Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Why no one understands the EU

Hell, I’m supposedly a leading EU politics blogger, and I’ve barely discussed what’s been going on in the midst of one of the biggest crises I can remember the EU facing as the various member states try and work out what the hell to do about the Greek economic collapse.

I thought it was just me being lazy, but according to The Week in Bloggingportal roundup of Euroblogs, not a single one of the 555+ EU-related blogs that Bloggingportal aggregates could be bothered to discuss last week’s EU summit.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Good old Fistful (one of the few EU-focussed blogs to have been going longer than this place) has been covering the Greek crisis in depth for ages now, and had another lengthy post on Friday looking at how the Greek situation could impact on the Eurozone. Yet even Fistful found little room to discuss the machinations at the EU Summit, preferring to focus more specifically on the economics.

And herein lies the problem. Now that the Lisbon Treaty has been passed, the major areas of EU-related debate have shifted – as they often do, when there aren’t treaty negotiations going on – to the economy.

The only trouble is that there have been treaty negotiations going on for so long now (pretty much continually since the late 90s, with first the Nice negotiations, then the discussions that led to the EU Constitution, then the run-up to Lisbon, and Lisbon again after the first Irish referendum) that most EU-watchers (especially us amateur ones) have become more used to constitutional issues than economic ones. We’ve all been looking at the big *political* picture, not the economic one. (And – let’s face it – most people who are interested in politics aren’t very good when it comes to economics… How many newspaper columnists outside the Business section would you trust on economic analysis? How many politicians not involved with a Finance ministry, for that matter?)

But the EU is, at its most fundamental, an economic body. Yes, you can dispute precisely how it goes about it (and you may be one of the conspiracy theorists who sees the economic aspects of the EU as being a mere smokescreen for the political project), but at the EU’s heart lie vastly ambitious economic projects, from the Common Market and Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies through the Eurozone, Regional Development Funds, even the attempts to cut mobile phone tarrifs and promote the free movement of people. All of these are economic at heart – and even if you are one of the conspiracy theorists, they are economic as much as they are political.

But understanding continental-scale economics takes levels of knowledge, reading, education and understanding that most political commentators simply don’t have . Hell, the very fact that there’s still no consensus on the benefits of the euro shows that – and most people who comment on the euro, even those who have the economic background to know roughly what they’re talking about – don’t have the knowledge of the individual economies and polities that make up the Eurozone that would really be necessary to provide a proper analysis (though Fistful and the Economist’s Charlemagne have good stabs at coming close on occasion).

And so what we mostly do, us EU political commentators, is we try to discuss what’s going on in the EU in terms that are easier to understand. We try to treat the EU as if it’s a country, and EU politics as if its the politics of any old nation state. We try to create conflict – as over the European Council Presidency appointment – and we try to create factions – be they pro-EU vs anti-EU (if you’re in Britain), neo-liberal vs socialist, Anglo-Saxon vs whatever you happen to identify with that’s not Anglo-Saxon (if you’re outside Britain), or whatever.

Part of the reason for this is a desperate attempt to get people interested in a subject that interests us – because so few people care tuppence for EU affairs. But it’s also because we understand conflict. We can explain conflict. We can understand personal, selfish reasons for particular policy positions. They make sense to us, looking at the EU from the perspective of people only used to national-level politics. We don’t all understand economics or interntaional law, and none of us understands the politics of all the individual member states. And so we focus on those things we do understand, and read those into everything the EU does.

But the EU is not a single, harmonious entity, and cannot be simply explained. It is made up of 27 individual member state governments (who all still have to agree unanimously on all major decisions, despite being made up of political parties of all stripes), plus the European Parliament, plus the commission, plus the numerous other bodies that hang around the fringes.

If “the EU” decides to act, it is never for just *one* reason. It is for *at least* 27 different reasons. Unlike with national politics, where policy decisions can often be explained in just a sentence, every EU decision is vastly complex – with large chunks of the decision-making process having taken place behind closed doors in languages that you don’t understand.

In short, we can never hope to understand the EU. It takes more economic knowledge than most of us have. It takes more knowledge of the politics and economics of the individual member states than anyone had. It takes an understanding of all the insane confusion of EU rules, reglations, laws and treaties that can only be gained with a lifetime’s study of international and EU law. It takes insider knowledge of diplomatic discussions and deals that will probably never be revealed.

All we can do is guess – and our guesses will *always* be based on only a tiny, tiny fraction of the knowledge that is needed to get close to the truth. In fact, I can state with utmost certainty that anyone who tells you that they understand the EU is either lying or deluded. No one understands the EU. It is simply too big, too complex, too secretive, too multidisciplinary, too multilingual, too innovative, too unique for anyone to be able to grasp it in its entirety.

This, of course, makes it fascinating to those of use who like a challenge. But it also makes it utterly daunting. To try to explain the EU is like trying to climb Mount Everest. Without oxygen. Or ropes. Or protective clothing. With both arms tied behind your back. At night. In a blizzard.

Little wonder, then, that sometimes the enthusiasm leaves us. Some will quit for good. Others will keep bashing away at it – perhaps deluding themselves that one day they will get it. I intend to keep bashing away at it – but after seven years of an uphill struggle, for now I need a breather while I scout out a new route. This economic crisis in Greece and its reveberations throughout the continent has shown that there are some major gaps in my knowledge of the EU, and I need to fill these in as best I can before I continue.

Back soon, I hope. But in the meantime just remember that *no one* knows what’s going on. Keep that in mind whenever you read anything about the EU and you should do just fine.