The European Union emerged, as we all know, as a response to the Second World War. One of the earliest aims of the founding fathers was to prevent France and Germany from ever going to war again by integrating their economies so closely that to do so would become impossible.
As a result – as well as, arguably, thanks to prolonged feelings of guilt about what the country got up to during the 30s and 40s – Germany has long been at the forefront of European integration. Germany remains one of the most enthusiastic EU member states – despite also having the strongest economy in the EU, formerly having one of the strongest currencies, paying the most into the EU budget, getting the least back, and being by far the most under-represented (by population) in the European Parliament.
It’s long been the case – albeit usually unacknowledged – that if Germany got fed up with the EU the entire project would be in danger of tumbling down. The EU could survive largely unchanged if almost any other member state decided that enough was enough (hell, if France pulled out it would arguably be improved, as the vast chunk of Common Agricultural Policy money that gets syphoned off by Paris could be redirected to more needy countries – and many more enthusiastic europhiles argue that if Britain jumped ship then the brakes the UK keeps putting on closer integration would finally be lifted, and the EU could reach new heights). If Germany gives up on the EU, all kinds of problems would kick off – not least because the European Central Bank runs out of Frankfurt.
Well, Germany hasn’t yet got the hump, and doesn’t show any signs of doing so just yet – but it could still throw a spanner in the works. Because oddly for a country in which nationalism and national self-interest have been so deliberately, systematically repressed (unsurprisingly, considering…), its constitutional court could yet rule that the Lisbon Treaty – and, by extension, many of the principles of the way the EU currently works – is illegal for providing ways for the German national parliament to be overruled.
And so it is one of the few remaining areas of German law that looks to the German national interest could end up being the brake on the current mode of EU integration, which itself originally started to prevent Germans looking too much to their own national interest.* Whoops!
As much as the anti-Lisbon Treaty crowd have got a bad reputation in certain quarters of the Brussels beltway – not helped by the lunatic fringes to right and left (as so often) being the ones who have shouted the loudest, and the recent announcement of anti-Lisbon party Libertas’ proposed candidates for the EU elections (mostly hard-right and nationalists, making a mockery of the “broad coalition for democratic reform” claims) – the German politicians who have brought this case before the constitutional court do have a point.
After all, if a national parliament (especially one from a country with a population the size of Germany’s) – elected by the people based on long-standing principles of representative democracy – can be overruled by the EU, an organisation whose democratic legitimacy is disputed to say the least, then what place for democracy in Europe?
And so, where the last time German nationalism reared its head to threaten the peace of mind of European states it was in the form of fascist dictatorship, this time German nationalism could well be rising up in the name of democracy. Democracy based around the principle of the nation state (something I can’t profess to be overly happy with), but democracy nonetheless.
The very fact that such a case merits the constitutional court’s attention shows that the legitimacy of EU decisions and powers has not yet been universally – or even legally – acknowledged. The argument that the EU is a method of overruling democracy, meanwhile, will continue to be made as long as the European Parliament remains the weakest of the EU’s principle institutions. (Will the upcoming EU elections reverse the trend for successively declining turnouts and so strengthen the case for the EP to be given more powers? I very much doubt it. It’s a catch-22 – the EP is perceived as being weak, so people don’t bother voting, so its claims to be the people’s voice diminishes along with its ability to assert influence. Such is the joy of EU democracy.)
So I ask yet again – when is the EU going to go for the kind of radical, democratic reform that is so vital for it to maintain support, and stop tinkering about with unsatisfactory compromises like Lisbon and Nice? Without the people behind it, the EU is doomed to fail. If the people were behind it – and had a sufficiently large voice in its decisions – then cases like this German one could never be brought, and complaints about the EU’s democratic deficit would become the preserve of nutters alone.