Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The EU vs the national interest

The Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent Bruno Waterfield has made an interesting contribution to a pamphlet by the Manifesto Club, No Means No! Essays on the Eve of the European Council Meeting.

Ignore the populist eurosceptic rhetoric of the title, there’s actually a lot of interest here. (Seriously, sensible eurosceptic chaps – I know you’ve got to try and attract attention and so some sensationalism is necessary to liven up what is a very dull subject, but if you’re going to win over undecideds rather than just preach to the converted, a little more subtlety is necessary. If it wasn’t for the fact that Waterfield asked nicely and sometimes joins in the comment-box discussions here, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading past the title, and would have missed a lot of good stuff.)

The basic argument is as follows:

The EU has evolved, not as a federal super-state that crushes nations underfoot, but as an expanding set of structures and practices that have allowed Europe’s political elites to conduct increasing areas of policy without reference to the public…

The EU has never been about abolishing national interests, but always about managing them in a manner convenient for Europe’s political classes, in a public-free zone, with consensus arrived at through bureaucratic procedures derived from the secretive world of diplomacy…

The lack of accountability and the expediency of EU politics means that in many areas, including foreign policy, the EU’s inter-elite bureaucratic requirements have overridden principles of internationalism, democratic rights or justice. EU decision-making is essentially value free. Consensus comes first, meaning that principles can be traded off against the expediency of making deals, or ‘effectiveness’.

…the EU is not a system of representation or a public authority. It is a set of institutions and relationships organised for the convenience for national state bureaucracies

As such, Waterfield’s essay goes to the heart of this ongoing dispute about both the “democratic deficit” and future direction of the EU that’s a perennial favourite among those of us who like to blather on about the thing, and ends up effectively a short overview of the more secretive aspects of EU decision-making – and a very useful one at that. I do urge you to go have a look, while below the fold I’ll blather on at length.

My only real criticism (bar a tendency to rely on the work of Marxist historian Perry Anderson, the former editor of the New Left Review) is my perennial one when it comes to attacks on the EU’s secrecy and lack of democracy: I can’t help wishing for a little more context. It would in particular have been nice, both for the uninitiated and to put things in perspective, to have a bit of comparison with other systems of government.

For example, Waterfield notes that the unelected Coreper meets five times a week and handles 90% of EU legislation, mostly secretively. Fine – if the people who sit on Coreper have ambassadorial status, doesn’t that effectively make them senior Civil Servants, like the UK’s Permanent Secretaries and Directors General? If so, a) what’s so bad about them being unelected when their equivalents in national governments are also unelected, and b) what’s so bad about initial policy discussions being secretive, when most initial policy discussions are (usually) secretive at a national level as well?

Waterfield also quotes Danish eurosceptic Jens-Peter Bonde (though referring to him merely as an “expert” – which he is, but he’s also a former co-chair of the eurosceptic Indepeandence and Democracy Group in the European Parliament, a position he shared with UKIP’s Nigel Farage). Bonde may well be right that “70 per cent of all EU legislation is ‘de facto’ decided in 300 secret working groups in the Council” (it would certainly back up the arguments of those of us who always argue that “EU legislation” is nothing of the kind, always being formulated instead by the member states), but surely there are countless equivalents to these working groups in national bureaucracies, or else no legislation would ever be drawn up anywhere? Are the national equivalents more open?

Indeed, can new policies and new legislation even be drawn up completely transparently, considering that the vast majority of legislation needs to balance the needs of competing groups while irritating and alienating as few people as possible? When drafting a new law, surely all possibilities need to be considered, which would lead to minutes showing that various insane extremes were discussed – and the press would have a field day. So I can’t agree with Waterfield when he claims that “A national interest is and should be a public thing” – what about discussions relating to foreign policy and diplomacy (and, arguably, all discussions between EU member states fall into these categories)? Too much openness and transparency about discussions could lead to severely damaged relations with other powers. (As Waterfield himself notes later on, “To place a record of negotiations into the public realm risks unravelling consensus between governments.” Sometimes things need to be kept secret – in the national interest.) The question is whether the EU is more or less open and accountable than other governmental bodies.

Nonetheless, on the role of the Council Waterfield is certainly compelling in his arguments that this highly secretive final arbiter of EU decision-making is gradually watering down the people’s power to influence anything at all when it comes to the EU. To whose advantage? Considering the rising tide of resentment we’ve seen in the French, Dutch and Irish referenda, and the gradual swelling of discontent that can be witnessed among the world of the Euroblogs, it’s certainly not helping the EU. It’s the governments of the member states that make up the Council – so little wonder that it is national politicians who get the most out of the arrangement, while (as so often) the EU as a whole takes all the blame.

You see, the Council, I would argue, is not “the EU”. When people think of “the EU”, they still think of the Commission, and possibly the European Parliament. Yet in recent years the Commission has been pushing for greater openness and deregulation and Parliament for more power; the Council has been resisting. The problems and the madness more often stem from the Council than from anywhere else; the stupid/unhelpful comments come more from the national politicians than the Commission (even though the Commissioners are all former national politicians, many of whom hope to return to national politics after their terms are up, they tend to have their rhetoric tempered somewhat while at the Commission, forced by their positions to see the whole picture where those who sit on the Council look primarily to their narrow “national” interest).

So why do we still refer to things decided in Council as “EU decisions”? The EU as a body didn’t decide – the governments of the member states did, often by overruling other parts of the EU. As such, it is them – not the EU as a whole – who should get the blame. Indeed, almost everything that is wrong with the EU – from the continued disaster of the Common Agricultural Policy to the general lack of purpose through to the constant uproar over the accounts not being signed off – can be blamed on the governments of the member states, not on the EU machinery itself.

Brussels bureaucrats may always get the blame, in other words, but it is the politicians and bureaucrats of the various member states who are the real problem.

(One final aside – after reading Waterfield’s essay I think it’s high time for those of us in favour of European integration to stop falling into the eurosceptic/anti-EU trap of referring to ourselves as pro-EU. Hardly any “pro-EU” bloggers are in favour of the EU in its current form – I’m certainly not. Instead, it’s time for us to start referring to ourselves as pro-European again.)