vote and rumblings of discontent with liberal decision-making in Brussels, even the most pro-EU European might wonder if the fabric of European unity is strong enough to avoid being ripped apart. The impact of disinformation and deliberately false information is critical to this era of uncertainty.

The referendum was a brutal reminder that biased information can carry consequences for many generations. In the United States, it can be argued – based on facts – that the Trump presidency spews out its own false news, destabilising the normal course of democracy and discourse.

Information wars

The systematic manipulation of information was the hallmark of Stalin’s Soviet Union, of Mao’s China, of North Korea down the Kim lineage. It is a distinctive feature of dictatorships. But we must face up to today’s reality: the weapon of disinformation is no longer used by dictators alone.

In the West, the concept of infotainment (information + entertainment), has blurred historical dividing lines between news and entertainment, and between fact and fiction, and is now relayed at lightning speed on social media. Is this overstating it? Unfortunately not. British newspapers – notably the Daily Mail and The Sun – have for decades misled the British public about the purpose of the European Union and how it works.

In the United States, the Breitbart group, whose former editor Steve Bannon was until recently the chief strategist of President Trump, has propagated racial and religious supremacist theories which, in a healthy democracy, are normally kept in the margins.

What can we make of Russia, where civil liberties are trampled upon and where politically motivated assassination sometimes replaces public debate?  What about Turkey, where thousands of journalists and civil servants were recently fired and even jailed? What about Indonesia where a non-Muslim candidate to be Mayor of Jakarta was sentenced to two years in prison on the grounds of “blasphemy”, simply because he reminded the public that the law does not make it an obligation for Muslims to vote only in favour of Muslim candidates?

Today, in the name of security, some democratic countries are resorting to the methods for which they have criticized dictatorships, such as mass surveillance without adequate parliamentary oversight and judiciary control, the curtailment of civil rights, or the extension of censorship and the spread of self-censorship. In the long run, this perilous convergence can jeopardize our democratic institutions while, at the same time, abetting authoritarian regimes.

So how much has “Europe” or the “European Union” contributed to this state of affairs? Can it be “blamed” for the crisis of values? Or are these world-wide trends?

In the UK, the initiators of Brexit seem to have persuaded a majority of Britons that the EU is just a set of market rules, that EU institutions have confiscated British sovereignty, that London in under the heel of Brussels without the right to react. Much of the popular media coverage has focused for years on trivial or wrong claims about straightening cucumbers or the threat of immigration. That ignores the reality that since its entry into the EU in 1973, the British government has taken part in every joint decision which had any effect on the United Kingdom.

This is one of the tragic facts of our time: constantly assailed by a jumble of data, yet ill-informed, ordinary citizens are easily convinced that the travails of their country can be attributed to the European project, and tend to ignore the fact that many of these difficulties have other causes, some at a global level.

Amnesia at the heart of Brexit

On 29 March 2017, the European Council received a letter from Prime Minister Theresa May announcing the intention of the United Kingdom to leave the EU. Starting on that day, negotiations between London and Brussels must be terminated within two years. For those who promoted Brexit, this is a logical move following on Margaret Thatcher’s call to her European partners in 1979, “I want my money back!”. Thus, 38 years later, a majority of British public opinion was persuaded, once again, that the EU is mostly about money, and was convinced that a European conspiracy had deprived the UK of its sovereignty. Historical facts do not support such a view.

In the minds of the main architects of the European project (or “construction européenne” as it is known in French) – Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi and some others – the chief purpose was to rebuild a devastated European continent, but also to avoid new wars. Monnet was convinced that the best way to consolidate peace was to forge a practical solidarity among nations, so he put forward a plan for a Coal and Steel Community, a first iteration of what was to become the EEC, and later the EU. Winston Churchill made a similar plea in 1946: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.(…) I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European Family must be a partnership between France and Germany.”

There is a less well-known fact: it was first to the British authorities that Monnet presented the idea of a comprehensive partnership. In 1939, shortly after a military alliance was concluded between Germany and Italy, Monnet drafted a plan to merge the military industries of France and the UK. This plan won the approval of both De Gaulle and Churchill, who then appointed Monnet as their envoy to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to coordinate the supply of U.S. military equipment for the war effort in Europe against Nazi Germany.

In 1943, at the height of World War 2, Monnet was already busy on a new European project: “There will be no peace in Europe if the states rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection…. The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples. The States of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would bind them in a common economic unit.”

After the war, Monnet further developed his idea: in March 1949, he submitted a plan to the Finance ministers of Great Britain and France, calling for the merger of what were then the two main economic powers in Europe. At the end of 1949, partly because of serious political and monetary instability in Paris, London finally gave a negative response to his proposal.

The failure of the French and British project was the starting point of an even more ambitious plan for a European Community, which Monnet shared with Robert Schuman, French minister of foreign affairs. Together, Schuman and Monnet approached the German leadership with the “Schuman Plan”, which was accepted. On the 9th of May 1950, in front of many European leaders gathered in the Salon de l’horloge of the Foreign Ministry in Paris, Schuman made this statement: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition between France and Germany. “.

The next stages are well known. In 1957, the six founding members signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) with the aim of gradually reducing tariff barriers, setting up a customs’ union, and creating a single market for goods, labour, services and capital. To manage this vast programme, the Six established the European Commission; they also set up Common Policies for agriculture and transport. And in the ensuing years, steps were taken to strengthen the new European construct by facilitating exchanges between Member States and by harmonizing the main areas of economic activity.

Unblocking the De Gaulle veto

A major step was taken in 1973 when the Six welcomed Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. President Charles De Gaulle had twice blocked the entry of the UK, and he is said to have kept in mind a remark by Churchill during the war : “If England has to choose between Europe and the high seas, she will always choose the high seas.” However, in 1972 President Georges Pompidou accepted the conditions negociated with the British Prime Minister Edward Heath.

One can understand why, at the time, the industrial, monetary, financial and military might of the UK made it a very attractive European partner in the eyes of Paris. We must remember that during the Cold War, one of the challenges facing what was still the European Economic Community “EEC” was to distance itself from the two large blocs, controlled by Moscow and Washington. But, as the Brexit campaign in 2016 made unmistakably clear, London has always tended to view the European project not as a comprehensive political and economic plan, but as a mere common market. London has long set its strategic and long-term sights on the “special relationship” with Washington, and relied on NATO for collective security.

Later steps showed how European leaders kept hesitating between consolidating the European project (improving joint institutions and procedures), and enlarging its membership (admitting new member states). For decades, Washington, with the assiduous help of London and Ankara, called upon the EU to enlarge its membership, in order to rein in this growing economic competitor, but also to impede a European defence setup viewed as a threat to the Atlantic Alliance in which the USA are, de facto, the true leaders.

German unification, European disunity

There were times when some European capitals had their own reasons to pursue enlargement, or even to accelerate its pace: in the late 20th century, this was especially the case for Germany, which was keen to have friendly neighbours in the uncertain environment brought about by the implosion of the Soviet Union. For a just recently re-unified Germany, there was a real need for a stable neighbourhood in the Baltic area and in the Balkans. Other EU members were aware that an accelerated enlargement would deepen the differences in the EU in a number of areas, regarding the solidity of their democratic institutions, the independence of their judiciary, their financial and budget resources, the effectiveness of their security and defence systems… While all this was happening, most new EU members states were also keen to join the European Monetary System (EMS) and later the the Euro zone. The sheer variety of situations among aspiring and new member states threatened to jeopardize the cohesiveness of the EU, which today still has to face the consequences of enlargement having been implemented before political and economic consolidation. The monetary, financial, economic and social crisis in Greece is a striking example of this.

Beginning in the early 21st century, the EU, busy with its enlargement and having to deal with all sorts of crises, has paid less attention to other, equally important aspects of the European project, which remain largely unattended to: the key role of culture as the foundation of democracy, the importance of education and vocational training, a long-term plan for European defence and security, fiscal harmonisation, the portability of professional competence and of social security benefits, harmonisation of border controls, harmonisation of immigration rules.

These are some of the subjects the EU will have to address in the near future.

The EU will also have to take its fair share in global issues: a possible new isolationist mood in the USA; the rising power of China, India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia; new alliances sought or concluded by Russia; the growth of Asymmetric warfare characterized by blind violence wrought in the name of religious beliefs; the massive regression of human rights; the continued persecution of women; lack of education for the young; the need to arrive at a global management of essential resources such as fresh water; the duty to pursue the control of ABC (Atomic, Biological, Chemical) Arms of Mass Destruction; implementing the resolutions of COP-21 in order to avoid climate and ecological catastrophes.

The European project is grounded in the past: its original purpose was to rebuild devastated countries and to avoid the recurrence of war. But what does the balance sheet of its actions look like?

Is the European Union a success or a failure?

The Treaty of Rome was signed sixty years ago. Results can only be assessed by comparing them with the initial targets. And whatever the outcome, the responsibility of the EU as a result of what it did or failed to do must be separated from the effects of broader, sometimes global forces.

The EU has come under fire from the media on a number of counts including, among other things: Member States ”being deprived of their national sovereignty”, the increased cost of living since the introduction of the Euro, a worsening security situation due to the massive inflow of refugees, rising crime rates… Part of public opinion seems to overlook the fact that no decision is made in Brussels without the assent of the EU Member States (by unanimous or majority decision, depending on the subject) and tends to forget that no EU directive is applicable in any Member country without being transcribed into that country’s domestic law.

That being said, criticism is nevertheless justified in a number of instances. Over the decades, EU institutions have piled up an unbelievable amount of regulations covering vast areas of public policy, and it’s hard to say whether this accumulation was due to administrative routine or to complacency on the part of national representatives staying too long in Brussels. The principle of “subsidiarity”, according to which a matter must first be dealt with at the level closest to the citizen and user, has not always been enforced. Many member countries want only national regulations to apply to a larger number of products (e.g. snuff or “snus” in Sweden), and to some traditional food (e.g. fermented products).

The media often focus on what they see as a lack of consideration for “the will of the people”. In the case of France, the referendum held in 2005 rejected the draft EU Constitutional Treaty. The referendum in the Netherlands produced the same result. It is a fact that by adopting the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, Member States accepted a number of articles which had been rejected in the 2005 draft. Just as a reminder, a national referendum can only be organized by the government of that country, and the EU as such plays absolutely no part in the process. So it is unjustified and unfair to blame the EU for a national referendum, whatever the outcome may be.

Many governments have used the rallying cry “it’s Brussels’ fault” to try and explain national failures such as weakened competitiveness, declining industry, rising unemployment, decreased purchasing power, social disruption, malaise and violence. The same arguments are extensively used in France by “Front National”, in Austria by the “Österreichische Volkspartei”, and in Great Britain by UKIP and some Conservatives.

And then, along came a U.S. presidential candidate who encouraged EU member states to “follow the example of Brexit”. With his wry humor, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared that henceforth he would promote the secession of Ohio and Texas. Juncker is quite right: in the face of such gross interference from the other side of the Atlantic, humor may be the best policy.

Criticism is quite justified in other areas as well, for instance regarding the insufficiently coordinated policy and implementation of migration in the EU. Some member countries proclaimed their willingness to take in migrants and refugees, but failed to check that the transit countries (say Bulgaria in, or Turkey outside the EU) could bear the social strain and indeed had adequate infrastructure to withstand such massive flows. Such a poorly coordinated policy and the lack of means to tackle the problem have placed a disproportionate burden on some countries (Italy, Greece, Balkan countries, Turkey) in terms of intake capacity, social tension and budget expenditure. In addition, the lack of adequate and coordinated controls on the borders of the EU has heightened the risk of potential terrorists entering the Member States.

The humanitarian crises in Lampedusa, Catania, Rhodes, Calais and elsewhere have underlined the need for a thorough review of the Schengen Accords, not by putting in question the principles upon which they rest, but by making the whole system more efficient and sustainable in the long run. This cannot be achieved without a clearly defined joint migration policy and the means to fully carry out its tasks.

There have been many recommendations regarding the future of the EU, ranging from fairly simple corrective measures (e.g. simplifying standards in agriculture) to much more comprehensive reform (revision of the Treaties, new allocation of responsibilities between Member States and EU institutions). But for such an ambitious reform to succeed, Member States must stop blaming EU institutions for the results of national policies, or for joint policy being poorly implemented at a country level. One thing is now quite clear: there is no way the European project can be achieved against public opinion.

In this day and age, success or failure are often assessed in numbers. So here are a few numbers: the EU accounts for about 7 percent of world population, around 22 percent of global gross domestic product or 17 percent in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. In world trade, the EU accounts for 15 percent of all products and 16 percent of all services (2014 figures). Established in 1999, the Euro monetary system and common currency is now the second denomination for transactions throughout the world, behind the U.S. Dollar and ahead of the Chinese renminbi. And, since October 2006, Euro banknotes and coins represent the largest currency in circulation in the world.

Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, the EU can also be judged without numbers. The fact that there has been no armed conflict among member countries is an important result, even though this may seem quite normal to the younger generations. But we need to remain vigilant: shortly after the UK Prime Minister sent a divorce letter to the EU, tension flared up between London and Madrid, with the UK Secretary for Defence warning Spain that tampering with the status of Gibraltar would lead to military retaliation.

Over the past few decades, many regional cooperation or coordination projects across the world have specifically taken the European Union as their model: Mercosur in Latin America, Caricom in the Caribbean, African Union in Africa, ASEAN in South-East Asia, and even the Eurasian Union steered by Russia. As Jeremy Rifkin pointed out in 2004 in « The European Dream», a number of emerging or newly independent States found inspiration in the EU to chart their own efforts, for legislative, social, economic and monetary modernisation. According to Rifkin, the European model had a wider influence than the United States as a model for innovative public policies.

We live in an era when countries and regions cannot exist in isolation. The success of the EU and its Members States depends, to a large degree, on their interaction with the rest of the world.

The EU in a global context

All manner of commentators have described the 19th as the European Century and the 20th as the American Century. Now the prediction is that the 21st will be the Asian and Pacific Century. But if current trends are any indication, we cannot be sure that the distinctions which developed after World War Two will remain valid throughout the 21st century. The ideological divide between East and West, the irreconcilable antagonism of communism and capitalism, the contrast between emerging countries and “Old Europe”, none of these render an accurate account of today’s complex world.

One time U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once asked condescendingly “Europe? What telephone number should I call?”. He was partly right, as the then EEC lacked clarity and leadership. But today, the same question could be put to Washington: would it be more advisable to call President Trump himself, Bannon up to a couple of months ago, his secretary of state Rex Tillerson or his chief advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner? Condescension has never been a great tool for diplomacy, as someone like Lawrence Summers discovered: in 1999, when he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and just a few months before the Euro currency was launched, he made this prediction: “the Euro may never be implemented”.

If the United States were to enter a new phase of isolationism, their decision would have global consequences. Since January 2017, President Trump has jeopardized the long-standing trust in the United States, and its allies are no longer confident of its commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. Brexit will also come with a range of consequences: while the government in London is attempting to woo Washington back into their Special Relationship, it is making known that it might withdraw from European security and defence to concentrate on NATO. It is no wonder then that France, Germany, Italy, Spain and others are keen to reinforce the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), and are calling for a permanent European command centre which would coordinate national armed forces in joint operations.

The Trump Presidency is also affecting the global economy. After exercising its leadership over many decades, Washington is calling into question some major international trade arrangements, so China is now free to present itself as the new champion and protector of free trade. By calling into question the Paris Agreement on Climate (COP21), the US President has jeopardized years of negotiations and is leaving environment protection to other countries (China, India, but also Europeans), because Washington now considers itself freed from any obligation in this respect, at least temporarily.

Among world and/or regional powers, Russia remains an important partner for the EU as a prime supplier of gas and as an important market, but at the same time it is a competitor, both commercially and in wielding influence in Europe and beyond. Moscow is continually trying to drive a wedge between EU member states by dealing with each separately. China does the same, and for the same reasons. And when national leaders (from France, the UK, Germany, Italy, etc.) visit China or Russia, quite naturally they promote the national interest first and foremost.

Arguably, the EU is better prepared than most regions to face some of today’s global challenges. Through its successive enlargements, the EU has become very aware of the importance of economic harmony among member states, using its Structural Funds to facilitate intra-EU cohesion. When visitors from other parts of the world come to EU countries, they are struck by the signboards where EU funding in the construction of a bridge or road, a science laboratory or a vocational school is clearly spelled out. Above all else, we need to remind ourselves that in today’s world, the EU is the single largest entity made up of truly independent and democratic States, each with its institutions, its language(s), its cultural references, its traditions.

But there are future challenges

Let’s start with demographics. In 2016, the population of the EU members states was 510 million, behind China (1.37 billion) and India (1.33 billion) but ahead of the United States (321 million) and Russia (146 million).

In the United States, it is predicted that by 2050 the majority of the population will no longer be “white”. In the EU, forecasts point to equally major changes.

One serious drawback is that, in several member countries, people do not identify with the EU because it is seen to favour lobbies supporting specific interests, while public statements emphasize the public interest. We may be on the cusp of an identity crisis on a European scale.

In spite of all its shortcomings, and even its failures, the European project builds on clear principles. Even though much progress still remains to be achieved among the member states, their common institutions ensure that the rule of law is generally respected, as are also freedom of thought and speech, of religious beliefs or lack thereof, and individual rights are more prevalent in the EU than in most other places. The diverse cultures, languages and traditions are free to develop.

Union does not signify unanimity. Martin Schulz, who recently stepped down as President of the European Parliament, recognized that it could be complex: “Personally I am a staunch pro-European and yet, at the same time, I don’t necessarily agree with everything. The EU is not projecting its unity, in the face of grave dangers such as those in Ukraine or Syria, nor in the negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement”.

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