The EU’s Future: I Would Not Start from Here

There is a hoary old Irish joke that gets quoted far too often at conferences I attend. An American tourist is lost in the Irish countryside (the lost Yank is always in Ireland) and asks a farmer directions to Dublin. “Well,” says the farmer. “I would not start from here.” Much the same can be said for the EU which must soon face its uncomfortable reality: to work the Union must either properly integrate and become a real federal state or retreat back into a loose club of nation-states. Lost as it is in a never-never land between power and weakness the only thing today’s EU will generate will be more crises.

This reality was implicit in Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s remarks warning that European leaders have underestimated the likelihood of a British exit from the EU. Indeed, he said, “It’s a huge risk…we have to prepare a discussion on trying to prevent this risk.” What Letta has bravely done is in fact to confirm that the British Question is in fact THE European Question. With that admission maybe just maybe we can move towards an equitable political settlement that re-injects fairness and legitimacy into the EU and at the same time protects the democratic rights of all Europeans.

However, the problem as usual is dogma of the Brussels elite. After my last blog, “The Balance of Incompetents,” I was harangued by a Brussels insider who told me that, “the job of the analyst is surely to dig deeper rather than hold up a flattering mirror to the rabble”. Rabble? Is that how much of the Brussels-elite see Europe’s people?

The central tenet of this dogma is that in the twenty-first century the European nation-state is too small to make its way in the world. Critically, the argument does not define what is meant by ‘small.’ If power is a combination of economic and military might then according to the CIA World Factbook (it must be right then) four European states are in the world’s top ten power states. Indeed, the arguments’ proponents seem to allude to size being defined by the extent of territory and/or population size. If that is the case then it is not an argument that can be made. Behind the façade large parts of China, India, and Russia are virtually ungovernable. Indeed, it is precisely the ungovernability of the EU that created the Eurozone disaster.

Implicit in Letta’s remarks are two immediate fundamental questions that urgently need resolution: Who or what is in charge of the Eurozone? and can an equitable political relationship exist between those in the Eurozone and those not? This is particularly important if this divide is to become permanent. If the British were not so self-obsessed they would make their argument on that issue of principle rather than simply one of cost. Indeed, whilst Letta, who is an EU-believer, calls for more Europe he is honest enough to admit that there is a “legitimacy crisis” in the EU today as typified by my Brussels ‘friend.’

There is something else that is fascinating about Letta’s remarks. When he talks of more Europe, i.e. deeper European integration, he really means a strange hybrid form of governance that somehow combines both more power to Brussels and a balance of power between EU member-states. One sees that in Chancellor Merkel’s remarks: embed German power within a Berlin-friendly EU and enshrine German power at the top of it. This is a perfectly legitimate political aim for any country but it also mask THE most fundamental question Europeans must confront – who decides, what, when and how?

Clearly, the blind drive towards ‘ever closer union’ seems to have reached its zenith. Letta implies that, as does Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans. Even Merkel is cautious given that Germans have no stomach to endlessly pay for the socializing costs of European integration. However, if that is indeed the case then the EU of today is in the worst of all political worlds. Far from their being a federal centre subject to checks and balances imposed by the states it comprises there is instead a sovereignty black hole at the EU’s core. Member-states may have transferred very large amounts of state sovereignty to Brussels but the exercise of such power is weak and uncertain. This renders the EU a crisis-generator rather than a crisis manager.

Therefore, even a modest dose of political realism would suggest the need for a new EU treaty. However, rather than handing more power to Brussels the treaty would take power away from it. At least such a treaty would end the competition for power between Brussels and the very member-states that created it.
Clearly, the EU cannot stay where it is, but as to the future I would not start from here.

Grazie signor Letta!

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Image: Photo credit: Wikimedia