Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What is the EU and What is it Good For?

Hi Everyone,

A recent story in The Economist wonders aloud who will "wake up Europe." They decry eight "wasted years" and seem annoyed the the EU has not become something much more or at least different than it is today. But what I found interesting about the article was that it didn't go into a lot of detail about what the EU was or what The Economist wanted it to become or why.

These are important questions if we are to set appropriate expectations and define measures with which we can judge how well the EU has met them. So what is the EU? The European Union is a confederation of democratic states with varying periods of complete sovereignty prior to joining the EU.

First and foremost, it is a free trade area with a a common currency (used by most of the member states that have been in for more than 5 years) and an increasingly integrated economic market. This degree of economic integration is largely possible because of the high degree of regulatory harmonization that has taken place in the EU over the last half a century.

More than half of the regulations and laws that govern the day to day lives of Europeans are passed at the EU level rather than by the governments of the member states. These regulations are pass by a directly elected European Parliament and a Council of Ministers made up of the elected Cabinet Ministers of the member states.

So that's what it is. What's it good for? This system has unified the economies peacefully that countless kings, dictators and generalissimos have tried to unify through war for more than 2000 years. The EU has formed the keystone of a regional system in Europe that has preserved a more complete peace for a longer period of time across a wider cross section of the continent than any other international arrangement in history.

In my opinion, if the EU does nothing from now until the end of time it will be playing a critical and beneficial role in the lives of Europeans. It doesn't need to be a super state or a world power. It doesn't need to be a counter weight to the USA. It doesn't need to have a President. Even if the EU completely stagnates and ceases all change and institutional development, it will be fulfilling its most important role... establishing a peaceful and democratic order in which individuals may prosper and be happy. Everything else is just details.


Dr. Strangelove said...

Well said, RbR! World War II remains in living memory, yet today the prospect of a European war is not even considered! Surely that is testament to the success of the common currency, open borders, free trade, etc.

Raised By Republicans said...

When I teach students about the EU I try to convey to them the enormity of the death and destruction of WWII and how real and present it was to the negotiators of the EU's earliest forms back in the 1950s. What I tell them is "imagine 3 9/11's a day, every day for 9 years straight. Now imagine that this class is overwhelmingly female because so many of the men are dead, crippled or still in POW camps in the USSR. Now imagine that class is outside because the university building was destroyed by bombing. Imagine a continent with nearly 20 million homeless people. Now how does the government of France, let alone Belgium, address those problems alone?" The answer of course is that they can't. Cooperation through the EU and it's predecessors the ECSC, EURATOM, EEC, etc were the best option available at the time.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think there's a legitimate fear that the common currency will be a millstone around Europe's neck, and will ultimately fall apart and cause great economic havoc, unless it is the harbinger of "ever closer" union, political, social, and economic. I think the Euro was adopted with the expectation that political integration would follow also.

I think there's also reason to fear the fragility of the EU in its current institutional state. The lesson of 1989 - in Eastern Europe, the USSR, and then Yugoslavia in 1991 - is that political change can happen VERY quickly sometimes.

I am simply not sure that the EU is "establishing a peaceful and democratic order" so much as flourishing amid a peaceful and democratic order that has really been provided first by the Cold War stability and then by the Pax Americana that followed it.

Raised By Republicans said...

But there are several countries clamoring to get into the Euro as a safe haven during the current crisis. And there is talk of making the Euro a more prominent international currency.

As for the EU being fragile...In all my observations of the EU, I've seen many potential problems. But fragility and rapid, surprising change of any kind are not among them. Ossification is far more likely than disintegration in this case. And ossification of a pretty happy status quo isn't such a bad prospect for the future.

As for which caused the Pax Europa, sure we can quibble about causal directions but I think there is good reason to believe that the EU has had a modifying effect on the ethnic divisions in East-Central Europe (outside of the former Yugoslavia where the EU was NOT a major factor other than as one of several haphazard military interveners). Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania all showed signs of slipping back into some kind of authoritarian mode of government but were threatened with exclusion from the EU and remained democracies.

The EU's requirement that members be democratic may also have helped solidify Spanish and Greek democracy in the 1980s. Certainly the subsequent generous aid packages and open access to North Western European markets and investment capital did their share.

In the Baltic countries, there has been significant populist pressure to persecute ethnic Russians and EU directives and treaty requirements mandating equal treatment of citizens have had at least as much of a restraining effect as all the bellicose posturing of the Russian government.

But even if we put all that aside, LTG, when you say that the EU is fragile in its current state and that "ever closer union" is necessary. How much closer do you imagine it can get? The Irish and the Greeks already live under the same laws, spend the same currency and can move and work across borders within the EU nearly as easily (aside from the language issues) as people from California and Maine can in the US.

What exactly do you want the EU to change into and why do you think it would be good for Europe to become that?

The Law Talking Guy said...

Now that the USSR is gone and the EU has expanded to include a large number of countries with little democratic history or tradition, it can easily be paralyzed if one country wants to. All you need is for an economic downturn, for some country to default on its debts, and a nationalist response to blame it on someone on a common currency or being tied to Brussells bureaucrats. Then Europe could collapse again. Europe has engaged in bloody fratricidal wars every century since it organized itself into states, and it has plenty of capacity for doing so again. Pax Britannia in the 19th century lasted far longer than the current situation, and its demise was horrific. All it takes is one country to repudiate the treaties or decide to vote "no" on every policy and the EU will cease functioning. Low tarriffs and harmonized regulations are no match for nationalist or fascist ideologies whipped up by another unforeseen set of events.

So what I want to see is Europe move towards becoming a United States of Europe with a federal government strong enough to withstand - and suppress - a nationalist revolution from whatever corner it may someday come. I think it also needs a real democratically-elected president -chosen at large from the EU from EU-wide political parties - so that the EU coheres into a single body politic. It has to find another way to accommodate national sovereignty instead of relying on unanimity for most important decisions. The Madisonian solution of a bicameral legislature is rather a good starting point, particularly if it is in its original configuration with the upper house being appointed rather than elected.

No, Europe cannot really transform itself into a new super-nation-state, but it cannot continue forever just one bad election cycle away from disruption. It can transform itself into a place where nationalism is really just a matter of regional pride and not something really to be taken seriously at the political level.

I'm happy about what Europe has done so far, but I think we need to take a good, long, hard look at the reasons for stability in Europe today. The standout item, I think, is American hegemonic power, not the EU. Indeed, the EU only began to coalesce into more than just a zollverein in the past 15 years or so, and its future is quite uncertain.

Raised By Republicans said...

First, you are incorrect that the EU is still dependent on unanimous voting by the member states. That has not been the norm since the mid 1980s. The norm now is qualified majority voting (not that dissimilar from the de facto arrangement in the USA).

The scenario you lay out of a catastrophic debt defaulting by a Euro country is pretty far fetched. There are restrictions on the amount of debt relative to GDP that Euro countries can maintain. Also, in the past, when countries in the European Monetary System have had currency crises, the other countries have rallied to bail them out. So I guess I'm saying that imagining a nightmare scenario is one thing but imagining a plausible one is something else.

I really strongly disagree that the EU is "just one bad election cycle from disruption." This is a really exaggerated and negative characterization of the situation over there.

As far as nationalism goes, the EU has been arguably better able to reign in nationalist tendencies than the US political system has been.

I also strongly disagree with the characterization of the EU as it is now as simply a "zollverein." This mischaracterization of the EU ignores the sweeping scope of regulatory policy in every area from agriculture, to consumer protection, to education, to worker safety, etc etc etc.

Finally, in response to your assertion that the EU "...needs a real democratically-elected president -chosen at large from the EU from EU-wide political parties - so that the EU coheres into a single body politic" I think this is really your paramount wish for change in the EU. I'd ask what purpose such a "single body politic" would serve? For example, would it improve the economic performance of these countries? Improve the regulatory performance? Furthermore, given your concern about nationalism, aren't you concerned that replacing the minor and largely impotent nationalisms of the 27 different member states with a single European wide political identity is a good idea? Might not there be a danger of the rise of what D'Estaing might call a Christian Europe in which the rights of non-caucasian immigrants and their decedents are relegated to second class status?

If I was afraid of political nationalism, I'd much rather have things the way they are now in the EU than to impose on Europe a system with a strong, popularly elected president with real political power on the US model. What would happen if the good people of Europe elected someone like Berlusconi or - gag - Le Pen to be President of Europe?

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - note that I said that the EU was a zollverein 15 years ago, not now.

I don't view the nationalisms of the 27 states as "largely impotent." As you note, the major countries all have nationalist parties (like LePen). Nationalism is a disease that began in Europe and had violent outbreaks in Ireland, Yugoslavia and Albania as recently as 10 years ago.

A European-wide identity would be a huge break with the past. None of the current nationalist parties are remotely coped to promote it, because they desire the opposite. The bare agreement of ultranationalists everywhere on christian+white Europe may be enough to form a european-wide coalition, but the marriage of Eurotivity and Nationalism is not going to be an easy one.

Raised By Republicans said...

But compared the influence of nationalists in the American Republican party, the 10% or so of parliamentary seats controlled by nationalists parties in many EU member states doesn't translate into a threatening wave of nationalism in any one of them. Remember, being one of several opposition parties really isn't much better than completely impotent.

I can't think of any member state (with the possible exception of Poland or perhaps Italy) where far right nationalists are able to get control of serious power. Now, it is true that nationalists are in Berlusconi's coalition and are often relied upon for votes by the current minority government in Denmark but neither of these governments have been forced into enacting pernicious policies that we might associate with a dangerous rise of nationalism.

As for the ability of the various European far right nationalists parties to cope with a EU wide identity, I'd argue that they are just as well equipped to do it as are the Social Democrats or Christian Democrats. They cooperate with each other in the EP and their rhetoric has been converging on a standard combination of xenophobia (directed mainly at Arabs, South Asians and Afro-Caribbeans, but also Jews and Far East Asians). There were serious attempts to put language into the constitution that declared the EU to be a "Christian" entity. It failed.

I just think that if you are concerned about nationalism in Europe it seems to me to be much safer to keep the 27 nationalist parties separate and divided (at least to some extent) than to give them a chance to combine and run for a popularly elected Presidency that at least in the early stages will be very prone to "protest voting" that could enhance the chances that a European wide nationalist figure would emerge.

Slartibartfas said...

This article is a very nice summary of what the EU is in my opinion.

From the perspective of an EU citizen, I can tell you what I think the Lisbon treaty is going to improve however. On one side, apart from foreign and defense policies there will be hardly any veto powers left in the Council. This has the potential of increasing the quality of decisions as the "smallest common denominator" gets bigger because the ability of shooting down the proposals are reduced (even though there remain solid enough safeguards for the member states as well). The second point is that the European Parliament will get substantially more power as it will have the power to veto and amend more or less in all the areas apart from mentioned foreign and security policies (and full power to scrutinize the whole EU budget as well).

The third point is that we will get a formalized right of making petitions and the EU Commission has to consider them if 1 mio EU citizens from a number of different member states is going to sign them. Thats not a strong tool and can't formally force anything, but I think it can be a very valuable tool for the demos to set Brussels under pressure. Even the more as this civil society which could possibly control Brussels is still embryonic at best. This could help fostering developing such a society.

There are other aspects as well, I welcome for example the creation of an EU diplomatic service and a "foreign minister" whom it will serve. This has potential to make the European foreign policy a little bit more coherent (but it doesn't guarantee that), the three points above are however in my opinion the most important aspects, and at least the first two will make a big difference for sure.

Raised By Republicans said...


First, of all, I loved the fjords. Nice work.

Second, I completely agree with you that the institutional changes in the Lisbon treaty will make things run a lot more smoothy and with more obvious democratic accountability than before. To the features you mentioned, I'd add the new way of defining voting weights in the Council. Before there were weights assigned to each member state (29 votes for big countries, 4 votes for small countries and everyone else somewhere between). These weights had to be determined by negotiations in the Treaty. That meant that every time a new country(or countries) joined the EU the weights had to be renegotiated.

Now, the member states' are weighted directly on population because of the new way of calculating a qualified majority. Instead of weighting each country's vote, a bill must get more than half of the member states. And these countries must together contain about 2/3 of the EU population. This has the nice feature of automatically updating itself as populations shift or new countries join (or leave?). For the first time the EU has a legislative procedure that does not have to be renegotiated more or less from scratch every time the EU membership list changes.

Slartibartfas said...

Sorry, you have to confuse me with my uncle SlartibartfasT ;)

This new voting system in the Council is quite ok, even though it could turn out a bit complicated to comprehend in daily politics. But it is still ok and has its merits when it comes to enlargements.

Btw, as of today it is certain: The Lisbon treaty mastered its last obstacle and will get into power on the 1st of Decemebre! Pretty much 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. What a nice coincidence.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think that this could have been put in the bank so to speak as soon as the Irish "yes" vote came in. Getting political elites (like PM's and Presidents etc) to support European integration has never been a problem.

Mikhail Silverwood said...

The EU has two roles.
a) to make the rich richer and the poor poorer throughout all of Europe.
b) to create a coalition of nations which will build up in power and challenge the US for the most powerful nation in the world.