“Wir sind Papst” said the Bild newspaper when a German was made pope, and Poles will react in much the same way to the news that PM Donald Tusk is to head the European Council. This is national recognition, and it marks the completion of Poland’s integration into a once-closed West European club. And yet, not everyone in the EU will be convinced.
Some commentators are saying Tusk got the job only because of his friendship with Chancellor Merkel, as if German support for a Pole were somehow to be expected these days. It isn’t. In supporting Tusk, Berlin has had to overcome deep-seated fears about damaging its neighbour’s democratic development. And it has had to overcome its prejudice that CEE politicians are incapable of Brussels-style consensus-building because of their one-party heritage.
Other commentators will write this off as just another “quota appointment” – it is not a genuine endorsement of Tusk, they’ll say, but rather part of the requirement to give CEE states a job. Yet that’s not quite true either. EU leaders have gone well beyond the quota system by putting someone from a non-euro state into this key position. Moreover, Eastern and Baltic states are now producing some of Europe’s most talented politicians, meaning they no longer rely on protective quotas.
Nevertheless, there is one small fly in the ointment, and it is this: Poland and the other CEE countries have spent 25 years waiting to integrate fully into Europe’s post-Cold War order. Now, just as they achieve it, that order has begun to disappear.
The signs of its demise are everywhere. To its East, the EU is locked in Big Power competition with Russia, and a slow-down in enlargement has dented the EU’s attractiveness to its neighbours. Meanwhile in the West, member states seem to be dropping out. Scotland votes on independence on 18th September, and the UK is discussing exiting the bloc. France and the Netherlands view the EU as the disease it was supposed to cure – a source of populism, nationalism and racism.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the CEE themselves seem keen to leave the regional status quo behind. They feel they have spent too long adapting to other people’s rules, and the case of Hungary shows how this can poison their politics. Thus, although some West European commentators interpret Tusk’s deal-brokering (as opposed to leadership) post as a move to neutralise the Polish voice, in reality Warsaw & Co. are now expected to play a central role.
So what might the Polish and the CEE contribution be at this time of flux? Most speculation says that Poland will try to give the EU a harder, more geopolitical edge: more territorial defence and a classic foreign policy; an energy union and a rehabilitation of domestic energy resources; greater eurozone integration as the EU’s eastern and nordic euro-outs adopt the common currency. The European Union, in other words, will take on more of the attributes of a classic state in the coming years.
The logic behind that prediction is good. Poland feels vulnerable in these fields, and its desire to use a European umbrella could certainly trump its concerns about lost sovereignty. Moreover it still lacks experience of handling these issues domestically, leaving it open to innovate distinctive European approaches. But not so fast. There is a counterargument here too, and it derives from the simple fact that the EU is today under heavy pressure to soften such state-building.
The Union has always been split in its nature between a classic territorial body and a de-rooted political process. Whilst the former is about state-building, the latter sees the EU as nothing more than a political methodology, a cooperation process that can be applied to inter-state tensions anywhere. The EU’s model of integration has already been exported and copied in geopolitical hotspots from Africa to South East Asia, and it has been extended across Europe through various rounds of enlargement.
Some in Europe say that this is precisely what is now needed. In one radical version, the EU should no longer be permanently rooted in western Europe, but would be cut loose. Older members would reduce their bonds to the EU whilst the regional integration process spreads East, South and North, entailing more regional variation and clustering. They point to the way the UK is dropping out and to how Iceland dipped in and out of the integration process, reassuring markets with a membership bid before backing off.
Thus the EU’s state-like attributes and its assumption of fixed and permanent membership are increasingly under fire today. The deepening of EU integration is said to be creating rivalry with Big Powers like Russia, as well as slowing enlargement. It is making the EU’s methodology too particular to Europe, reducing its applicability to Asia and elsewhere. And it is alienating old members like Britain, France and the Netherlands.
If these arguments prove valid, it raises a question: will Poland, which has been trying to rejoin the Continent for 25 years, now be ready to dismantle and re-form it? Can it adapt a political system built on the idea of western supremacy to the demands of local differentiation and specificity?
Had six months to prepare, but came to the table without a game-plan. Reached out to Sweden and the Netherlands, and alienated swing-state Italy. Concentrated far, far too heavily on Germany. Failed to play the European Socialists off against the Christian Democrats. Failed to put pressure on MEPs to see if they would really endorse a man with that record. Took a hard line when the battle was lost but concessions might still have been won.
The UK has clearly made a poor start to its campaign to reform the EU, straining relations with the Parliament, Commission and Berlin all for the relatively symbolic matter of the Commission presidency. Indeed the government’s efforts have become almost impossible to defend (the best the Brits can manage is “it’s not fair” – and that from a country which built a proud reputation on dishonest and perfidious diplomacy). But in the spirit of fairplay, ok, here’s a go.
First, a justification (of sorts) for London’s approach so far.
The British government had been pushing for a wholesale reform of the EU treaties ahead of a possible in/out referendum in 2017. Other governments have proved resistant however, worrying about the trend towards renationalisation, the upheaval and the inevitable round of referendums. As a result, London was forced to scale back its ambitions massively (in a nutshell: give us less free movement, more free trade) meaning that it now needs to win its voters over with some symbolic victories (hence the attempted Junckercide).
Since Germany is thought to be in favour of major treaty change but is holding off as a concession to France, London probably felt owed a favour. As for the Netherlands and Sweden, they are known to be worried about the UK’s marginalisation, and so London felt it had friends there too. Again though, it may be the symbolism that was most important to London. The British government wanted to show voters the existence of a reformist northern alliance.
Second, an explanation of how the failure to get rid of Juncker (if this does end in failure) might be a blessing in disguise for London.
It may seem unlikely now but, when the dust settles, the European Parliament may just turn out to be the UK’s main ally when it comes to pushing for treaty change. The Parliament doesn’t really fear the process and potentially has much to gain. With the UK having raised questions about its democratic credentials, moreover, Parliament may now make a point of demanding the high-profile reform path and resisting efforts at low-key ‘grey’ treaty tinkering. Cameron, currently so irritated by the Parliament’s “political autism”, may yet be saved by it.
Compare this to the scenario where the UK actually succeeds in blocking Juncker. History shows that weak status-quo candidates like Juncker are usually replaced under time pressure by even weaker status-quo candidates (Santer). And on the rare occasions when strong candidates do sneak in, they are normally more interested in their legacy than in rewarding the governments that sponsored them (Delors). In either case, they have tended to centralise power around themselves rather than defer to clusters of reformist Commissioners.
Third, a word about how all this might actually strengthen the EU.
Governments badly need treaty change if they are to make the EU workable, but they hate the idea of carrying it out. They have therefore got used to scaling down their ambitions and have tried to find back-door paths to reform. This has damaged the functioning of the EU and all but buried its democratic credentials. And it has profited Eurosceptics by shifting public attention towards constitutional issues and away from practical efforts to stop Europe’s decline.
The UK was increasingly part of this questionable trend, concentrating on cosmetic changes to disguise the EU’s lack of real development. But with the symbolic option of nominating a reform-minded Commission President now seemingly closed off, the UK is being forced back onto the straight and narrow path. With that, the momentum may fall to a club of countries, including Germany, which are not afraid of the reform-and-referendum path.
Would the UK deserve this kind of reprieve? Probably not. Would it even be a reprieve? Hard to say. But the real issue here is whether the UK will make the most of any opportunities that do fall into its lap. Instead of complaining about a lack of fairness, or stressing that they are in fact prepared to play the “Brussels game” by reducing their reform ambitions, the Brits should look for constructive means to promote their agenda.
Is there a parallel between the recent Eurovision Song Contest and this week’s European elections? EU-enthusiasts certainly hope so. The Song Contest’s “vote for tolerance and diversity” was an indication, they say, that we Europeans love each other really (except for the Russians, obvs). If our 28 electorates would only approach the EU elections in the same positive and high-minded spirit, just think what a Schulz or a Juncker might achieve as Commission President.
Funnily enough, eurosceptics also think there is a parallel. Thanks, they reply, but if the Eurovision Song Contest is really your idea of participatory democracy then you can stick it. After all, the song entry that topped many national phone-ins was secretly voted down by technocratic juries in favour of the “correct choice”. When we express a preference for metaphorical buxom Poles, they ask, is it really democratic to give us an Austrian fella in a dress?
There is a serious point trying to get out here. Protest parties across the EU complain that we are heading towards an age of “liberal totalitarianism”: Europe may have buried the old totalitarianisms of the Left and the Right, but here is a new and subtler form of social control. The Song Contest was just the latest incidence: a system established with a laudable aim (preventing voters from allotting points along national lines) is now restricting our choices for a whole range of other reasons.
Seen from this angle, the EU elections are an altogether more serious example of liberal democracy being traduced in order to constrain our political choices. Electorates are being asked to vote for a “top candidate” whom (with the exception of the Green party’s duo) they did not have a proper chance to pre-select, under a system that they did not ask for, and from a range of personalities who profess almost identikit views. There is a real sense that, just by casting a vote for a mainstream party, we will end up legitimising a liberal politburo.
But is this such a new predicament? In many ways this is just the latest iteration of the old problem of “government by the people, for the people” – the tricky task of ensuring that policies reflect the wishes of the people (“by”), but are also in their best interests (“for”). Or, in the lingo, it is about reconciling responsiveness to voters with policy-innovation and risk-taking (ie, giving voters solutions which they did not know they wanted).
Critics would suggest that the EU has so far failed at both. It has concentrated arrogantly on defining the best interests of the people, with the result that its policies are neither by nor for citizens. Renationalisation is seen as the best corrective: repatriating European power and politics would not only bring political choices closer to citizens, it is claimed, it would also encourage states to compete for innovative policies and put an end to the Brussels one-size-fits-all approach.
Under present circumstances, the case seems almost open-and-shut. But can a counter-argument be made? Might a more Brussels-heavy system like the one associated with the top candidates actually tick our two boxes? Well, yes actually.
When it comes to the first imperative, ensuring government by the people, it is worth remembering that the EU is not a simple hierarchy of powers that has Brussels at the top, then the national level, then the local. The European Union, like the US, was created by its member states and it is the member states that remain squarely at the top of the hierarchy. That means that “repatriation” does not equal “localism”.
Shifting powers back from the European to the national level does not automatically decentralise power and bring decisions closer to voters. This strengthening of the states would instead re-centralise power. And the current myths about “Brussels diktats” only permit governments and parliaments to abdicate their responsibility for EU affairs – hardly conducive to proper accountability.
As for the question of government “for the people”, healthy competition between European states for innovative policies occurs only under certain conditions. You need a strong Brussels to provide a safety-net for states taking policy risks, not to mention a robust system of free movement so that high-flyers can vote with their feet, and an overarching system that allows policy innovations to spread between very different states.
Oh, and you also need a political system where the figures in Brussels enjoy a high profile. After all, if there is no kudos attached to gaining a post in Brussels, then there is one less incentive for national politicians to compete and excel. Central Europe is a good example. The region may not have provided one of the “top candidates” in this European election, but the prospect of gaining a prestigious post in Brussels is certainly encouraging them to think of innovative policies back home.
So, will today’s top-candidate system improve responsiveness and innovation? Hell no – it’s a mess. But it is still worth engaging with the idea so that, at the time of the next elections, we are one step further on – further towards an EU system where our politicians take proper blame and credit for policies; further towards a system where European politicians compete with each other to create world-beating local models, rather than engaging in some glum “global race” with China and India setting the pace.
In short, don’t let a technocratic jury in the European Council spoil your vote this weekend.
For some in western Europe, the May Day commemorations of the EU’s big-bang enlargement seem to have been a slightly unpleasant experience – a reminder of a historic blunder. By allowing Central Europeans into the EU in 2004, the French and the Dutch and the Germans altered their own way of life, bringing a harder element to their normally consensual cooperation and – worst of all – being dragged eastwards into a world of geopolitics.
“Europa was seduced” some westerners now complain. Europa, you’ll recall, was the innocent princess carried away by a white bull – a bull that later turned out to be a rather randy thunder god. Western Europeans feel a little like that innocent princess: they were swept up in the 1990s by easterners who declared a desire to adopt their advanced way of life. Ten years on, those promises have palled and the easterners have turned out to be unreformed Cold Warriors.
These tensions are neatly detailed in essays like the one published here last week (“How the EU’s ‘big bang’ enlargement changed foreign policy”). We should have been sceptical about those easterners from the start, it is increasingly suggested: easterners saw EU membership as nothing but a supplementary security guarantee after NATO. Moreover, their retrograde mind-set was clear already in 2003 when they broke the EU’s unity over Iraq and followed America into war.
And, because we did not heed the signs back then, we are now paying the price: eastern members’ old-fashioned geopolitical mind-set has reawakened the Russian bear. Worse: since the crisis in Ukraine flared up, the easterners have actually started questioning years of progress within the EU when it comes to taming nationalism and sovereignty, not to mention modernising European energy systems and, of course, promoting political cohesion.
But is this true? Were the dainty princesses of the West really taken for a ride by a bunch of thunder gods from the East? Reality is seldom that simple. Indeed, western Europeans may be reading history all wrong. The Europa story, remember, is an ancient and retrograde one. In the original telling, it was actually the thunder god who was seduced by Europa and her beauty, not the other way round. So too the EU’s eastern members seem to have been seduced by the EU.
To begin again at the beginning: easterners were not motivated to join the EU by a desire to seek shelter from an unreformable Russia. They applied because they were seduced by the idea that the West provided a solution to the problems of their troubled neighbourhood. The distinction is important: they were not cynically exploiting a bunch of western European loud-mouths, they were genuinely buying into a narrative about the End of History and unstoppable Western liberalism.
For that reason, the 2003 Iraq war should have been an early warning sign for the EU’s newcomers. It showed that the West was no longer “The West” of Cold War victory – a unified and expansionist bloc – but an increasingly inward-looking and tiered club. It was a lesson they learnt the hard way over the next decade: easterners may have joined the EU but it would be years hence before they could truly join Europe’s complacent core.
Now, in 2014, easterners are watching with disappointment as Western Europeans once again scale down their ambitions. Westerners are reassessing the norms and way of life that they once promoted as “universal”. Perhaps our post-nationalism is only applicable to established democracies of the West, they suggest. Perhaps our energy transformation is only applicable to rich countries like us. Perhaps Hungary and Romania are simply of the wrong mind-set for all this.
From an eastern perspective, therefore, it is actually the introversion of their western neighbours which has revived geopolitics in the east and undermined their own investment in the post-modern ways of the EU. Easterners may have been quick to tell the French or the Germans “I told you so” when Russia annexed Crimea, but the truth is they did not predict any of this. Rather, they had made a genuine investment in the EU as a solution to their problems, and are increasingly worried it does not in fact offer one.
So: Europa seduced? It most certainly did. And now it bears a responsibility to the enfeebled thunder gods in the East.
The cynical politics of sixteenth-century Italy gave birth to two seminal self-help guides: The Prince and The Courtier. If Machiavelli’s The Prince provided a philosophy for an ambitious individual to establish a new regime, Castiglione’s The Courtier was a guide for anyone living under that regime, and it recommends compliance and flattery. The two books are becoming Brussels’s most hotly-downloaded Renaissance pamphlets (probably), and for good reason.
As the EU’s influence retracts, and its territories begin arguing over the spoils, Brussels is turning into a kind of antique city state. At its heart lies a body which exerts transnational spiritual power beyond the city walls and a very hard material power within them: it is the European Parliament that will emerge from the inter-institutional wrangling over the appointment of a new Commission as the real epicentre of deal-making in Brussels.
This remarkable rise may not be exactly Machiavellian, but Parliament has learnt well The Prince’s dictums, not least about adopting the mantle of religion for the purposes of acquiring power.
There have always been three realms in Brussels: the Parliament embodying the citizens; the European Council, the member states; and the Commission, the quasi-religious “European project”. But the financial crisis has seen something of a merry-go-round - the European Council appealed to the citizens, the Commission to the member states, and the Parliament to the “European project”. Five years on, that leaves a Parliament in the happy position of being accountable to no one.
That shift is underpinned by a willingness to play power games, as witnessed by the Parliament’s innovation of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten: by going into the May Euro-elections with lead candidates for Commission President, Parliament’s party-families claim to be giving voters a chance to elect an EU government. But this may turn out to be less about democracy than boosting Parliament’s hand. Parliament is simply challenging governments’ authority to pick the nominee for Commission President.
And behind all this, of course, there is the personal element. Member states’ influence in Brussels has been very much bound up with the personality of the current president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. His low-key deal-making has been as impressive as it was unexpected. But he has set the template for future incumbents, and when he leaves his post this year, governments will likely avoid replacing him with a charismatic figure, plumping instead for another “damp rag”.
If the European Council is about to lose its key personality, the Parliament’s will persist. Its influence lies with nothing so transient as a President. It is the eminence grise behind the President – the Parliament’s Secretary General – who pulls the strings. This is the man melding his master’s philosophy of power, the man with a plan for 2025, the man who – worried by the German Constitutional Court’s opposition to Parliament’s rise – has simply begun rebuilding the European Parliament on the model of the Bundestag.
Indeed, locals are quietly in awe of his next move. The Parliament Secretariat is putting in place a massive research service modelled on the Library of Congress. But, say insiders, this is not really about streamlining EU law. The new service will be filled with officials transferred from the interpreter cadre. And these useful polyglots have a simple task: to provide a justification for further EU regulation. Their chief activity will be to highlight the costs of EU inaction.
If Brussels has therefore seen a power grab worthy of The Prince himself, those gentilmen and gentilwomen keen to be appointed EU Commissioners in 2014 would do well to diligently studye The Courtier.
After all, Parliament is said to be preparing to use the Commission appointment process as a public display of its might. Parliamentary hearings of prospective Commissioners will be used to tell nominees what is expected from them. Those who do not comply will be scalped. Nominees for big posts like Catherine Ashton’s, and those from “tricky” member states (UK/Hungary), likewise. Hopefuls should therefore follow Castiglione’s advice and simper in the background while their more talented rivals are culled.
As for current Commissioners hoping to make a return, media attention has focused on the fact that many are first standing as MEPs to placate the Parliament. In fact, these Commissioners are merely hedging their bets, because even this is no guarantee of success. The Secretariat has apparently ranked the current Commissioners according to their pliancy to the Parliament over the last five years. Those looking to avoid being scalped will have to make a public show of submission.
Despite all this, governments remain touchingly confident about getting their preferred Commission candidates in place. They say they will renegotiate a 2010 inter-institutional agreement between Commission and Parliament and break Parliament’s hold over the Commission’s programme; they will “take account of the outcome” of the Euro-elections by simply ignoring Parliament; and they will cynically slap a party-political logo on their favourite nominees and sell them to warring parties in Parliament. It is going to be a hard fall for them.
British-Polish relations are back in the news again, this time as Warsaw asks London to engage in Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that the stakes are so high, snobbery may prove a stumbling block. Serious cooperation hardly seems possible when the British still call Poland “the Ireland of the East” (inferring a backward, emotionally-incontinent country reliable only as a source of plumbers).
And yet, this comparison does offer a glimmer of hope because, despite residual prejudices, the Irish case shows that the British superiority complex can be overcome. Not only does London now recognise Dublin as a key partner, it has even allowed the EU to act as catalyst in normalising relations (prior to accession, Britain hadn’t really noticed Ireland as an international presence).
Ten years after Poland itself joined the EU, and twenty-five after it emerged from Communism, this Visegrad state with a population of nearly 40m and a GDP of 500bn USD is ripe for a similar reassessment. But, predictably, the UK’s officials and politicians will need convincing. Many seemingly share the popular view of Poland as a junior presence in the EU and a rather fragile one at that.
One problem is that Poland is so obviously “punching above its weight” in Europe. Granted, it was a British minister who coined the phrase. But when it comes to other countries, the UK sees only pitfalls. British officials mutter that Poland’s current prominence is the result of chance – a crop of talented politicians and a proximity to Ukraine – and that its underlying weaknesses expose the whole EU.
Nor will it help Poland’s cause that the EU has been a veritable bonfire of national vanities over the years, a graveyard for states that have made a steep rise and then faltered badly. Many of these states – Hungary, Italy, Spain – would probably urge caution from London: we used to be rising stars like Poland, they will say, and just look what happened to us. Just look indeed:
Italy considered itself an indispensable member of the EU’s “Big-4” but has fallen victim to the same north-south tensions that permitted Poland’s ascent; Spain was a leader in EU foreign policy and a model of budgetary spending until its economy did for it; Hungary was the acceptable face of Central Europe with strong links to Berlin but a change of government saw it quarantined.
And perhaps these states have a point. One can deplore the way British snobbery towards Poland is making an enemy of a potential friend, but still ask the question: would it be actually responsible for a settled Western European power like Britain to enter into a firm tandem with a Central European state whose ascent may prove transient?
The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, Poland is likely to show greater stamina than Hungary, Italy or Spain, not least because it has been so meticulous in learning lessons from them. For instance: its role brokering a deal in Ukraine, at a time when many predicted the end of its privileged partnership to both Germany and France, is the result not of chance but of hard graft and long-term structural shifts.
So too is its current crop of politicians. Poland was perhaps unusual in having a well-developed opposition movement ready to take power in 1989. Unlike some other CEE countries, it did not really draw upon an international or diaspora population. Only now, with a glowing economy and its troubled recent past behind it, is it drawing in and producing properly international politicians.
The second, and deeper reason is that the power imbalance between the two countries does not preclude partnership. Precisely because they come at problems from opposite perspectives, Poland and Britain align on many issues – an effective EU budget or system of free movement. Indeed, there is speculation that they may simply swap portfolios in the next Commission (budget for foreign affairs).
More than this, the power imbalances between the pair may actually require partnership. The nature of the EU means Poland’s weaknesses are also the UK’s weaknesses. And, more pertinently, Britain’s weaknesses are now Poland’s: if Warsaw is punching above its weight in the world, this is only because London is underperforming. It is an uncomfortable position, leaving Poland propping up the EU.
In short, given the deep ties created by a globalised and multipolar world, the UK does not really have a choice as to whether it enters into a meaningful relationship with Poland – it has already done so. The UK is bound to Poland almost as tightly as it is to its closest neighbours. So yes Britain, if it helps, do please think of Poland as the Ireland of the East.
For a mapping of British, Polish and other national positions towards Ukraine and Russia: http://www.pism.pl/files/?id_plik=16646
It’s early 2014, and Germany’s new Europe Minister and coordinator for Franco-German relations bowls enthusiastically into Warsaw. Michael Roth, it seems, has one aim: to persuade his bosses in Berlin to expand his portfolio and put him in charge of relations to Poland. The Poles are enthusiastic. If Roth is given the role, this will effectively put them on a par with France in Germany’s affections.
Just days later, however, hopes fizzle. Not only has Berlin appointed a regional politician to deal with Poland. The German foreign minister has announced a trip to the EU’s eastern neighbourhood with a French rather than a Polish accompaniment. It raises a worrying question. Will the Franco-German tandem now handle geopolitics, while German-Polish talks are confined to local matters?
A week passes, and Francois Hollande is in the UK with a clear message for his hosts: sorry, he says, but France has no intention of reopening the EU’s treaties just so that you can renegotiate your membership. Oh, and between the lines: if the Eurozone does need a new legal agreement any time soon, we’ll encourage member states to act outside the treaties – anything to stop you Brits unravelling the EU.
Oddly enough though, Hollande’s words come just as David Cameron is wriggling out of his pledge to reopen the EU treaties: UKIP has disowned its election program. The British economy is picking up. And the House of Lords has blocked a proposal to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. It begs the question: is Paris simply inventing excuses for the eurozone to break away?
A week later, Poland is back in the news. This time it’s the fallout from its spat with the UK over free movement. And it seems British commentators are having a rare moment of clarity. They acknowledge how strange it is that Cameron is battling a conservative counterpart in Warsaw – stranger still that he is defending a socialist-inspired welfare system against free-market principles.
Indeed, Britain’s conservative publications begin to carry a grudging pro-European message. The EU, they infer, is becoming a conduit for economic discipline and reform; and the EU’s social agenda, although irksome, may actually be useful in the competition with emerging powers. As Britain’s Left becomes more sceptical, the British Right softens.
The connection between these events not immediately clear? Well remember: the EU doesn’t do random. And if last month is anything to go by, the God of European affairs has a new divine scheme. This mischievous deity (picture a mix of Mammon and Ganesh) has begun reshuffling relations between the big member states in a way that could set Europe on a wholly new trajectory.
God’s instrument of choice in this is a new German foreign minister. Nothing strange in that of course (just ask the Germans). But it is perhaps ironic that God has chosen for his new scheme a man who seems so intent on turning back the clock and restoring old certainties to Europe - Steinmeier wants to fire up the old Franco-German motor and set Berlin back on a classic pro-European course.
Whom the Gods would destroy, however, they first make mad. Far from re-establishing Germany as a driving force of integration, Steinmeier’s new approach could come close to splitting the EU, forfeit Berlin its leadership of the bloc, and force Poland and the UK to take more of a lead, together. That’s because, these days, the Franco-German motor is a source of division in the EU, not harmony.
The greatest fear for most governments today is the emergence of a eurozone core which splits Europe into two tiers. When tensions between France and Germany run as high as they have since 2012, that cannot happen. But if the two make up, and especially if they resolve the north-south tensions in the euro area, a core is all but inevitable.
January shows how it might play out: a German foreign minister keen for allies against his Chancellor cools relations with Poland and looks for friends in Socialist France. Paris, now confident of its relationship to Berlin, no longer reaches out to non-eurozone members and instead presses ahead with its old project of a eurozone-core. This spurs non-eurozone members to finally cooperate and secure the integrity of the EU.
So is this the future of Europe? Well, probably not. It seems our God has underestimated the wily Steinmeier’s capacity to correct his course – not to mention the dunderheaded Brits’ inability to seize their opportunities in Europe. But one thing is certain. It’s going to be a very interesting year.
There’s no way round it: 2013 was a good year for the British government in Europe. London won its battles. And credit where credit is due, it’s hard to argue with the man who wrote these words – Britain’s Europe Minister, David Lidington.
At the beginning of last year, the British Prime Minister diagnosed serious problems with the EU – too centralised, too unfriendly to business, too inward-looking. And, just twelve months on, Mr Lidington can name the fruits of the PM’s intervention: an EU-Canada trade deal; reductions in the EU budget; a European Patent Office.
Of course, London would probably concede that these breakthroughs are not wholly down to it. The trade deal was underway long before the PM’s speech. The Patent Office was actually held up by London. And a small wasteful budget is less of a victory than the large effective one other countries were aiming for.
But perhaps the UK’s latest reform effort will convince the cynics. This is Britain’s bid to roll back the EU’s ‘free movement’ regime – the system whereby EU nationals get to work throughout the bloc.
Last week the British government talked about combating the incidence of ‘welfare tourism’ by EU citizens and hinted that destination-countries like Britain should be allowed to introduce annual quotas on newcomers.
Despite the blow-back from some other capitals, London has so far won two decisive victories. The first was to bring some honesty to a debate which impinges upon core aspects of national sovereignty. Quite simply, the UK has pointed out that when the Commission refers to ‘free movement’ what it really means is ‘immigration’.
Its second key victory has been to assemble a coalition of Western states in favour of restriction. The British Home Secretary has marshalled her colleagues in the Netherlands, Austria and Germany into signing a letter on EU migrants and their exploitation of the welfare system. This effectively broke the bond between the EU’s east and west.
And so, today, what once would have been eurosceptic scifi is actually coming to pass. The EU is being readied to reopen its treaties and restrict free movement. Even Britain’s pro-European deputy PM is on side, describing as “incomprehensible” the current right of EU workers to claim welfare benefits for family members not resident in the UK. We’re all #TeamLidington now.
Or not quite all. Some commentators still cling to the idea that free movement is a key underpinning of the internal market and an indispensable safety valve for the Eurozone. Well perhaps they should watch the action replay, because Britain’s current reform drive looks even more impressive on a second showing. So committed is Britain to winning its arguments in Europe and that it is prepared to worsen the EU’s faults just so that it can reform them.
For one thing, it is the UK that has gone furthest to turn free movement into a system of mass immigration. It was the UK which opened its borders in 2004 and allowed in far more workers than it could handle. And it was the UK that systematically failed to make use of the domestic and European scope to steer these workers.
In the same vein, it is the UK whose reform proposals could well end up increasing immigration. The right to claim benefits for family members outside the UK reduces the need for family reunification, keeping workers mobile. The removal of this right, and the threat of introducing quotas, could persuade workers in Britain to have their families join them and stay put.
But all this would be meaningless without the UK’s real success – breaking the conversation between east and west. After all, neither east nor west wants an EU system of immigration. Not the UK, Germany and France, despite the economic and geopolitical benefits; not Central Europe or the Baltics which fear brain drain and demographic decline.
What both sides want is a system of free movement – of short-term, temporary labour mobility. Under this system, the west gains flexible high-qualified workers who do not need to be integrated long-term. The east gains remittances and expertise as well as a model for exchange with neighbours of its own like Ukraine.
By creating a powerful bloc of western destination countries, the UK has changed the conversation. The mobile are no longer seen as ambitious high-qualified individuals but as welfare tourists. And when the Commission talks of ‘boosting free movement’ it is accused of boosting mass migration, rather than – say – encouraging return-flows.
Clearly, it’s an impressive record. If the UK continues to work hard to undermine the basic workings of the EU, damage intergovernmental relations and gridlock the system, it will create just the kind of inward-looking, centralised, unfriendly bloc it loves to reform. The Britain’s taboo-busting status really is a boon to everyone.
Europe, it seems, is slowly warming up for a new strategic discussion about its place in the world. Foreign ministers have been prodding the European Council to dispense the necessary mandate when it meets in December. This seems sensible – even sceptics would presumably prefer a thinking-EU to a headless bureaucratic mess, and the bloc’s 2003 security strategy is badly outdated.
And yet, there is one small problem. The December summit is already scheduled to discuss the long-term future of European defence capabilities, a discussion that should really be had after the EU has clarified its strategic goals. Right now it looks set to be the other way round, with leaders defining Europe’s means before they identify the ends for which these are to be employed.
Why would an experienced Chair like Herman Van Rompuy do things backwards like this, leaving the discussion on capabilities to expedience and commercial opportunism, and rendering the subsequent strategic debate hollow? Does he secretly believe that Eurozone issues will anyway hijack the December agenda? Or is he just channelling a general scepticism towards big thinking?
If it’s the latter, then he isn’t alone. To the frustration of MEPs, President Barroso’s 2013 State of the Union speech contained no vision of the EU in the world. Stung by the confusion surrounding his last Big Idea (‘a federation of European states’), he simply listed his legislative agenda, presumably communicating that the EU is still open for business despite next year’s European elections.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also shies away from articulating her big thinking. Having written what turned out to be a rather interesting critique of the work of the EU’s external action service earlier this year, for instance, she slipped it out in the middle of the summer break. The EEAS review caused nary a splash.
Why the shyness towards big ideas? HVR, Ashton and Barroso might well point to upcoming personnel changes in the EU or the spectre of Brexit or populism. But there is something more. Strategy seems discredited in international affairs, as vividly shown by the gap between Obama’s sales pitch (rebuilding at home, resetting with Russia, pivoting to Asia) and his record (spying on Europe).
For their part, Europeans have the feeling that where they are pursuing some kind of bigger objective, it is backfiring. Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU’s offer of closer association for Ukraine has garnered rather more attention than Ashton’s successes in facilitating a deal on the Iranian nuclear program.
At the same time, muddling-through has been scoring some hits. Berlin believes that its election-imposed moratorium on big thinking saved the Euro by reducing popular expectations of a gridlocked system and loosening markets’ hold on the political agenda. And in Syria, with France and the US daring each other to jump first, Moscow’s low cunning trumped their last stand for enlightenment thinking.
So, is big thinking now a thing of the past, made redundant by the sheer complexity of today’s international context (the spread of democracy followed by an outbreak of bad democratic choices, of prosperity followed by a wave of authoritarianism and disorder, of Transatlantic norms followed by a sharp decline in Transatlantic muscle)? Not necessarily.
The real trouble with today’s big thinking lies less with the complexity of the world than with the big states still trying to dominate it.
Too big for its region, too small for the world was how Kissinger once described Germany, but his observation might just as well apply to all of today’s emerging players. China, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey are drunk on the extent of their regional power and shocked by their lack of global clout. And just as they are the wrong size for the international system, so too are their ideas – either too big or too small.
This applies just as well to Europe and the Big-3 of Germany, France and the UK. When the EU downgraded the system of rotating national presidencies in 2009, and upgraded HVR, Ashton and Barroso, it effectively created a political vacuum at the centre which the Big-3 have tried to fill. The result is a strategic blockade, with the trio variously going it alone or seeking to define the EU’s direction unilaterally.
And yet, the Big-3’s right to define the EU’s strategic agenda is not set in stone. A band of medium-sized states, nimbler, more consensual, more instinctively European, rather less pompous, are stepping in. Indeed, it is Sweden, Spain, Poland and Italy that have been pushing hardest for a strategic debate – medium-sized states attempting to provide medium-sized thinking.
For that reason if no other, Van Rompuy’s apparent readiness to wait a little longer with the EU’s strategic discussion may pay off. In 2014, there will be new Presidents of the Commission and European Council and a new EU foreign policy chief. It will be interesting to see whether they liberate themselves somewhat from the Big-3 and look instead to a different class of member state.
Continuity on Europe is predicted from a new German government. For Poland, as for other EU states, that sounds significant. But what does it actually mean? With discussions underway on banking union and with European elections on the horizon, wonks in Brussels and Warsaw have been looking into their crystal ball. They moot a plan, and its consequences.
Step 1. Mrs Merkel makes her move.
November 2013 and Berlin is still refusing to play ball on banking union: electoral success for her party has translated into a minefield for coalition formation, Mutti mutters. But the truth is that the longer she prevaricates, the stronger her hand becomes in Brussels, and the Chancellor cannot condone a measure obliging small German banks to prop up flabby foreign institutions.
It is not until December that the German finance minister finally triggers an extraordinary ministerial meeting to – as he puts it – “kick off” the discussion on the Single Resolution Mechanism. Would his colleagues care to discuss a German blueprint for SRM, he asks – he just happens to have one with him. He makes no mention of an earlier Commission proposal.
The French, the Spanish and the Italians are fretting about the European Central Bank’s upcoming asset review and need a quick agreement to bolster their banking sector. Little Lithuania is in charge of proceedings in Council and is keen to close a really big dossier. No one is in a position to resist. The German proposal becomes the proposal.
Step 2. A beer, a sausage and a political deal.
Easing this blueprint past the European Parliament will require a little German lubrication. Euromed MEPs, keen to show they can milk Berlin, are the biggest obstacle to this modest document. Still, there is a key to taming Strasbourg and it comes in the unlikely form of the Parliament’s reigning President, German Socialist Martin Schulz.
When Schulz meets Merkel to discuss his future, his hand is strong. The SPD had been pushing its man Jorg Asmussen for Federal Finance Minister, only accepting Schulz’s promotion to Commission President in return for backing down. Merkel, ready for a grand coalition which could finally destroy the SPD, has acceded. But Schulz, always tricky, demurs. Secure me French support, he says.
So Merkel woos Hollande. Her proposal, she hints, will not only put a Socialist in charge of the Commission: it will marginalise Britain. If the pair can agree on a weak version of banking union, not based on treaty change or Article 352, this will deny London a veto, in turn reducing the non-euro member’s leverage over SRM and the coming round of EU appointments.
Step 3. Realpersonalpolitik
With Paris in her pocket and Schulz seemingly consigned to a Commission straightjacket, Merkel has a free hand with the EU’s more political posts. Michel Barnier, the rightist French Commissioner and sponsor of the original SRM proposal, is first to receive a sinecure - the promise of presiding over Parliament for at least half of its next term.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen is next. He may have meddled during his time at the helm of NATO but giving him the presidency of the European Council would be a way of sidelining another Nordic liberal – Olli Rehn. Her former pet is in danger of developing ideas of his own about the future of the Eurozone and the shallow Rasmussen is preferable. AFR is the new HVR.
But it is Barroso’s demise that she most savours. With no national politician ready to estrange domestic voters by standing as the Right’s lead candidate in the euro-elections, he had been quietly sure of being tapped. This could have ushered him back into the Commission for a third term. Merkel, waiting patiently for years to stick the knife in, squashes the idea.
The right people in the wrong places
November 2018 and Europe has nose-dived out of its crisis into a changed world: Russia is responding viciously to the EU’s ‘liberal arms race’ in the eastern neighbourhood, and the bloc’s shrunken economies are being forced to defend their continued membership of the world’s various G-formats. Even hard-bitten cynics regret the lack of calibre at the head of the EU.
Admittedly there wasn’t much talent on offer in 2014 – not in western and southern Europe at any rate. But elsewhere? Too new and small to deserve a major post, too large and self-assured to be massaged into one, Poland missed out. With it went a chance for the EU to show that it was ready to handle catch-up countries let alone develop a real strategic bearing.
Now things may change. The Merkel system has been despatched by a disgruntled CDU politico, David McAllister, who had been reckoning with the cosy sinecure that went to Schulz. It has left remarkably little trace. Yet, Poland’s moment may have passed too. Commiserated with the perspective of playing a lead role in Europe and replacing a marginal UK, the country overheated, to sounds of ‘I told you so’ from Berlin.