A Fresh Breeze of EU Criticism

There is a new viewpoint emerging in the debate over the future of the EU and the so called European project. Panic is setting in over the stagnant European economy, and at the national level a wave of EU criticism is growing to a political tsunami. Sweden and Denmark have long had EU-skeptical movements, and in last year’s Greek parliamentary election almost 40 percent of the voters chose political parties that are more or less critical of Greece’s EU membership. Britain already has an established EU-critical party, the dynamic UKIP, and last Thursday I discussed the newly minted German equivalent, “Alternative fur Deutschland”.

These new voices are outlets for a public opinion that is completely antithetical to the europhoria that dominated the ’90s and the first decade of this century. But with the Great Recession many member states of the EU took a very hard beating, suddenly finding themselves trapped with a combination of large budget deficits and sky-high unemployment.

No serious analyst would ever have suggested that this was not possible under the EU and the currency union, but the pro-EU politicians who created, endorsed or furthered the European Union over the past 20 years did their best to give Europe’s voters and taxpayers the impression that the days of toil and spartan living were gone. If only Europe would create its currency union, the entire continent would become the land of milk and honey.

Today, the milk has gone sour and the honey is stale. And more European leaders seem to be waking up with a bad case of political hangover. The latest example is a high-ranking former French politician by the name of Hubert Vedrine, who has some straight talk to deliver on Europe via Euractiv:

The European Union will never receive enough public support for federalism and so should abandon the idea of a United States-inspired superstate, says the influential French Socialist former minister Hubert Védrine. Germans will never foot the bill and other Europeans will not accept the loss of sovereignty that a supranational state would entail, Védrine told EurActiv.fr on the margins of the Organisation for Econonic Co-operation and Development’s New World Forum in Paris.

Before we get to the core of his criticism, let us note that the EU is, never has been and never will be a European version of the United States. This is a misunderstanding based on ignorance or carelessness: the United States of America is a federation built by states, with direct elections of the legislative and executive functions at the federal level. In the EU, on the other hand, voters have no influence at all over the executive branch – the EU Commission – and only partial influence over the legislative branch, which is split between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

The European Union lacks the separation of powers that is so critical to the constitutional republic of the United States. The best way to characterize the EU is that it is modeled after a traditional, European nation state with centralized powers. It has not yet become a formal nation state, but that is only because the member states preceded the EU. Anyone who wants to gauge how far the EU is going in terms of power grabbing need only look at its bail-out system for the member states: even if we count the so called “Stimulus bill”, a.k.a., the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the United States government has never invaded the finances of the states in the way the EU has effectively seized control over member-state budgets.

With this in mind, let us get back to Euractiv and Mr. Vedrine:

“I do not believe for a second in a supranational vision, where the nation-states transfer their competencies to a higher level and where the states will be reduced to regions. The European people will never accept that. To start with Germany.” “The federal leap means nothing,” Védrine said. “Let’s abandon this perspective – this will discourage the 0.01% of the people who are federalist – and let us not compare ourselves to the United States,” he said.

This is a good point. Europe’s history is so different from the history of the United States that the two cannot and should not be compared at the continental level. But I think Mr. Vedrine is missing one point when it comes to the EU project, namely the deficit in terms of democracy and enumeration of powers. The EU is expanding its control over member states in a way that was never intended or envisioned by those who formulated the Maastricht/Lisbon Treaty. Their view was one of an EU that would work as some sort of “facilitator” for European integration. They failed miserably in this way, in good part because they went much too far in their eagerness to institutionalize that same integration process. But at least they did not create a system for the EU to run the budgets of member states.

Today’s EU leaders are equally uninterested in comparing themselves to the United States. Their view is, again, one of a traditional European nation state with centralized powers, no checks and balances and minimal popular influence. Even though any observer of U.S. politics could point to several hot topics in today’s American politics where the federal government is reaching too far in its own ambition to expand its powers, it is also clear that the separation of powers (“checks and balances”) works to mitigate or neutralize such power grabs. The current struggle between the states and U.S. Congress over Obamacare is one of many examples of how this checks-and-balances is working.

A skeptical French voice, joining the new Alternative fur Deutschland and the UKIP, is a positive addition to the debate over Europe’s political and economic future. However, unless there is a dramatic change of course away from austerity, centralized budget control and unchecked power grabs by the EU Commission, it is highly unlikely that things are going to get better.