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.)


  1. Ahem….

    “Bonde resigned his seat on the 9th of May 2008. He was replaced by Hanne Dahl, who was placed second on the June Movement’s candidate list in the 2004 election”

    Wikipedia. Hanne and Nigel now co-chair.

    Tsk, 7 months out of date…..

  2. You see, that’s what I thought. Did a quick check and found something suggesting that he was still there, so assumed his resignation meant that he was stepping down at next year’s elections.

    Still – Jens-Peter Bonde. I always did like him. And he struck me as a good bloke when I met him last year. A trifle intense, but still…

  3. Fixed now, damn your eyes.

  4. I would have thought the difference between the EU civil service and the national civil service is the national one is responsible to and controlled by the elected government of the day, which in turn is supposedly controlled by the elected parliament. That really is the problem with the EU it is not answerable to the public in any meaningful way for its policies.

    I see what you say about Pro-EU, but calling yourselves Pro-European ?

    Who then is Anti-European certainly not EUscpetics we are against the present structure of the organisation which calls itself the European Union, as it would seem are you. The difference I see is that you have a belief that it can be reformed along the lines that would make it democratically acceptable.

  5. There was mention about national bureacracies. This is the biggest stumbling block about Britains membership of the EU. Ours aren`t up to it. That`s the biggest reason to leave.
    You cant call yourself Pro European to disguise a little bit of fustration about the way this project is going.Unless you are of a fascist mentality and think European is an ideal better than African or Asian.

  6. Robin, seriously – it’s not fascist nor racist to have any kind of focus on Europe as a vague entity when you have been born and bred in a European country and are writing a blog about European politics. Very clever of you to try, but it’s not working. Until ASEAN, UNASUR or the AU develop further, Europe’s experiment with political integration remains (unless you count the USA) the most advanced one we’ve got, as well as the inspiration for these other non-European attempts at regional co-operation.

    In any case, the fascist/racist smears especially won’t work in my case, when I’m on the record (repeatedly) as saying that I hope that (long-term) European integration becomes merely the starting-point of a far broader organisation that spreads far beyond the geographical limits of the European continent, and when I’m married to someone both non-European and non-Caucasian.

    The reason that the EU’s current limits are within the geographical boundaries of the EU is not due to racism either, but a combination of the human rights records and economic weakness of the countries on the fringes of Europe (except possibly in the case of Turkish EU membership, where there have been hints of racism/Islamophobia, but I’m also on the record as not only denouncing this, but as being in favour of Turkish EU membership if they can sort out their human rights record and get their economy a bit stronger).

    Ken – Just because there are pro-Europeans doesn’t necessarily mean that anti-EU types are anti-Europeans (although some – but not all – within the British anti-EU camp are indeed against any British involvement in Europe, which I’d count as anti-European). And either way, for many of us pro-European is a far better/more accurate term than pro-EU.

  7. If the fundamental problem is a lack of accountability to the citizens and marginal input from the people, real EU level democracy is the answer, not a loose and even more intergovernmental diplomatic game between member states (or European states outside or without the European Union).

    Nosemonkey, most of what you say about the member states’ governments is correct, although you seem to foget that the Council is an EC (EU) institution, the most powerful one at that.

    Richard Laming wrote an interesting piece on the Manifesto.

  8. If you have a problem with the present EU then set about changing it as best you can, and good luck in you endeavour, but calling yourself Pro-European is saying you are pro – Europe which is a landmass, it is not a political unit or a political union.

    Yet you are for some form of political union, but say you are for the landmass, even those who are totally against any form of political involvement in Europe are not against Europe but against the union, even then they are not against any involvement within Europe only political involvement in the European Union. They are not for instance arguing that we should not trade with Europe or the EU for that matter.

    The argument has always been that the EU equals Europe and those who those who are against the EU are somehow isolationist little Englanders who are frightened of foreigners. Thus Pro- Europe and Anti – Europe are terms that are incorrect and confusing and in no way describe the position of either party. But allow those who are pushing for a federal political union to portray a false negative image of those who question the idea of a political union.

  9. Noemonkey,

    But have you heard some of the comments of the most hardline EUrophiles?. It`s not an exageration to say that replace their word European with Aryan and the same phrases could come out of the Great Dictator himself .

    It would be best if the smears of one side (Little Englander, Foaming at the Mouth EUrosceptics etc) did not have to be countered with fascist etc. But if that is the way the debate is started how would it progress ?

    I also dont see any point in getting enmeshed in this EU project just because it`s nearer.

  10. But am I one of these hardline “EUrophiles” (a term equally flawed, despite your capitalisation)? No. Nor are the majority of those in favour of European integration. Only a small minority are fervent superstatists.

    So, if Europhile/EUrophile, pro-European and pro-EU are out, what do you suggest? I tried Europragmatist once (because the basis of my pro-integration attitude is largely that I believe that as long as the EU exists it’s in Britain’s best interest to be part of it), but it didn’t catch on.

    (As a related aside, “eurosceptic” has, as a term, shifted in meaning as well. Too many so-called eurosceptics are anything but sceptical – because being sceptical implies a healthy doubt, whereas “sceptics” like you, Ken, Tim, etc. have already made up your minds. Eurocynics would be a better term – always believing the worst.)

  11. I think a lot of EUsceptics have made up their minds that the EU will never reform into something they want, perhaps EU Dissident ??

  12. “Euronihilist” for me thank you.

  13. Nosemonkey,
    Europhiles and EUrosceptics seem best at the moment. The first to describe the pro EU side that is a broad church, and includes some that want it changed slightly to eradicate faults to the inregrationists who would like to abolish the nations within the EU. EUroscetics to describe the broad church that ranges from someone like me who`s interest is in withdrawing britain from it to those who want it smashed up now and punishment meted out to its supporters. The capitisations are needed because we are talking about the EU project, not a landmass or people.

    ERosceptics like me (and Ken and Tim) have given your side plenty of opportunity to persuade us that your project is a Good Thing. It`s not our fault your side seems incapable of saying anything good about the EU other than repetative glittering generalities.
    And are you sure that you are so open minded ?

  14. The thing is, I don’t HAVE a side. I don’t see myself as being either Europhile OR Eurosceptic (with capitalisations or not), but a bit of both. My point is that there are many more like me out there who don’t like the current EU, but like the IDEA of the EU and of European integration. That’s what I’m after a term for.

  15. So therefore you are a EUrophile (must have the capitals to distinguish).
    Would you think I was a EUrophile if I said I was mildly for a United States of EUrope for all the other countries but Britain out of it ?

  16. Interesting critique as always, nosemonkey.
    There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what COREPER is and does, but as you say the participants are senior civil servants and I’m not currently aware of any situation in an EU Member State’s domestic politics where the meetings between senior civil servants looking for common ways forward on policies are attended by members of the public or broadcasted?
    I don’t really have too much problem with the idea of televising Council meetings (technically they are televised but nothing really exciting happens and if broadcast on the major mainstream television broadcasters I’m really not sure who’d watch, though that’s not a reason to not broadcast). The EP would have you believe that as the directly elected institution at EU level it has the best claim to democratic legitimacy, but I’d be interested to know whether actually some of the Ministers attending the Councils were there on the basis of a larger turnout than any individual MEP…

    Oh yes, and I’d go with pro-Europe – pro-landmass, pro-concept of working together in areas where it is more effective to do so, not pro-automatically defending all that currently happens in the EU.
    After all, do I try to define exactly what it is that people that call themselves a variation on “eurosceptic” do or don’t believe?
    No, that’s for them to explain (for example I can’t understand how – in a world as demonstrably globalised and interconnected as ours has proved to be in the credit crunch- anyone can think the UK could go it alone?).

  17. The problem with all this deep thought about what sort of Union we want, is the EU already exists. Those like NM who argue for a united Europe but not this one, seem blind to the fact that we have got this one and this one has no intention of changing into something else. It is driven by an inbuilt inclination to integrate along its present lines not to change its direction, the past thirty odd years should have taught us that.
    So perhaps EUdreamer might be a good description.

  18. Oh dear there`s always one who thinks an independent UK cant “go it alone” because they think we would pull up the drawbridge and cut ourselves off from everyone else.
    Get this ; I dont want the EUro currency to fail, it wouldn`t be good for Britain to have a landmass with problems so near. But I dont want to have the EUro here because I cant see it being good for us. Same with the whole EU project. You EUrophiles just cant sell it. Therefore we are better not to be part of it.

  19. Robin – I agree it is indeed difficult to sell something as complex as the EU. Particularly when we’re so infantalised in our public discussion of political issues in the UK that we can only cope with soundbite politics before switching over to soaps or reality shows. That doesn’t mean it can’t be sold or isn’t worth selling.

    But your line was Churchill’s line when he proposed a United States of Europe. He proposed it, but didn’t see the UK as part of it because of the British Empire and the special important role of Britain in the world as one of the cold war big 2-and-a-half.
    But the Empire’s gone, the nuclear thing is not so exclusive any more and the economic realities of being outside a growing political and economic bloc played out in the 1960s and 1970s and we joined the EEC because we couldn’t afford to be outside it.
    Political? Yes, even then. “Ever closer union” was in the Treaty of Rome, the one in force when we joined. And the sovereignty argument? The European-law-overrules-national-law case law was in place in 1972.

    As far as I can see, you’re just making the exception brittanique argument again, 30 odd years later, but without even an Empire alternative to fall back on.
    And as for life outside, our wealth depends on the City – look at what happens when there’s a real confidence problem (i.e. Iceland).
    It’s a different world, and the incoming US President apparently sees “Europe” as a special partner. It’ll be interesting to see where and how the UK fits in too.

    The reality is that we are currently part of the EU and there are good bits and also bits that were it planned and not growing via spillover, might not be so ideal in retrospect.
    That’s what happens when equal partners negotiate, compromise and find a mutually acceptable way forward.
    I still don’t understand what your better alternative is – I’m not assuming you’re talking pulling up the drawbridge, it’s more that I wonder by what means you think we’d have any clout to negotiate good trade terms either with the political and trading union on our doorstep or internationally in i.e. WTO?

    Sorry nosemonkey – bit of a long comment!

  20. Jo,
    It should be easy to sell the EU if it was a Good Thing, like being in a book club or NATO.But it`s hard to sell because ,basically, there`s no point in our membership of it.
    The Empire has gone, but there is the Commonwealth, a multicultural, multiracial,multinational voluntary group (something the EU looks like leaving behind). Or there is the staightforward notbelongingtoanygroup.The reason people like the Foreign Office wanted us to join the EU was a Foreign Office problem, not a British problem.
    We had problems in the UK and we`ve got problems now (I`m experiencing them, are you ?) but one problem we`ve got to address now is this belief that joining a group like the EU is going to sort our problems out.It`s not. our over reliance on city trading is not going to be ended unless WE in the UK face up to the maladministration of our country, not put it under the EU carpet.
    Barak Obama is untried as yet. He may talk sugary to EU citizens now but I also hear he has said he will put America first, which is what you expect the US President to do.I wont be disapointed in him but I can see the EUrophiles feeling betrayed later.
    We are not equal partners in the EU. Our civil servants aren`t up to it.
    We import more from the EU than they do from us so not much negotiating needs to be done there unless it`s to fight back for trade,something our mandarins would faint with shock at.
    So I see it as just a matter of being out of it.And not thinking we have to sign up to anything just because everyone else is doing so.

  21. Perhaps “Sovereignists” and “European Democrats” would be more specific terms that could be used? Since the argument at its heart revolves around those who wish to leave the EU/return more power to the member state and those who want to reform the EU to make it more democratic. But then again, they’re probably too unweildly as terms to really be considered practical…

  22. Eurocentric,

    Sovereignists is not a bad term. It is used in French and perhaps people would adopt it in due time, although it is built on a fallacy.

    In the way the world is developing, even an enlarged European Union will have to contend for its ideals with rising authoritarian or alien powers, which means that only effectively joined sovereignty has the chance to make much of a mark in world affairs.

    Thus, national sovereignty for even the mmore populous European nation states is becoming an empty shell.

    European democrat aptly describes someone who wants the EU citizens to set the course for the EU, accountable government and effective decision making.

  23. Ralf,

    I agree with you that a truely working (and workable) foreign policy is necessary in order to make Europe’s voice heard in an age of an increasingly multipolar world (and are foreign policy interests are remarkably similar: energy security, peace and stability in the middle East, North Africa, a stable and workable relationship with Russia – it’s only on our methods and approaches that we currently differ).

    On the field of ideology, the EU and China are probably competitors in Africa for influence. Do you think that Russia can be opened up to the EU’s ideological influence, or does its size and the disillusionment of the 1998 crisis mean it’s a lost cause for the foreseeable future?

    Reasons of globalisation and domestic policy are just as pressing on the sovereignty front, especially as it affects the choices available to voters.

    I don’t want to sound anti-globalisation or further left than I actually am, but as the economy globalises, economic power starts to out-strip political power to the extent that the market can deprive eletorates of democratic options which they may have had in the past. You’re probably even more familiar with the argument than I am – single market helps us set minimum standards, etc., avoid the “race to the bottom”, etc.

    So sovereignty is being eroded from both ends.

  24. “Unless you are of a fascist mentality and think European is an ideal better than African or Asian.”

    That isn’t a facist mentality. Ironically, non-white countries tend to be far more ethnocentric and opposed to immigration (Japan for instance is 98% Japanese). Also, Robert Putman’s research on diversity indicates that it leads to lower trust and community engagement.

    Something the EU should consider in who immigrates is who is likely to contribute to a highly educated population. This is a problem in the US where large scale Hispanic migration occurs, but second generation Hispanics are not going on to College at the rate of whites or Asians.

    If you read the Snyderman & Rothman study you will see the media reporting of intelligence research diverges significantly from what researchers actually believe. The controversial idea that that intelligence has a genetic component, has now become generally accepted. See the June 2005 issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 11, No. 2.

    Contrary to “culture” theory, the ethnic academic gaps are almost identical for transracially adopted children, and to the extent they are different they go in the opposite direction predicted by culture theory. The gap between whites and Asians fluctuated from 19 to .09 in the NAEP data while the gap in the adoption data is from 1/3 to 3 times larger. This is consistent with the Sue and Okazaki paper above which showed that contrary to popular anecdotes, the values that lead to higher academic grades are actually found more often in white homes. In other words Asian-Americans perform highly despite their Asian home cultural environment not because of it. And though the sample is meager, I find it interesting that the gap between the black and white adopted children was virtually identical (within just 4-6 points) to the gap between whites and blacks in the general population, just like in the Scarr adoption study.

    [1] Clark, E. A., & Hanisee, J. (1982). Intellectual and adaptive
    performance of Asian children in adoptive American settings.
    Developmental Psychology, 18, 595–599.

    Frydman, M., & Lynn, R. (1989). The intelligence of Korean children
    adopted in Belgium. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 1323–1325.

    Winick, M., Meyer, K. K., & Harris, R. C. (1975). Malnutrition and
    environmental enrichment by early adoption. Science, 190, 1173–1175.”

    This circumstantial evidence is slowly being bolstered by increased information about gene variants associated with intelligence that are not evenly distributed amongst populations groups on HapMap (rs2760118-C on SSADH, rs324650-T on CHRM2, and rs760761-C on DTNBP1, for example).

    David Friedman (Milton’s son), has pointed out those “who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.”