The UK and Germany agree on core economic goals – fiscal discipline, increased competitiveness and the summary execution of unreliable Mediterranean partners. So why not work together to solve the Eurozone crisis? In his visit to Berlin last week, the British Prime Minister called for quick and decisive joint action.
It was not to be. The pro-European idealists David Cameron remembered from his last Berlin trip were gone. The Germans who now greeted him might look the same right down to their intense-looking spectacles, but this is a new species. Gone is their will for action.
This was not the first failed rapprochement between the two countries. Indeed, so pointless have Anglo-German summits become that commentators compare them to meetings between moths and light bulbs: a strange urge draws the British to Berlin where they knock about with some clever idea before fluttering off feeling misunderstood. And, hallo, there they are again a year later as if they had learnt nothing.
It would be a shame to spoil this perennial fun, but all the same, before their next trip to Berlin the British might like to pause and wonder why their attempts at rapprochement have never worked.
The reason is simple really. Although they agree on many overarching aims, both countries pursue their political goals in fundamentally different ways. Germans like to think before they act. The British aren’t so keen.
It’s easy to see why the British ignore this difference: they have often attributed their way of doing things to their German ancestors. When the ancient Germans saw off the Romans, the British tell themselves, they preserved the relaxed Anglo-Saxon attitude towards complexity, disorder and the unexpected.
British political culture is still something of a rearguard battle against the Romans. Too much rational reflection, say the Brits, only leads to cynicism, introspection and scepticism. Overzealous attempts to apply science to society lead only to fatalism, unethical behaviour and simplistic efforts to tidy up a complex reality.
They can’t quite believe those ruddy German barbarians would think otherwise. Yet that is the case. Kant and co. certainly recognised the dangers of too much reasoning. But instead of falling into anti-intellectualism, laissez-faire and muddling-through as the English did, German Enlightenment philosophers tried to provide a rational footing for spontaneity, faith and enthusiasm.
Their whole-hearted conversion to rationalism has left the Germans with a capacity for idealism which is quite beyond the British. But it also means that if the rational logic behind their idealism unravels, Germans can fall into drastic scepticism. And it is at just such moments that they look enviously across at the unthinking English, wonder what might have been, and then wish them every failure.
The German government’s frosty reaction to Cameron’s charm offensive bore all these traits. Berlin already suspects that it has fallen prey to an irrational idealism about the EU. It was therefore well prepared for a patronising lecture from the British Prime Minister on the comparative merits of muddling through. When Cameron instead exhorted Berlin to rediscover its irrational enthusiasm, it was like a rag to a bull.
If the Germans are to find their way back to European action, it will be via a well-trodden Kantian path and not through British intervention. First, they will recall the old lesson that too much thinking can lead to unhealthy scepticism – the lesson that too much rationalising can lead to distinctly unreasonable behaviour.
If examined too closely, for example, European “solidarity” and “trust” may well look like a mere front for Mediterranean free-riding; “European integration” might these days look like the recipe for Europe-wide political disintegration; the technocratisation of European democracies might well seem a reasonable countermeasure. But these are mere tricks of the mind which must be resisted.
Then Berlin will seek out what it views as a rational basis for a renewed pro-European idealism. As Angela Merkel and a leaked memo made clear on Friday, this will be rooted in a sober stocktaking of the EU and its comparative strengths and weaknesses. It will not be based on the superficial displays of ‘bazooka power’ demanded by the British.
And, with that, the Anglo-German non-conversation will continue. It’s a shame really. Proper dialogue between them could make Berlin and London critically examine their own respective political cultures and their noxious side-effects. It is no coincidence that the EU’s crisis is driven by unregulated markets and overly individualistic inter-state relations on the one hand, and stifling one-size-fits-all regulations on the other.
An opinion poll on global threats might not seem an obvious cause for celebration. Last week, the European Commission nonetheless declared itself cheered by the results of Special Eurobarometer 372. Respondents had ranked various looming disasters in a satisfactory manner.
Europeans, it appears, are increasingly discerning about their environmental and financial meltdowns, their water shortages, demographic collapses, pandemics and nuclear proliferations, even if they are still disappointingly poor at spontaneously coming up with new global threats of their own (Question 1a).
One issue the poll did not probe though: just how fed up is the public with these constant existential crises? The apocalyptic tenor of EU politics – nervous politicians praying for European salvation and prophesying war – is becoming rather draining. The newspapers are full of commentaries on the relentlessness of our crisis-driven politics.
Of course, politicians dislike the suggestion that they use disaster as political capital. But if they deny being apocalyptic in their handling of these challenges, they are actually blocking out a large part of their shared heritage. European culture is rooted in the politics of disaster and salvation.
Rewind 500 years and there was a widespread mood in Europe of resignation and fatalism. Greek philosophy had proved persuasive in its claim that a golden age had passed, that the world was decaying, and that to try to alter the situation would be to tempt fate.
This thinking was increasingly opposed by a strain of radical Protestantism which leaked into politics through events such as the English Civil War. The secular notions of apocalypse and salvation that emerged spawned the modern idea of progress. Self-improvement, it was now argued, would permit humanity to stave off disaster.
The battle between sceptics and progressives has been running ever since. But it has retained a distinctly old-testament flavour. Just as biblical salvation could not come without terror and calamity, so it seems political progress today cannot be achieved without fear and crisis.
Take those Eurobarometer results. EU officials actually congratulated themselves on the worsening of climate fears since the Copenhagen summit. They interpreted this not as a sad indictment of the EU’s diplomatic performance at the 2009 talks but as a useful catalyst to more progressive policies.
Academics point out other oddities in the way politicians deal with crises:
1. the initial reactionary response. Just as biblical disasters were interpreted as a judgment on the state of humanity, so crisis today triggers a drastic stocktaking of existing progressive policies. The demographic crisis, for example, caused a reassessment of even common-sense measures such as improvements to healthcare and the labour-force participation of women.
2. the radicalism which follows. In order to restore faith in progress and the obligatory notion that we will be better off than our parents, a radical rethink is ordered. The desire to reassure voters about their children’s prospects after the financial crisis has, for example, powered the British government’s most radical economic policies.
3. the refusal to accept the unfairness of disaster. Biblical disasters hit only the wicked while the good were saved. Modern crises, by contrast, are distinctly unfair, affecting the innocent and allowing free-riders to escape. It is thus imperative to impose reason and justice on them. Sinners, such as bankers, must be converted or punished.
Back at the Euro-crisis, these symptoms are clear. Sinner states are being punished. The policies that launched the Euro have been written off, and radical new measures proposed. Where political progress has been achieved, it is only with the aid of a relentless series of disasters. And all the while, from the sidelines, the sceptics wait for the Euro’s collapse and rehearse their told-you-so’s.
The deadlock in the Eurozone as a showdown between northern European Protestantism and Greek-style fatalism? That would be a little too neat. But the EU would certainly save a lot of time and money if those who believed in the inevitability of a break-up were a little less fatalistic and if those pursuing further integration did not make progress quite so contingent upon disaster.
Strange reports from the European Commission. In the middle of meetings on the future of Europe, officials are disappearing—simply being willed out of existence. The phenomenon affects any official who advocates the use of devious methods to improve the EU’s standing with its citizens and with the markets. Commission workers who, for example, suggest the Union should resort to political theatre or finally learn to ‘spin’ information are simply frozen out.
There is a name for this kind of behaviour: groupthink. In groups, people will cheerfully deceive themselves as to the precariousness of their situation and aggressively censor out the obvious solutions (as well as anyone who proposes them). Given that EU decision-making occurs under almost perfect laboratory conditions, it would have been a miracle if Brussels were not a hotbed for this sort of thing.
Happily, our eurocrats are in fine company. Over the years, groupthink has been identified as the cause of some really first-rate catastrophes—from Pearl Harbour and the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In each case, the important decisions were being taken by a close-knit group who did not want to endanger the fragile consensus between them by raising even the most obvious objections or alternatives.
The usual spur for this kind of collective self-censorship is cognitive dissonance—the instinctive rejection of any idea which clashes with a group’s picture of itself. Back in 1941 for example, the Pacific Fleet refused to prepare for a Japanese attack because the admirals were desperate to think of the US as mighty and terrifying rather than nervous and vulnerable.
The same sort of thing is at work in Brussels. If Commission officials prescribe a wholesome tonic of democracy, transparency and unfiltered information, it is because more devious methods of promoting the EU run counter to their picture of the bloc as an organic, reasonable and benevolent polity.
Unfortunately, this means that the EU is currently being kept afloat only by its own double standards. Officials in Brussels loudly rule out the use of devious PR-practices but desperately hope the Commission representations in the member states fully exploit the leeway given them.
Even without all this misplaced self-censorship, the European Union would face a steeper survival-challenge than most. Policymakers in more established polities merely have to fight off their critics; EU officials have first to persuade people that theirs actually is a political system. The clue is in the term ‘eurosceptic’: popular hostility poses less of a problem these days than does sheer disbelief.
In the same way as people are asking themselves whether the bits of coloured paper in their wallets really do amount to a currency, so too they are wondering whether the abstract and cerebral European Union really amounts to a political system. Brussels can rely on nothing more coercive or tangible than persuasion, habit and spectacle to convince publics that the laws it produces really do count as laws.
It might therefore be helpful for officials to stop picturing the EU as a real polity pursuing a convincing mission that will be accepted if only the very reasonable European public receives enough information about it. How about thinking of the EU as a make-believe polity with a make-believe fiat currency, which can be sustained only by appealing to the strange irrationality that drives modern life?
Over the centuries many a self-styled enlightened regime has faced the dilemma whether to use apparently unfitting methods to bolster itself. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli used a simple formulation to help his political masters overcome the inevitable cognitive dissonance. He told them that if a new regime was glorious, it warranted establishment by inglorious methods. The high purpose justified the low means.
A post-modern Machiavelli would probably choose a rather different formulation. Academics, from Austrian anarcho-capitalists to French politico-sociologists have shown that no political system is benign, organic or reasonable let alone glorious. If that’s so, EU officials can presumably stop kidding themselves and feel at liberty to use inglorious methods to establish theirs.
As the Eurozone crisis grinds on, stereotypes have emerged as the EU’s only truly reliable currency. Hardly a day goes by without some new crisis-summit at which hoary old national prejudices are trotted out.
It’s an odd turn of events given that the current crop of European leaders was elected precisely because they didn’t fit the mould. France has an exhibitionist president with a Hungarian surname. Germany’s chancellor is a woman from the east. The UK has elected as Prime Minister an old Etonian in an age when nobody thought this possible any more.
Yet, as soon as they set foot in Brussels, these same leaders seem to make a virtue of conforming to their own national stereotype. Sarkozy puffs himself up into the pint-sized Frenchman with expansive plans; Merkel becomes the cool, calculating German; Cameron is the slippery and inscrutable Englishman.
What’s more, our politicians have been giving vent to some distinctly stereotypical views about one another as well. If southern member states are suffering from the financial crisis, northerners mutter, it’s because they are feckless and lazy. If northerners have their books in order, reply southerners, it is only because they are so uptight. And both northerners and southerners seem to view easterners as sponges, out for what they can get.
The advent of eurostereotyping will be music to the ears of sociologists. In their theory of ‘system justification’, sociologists have plotted out the four easy-to-follow steps by which people use stereotypes to create new hierarchies and inequalities. According to the theory, even individuals disadvantaged by a political system will uphold it if presented with a sufficiently appealing stereotype. EU politicians are shaping up to be a pretty neat case study.
Step 1: group-building. Being part of an in-group is cosy. Members tend to be forgiving of one another. They will write off as anomalous bad behaviour by a partner whilst viewing the negative behaviour of outsiders as confirmation of their general uselessness. The desire to be part of the EU’s in-group would explain why our leaders have been loudly communicating their northern credentials.
Step 2: justification. According to the theory, we all need to believe that the world is a fair place. Members of an in-group therefore look for reasons why disadvantaged outsiders deserve their poor treatment. Northern EU states paint southerners as feckless, lazy and wholly deserving of their situation.
Step 3: collusion. Even people disadvantaged by a political system want to believe in its fairness. So they rely on stereotypes to justify their position at the bottom of the pile. Southerners who wish to feel better can thus tell themselves their situation is the result of a desirable Mediterranean lifestyle choice – better than being an uptight northerner.
Step 4: denial. Insiders cannot forever ignore the fact that outsiders exhibit many of the same talents and strengths as them. But faced with this challenge, the in-group won’t do the obvious thing and rethink its prejudices – that would mean giving up its own privileged status. Instead the in-group will persuade itself that the challengers are shallow and ambitious. Irked by easterners’ claims to be good and reliable Europeans, northerners will paint them as shallow upstarts only interested in sponging off the EU.
Our leaders, then, are well on their way to becoming stereotypical stereotypers. Or at least they seem to be. Yet, sociologists are also keen to point out that not all stereotyping is negative and inaccurate. When social systems expand to take on a large number of lesser-known members or when events become too complex to handle, stereotyping is an indispensable mental crutch – a shortcut for processing fast-moving situations.
In other words, in the wake of EU enlargement and the financial crisis, the prejudices which the EU’s northerners, southerners and easterners are developing about one another may be perfectly accurate – a useful mental crutch. And in that case, we really are in trouble.
Asked at June’s Summit whether he would like to join in the Greek bail-out, David Cameron politely declined. The UK would not be contributing to the rescue of the Eurozone.
More surprisingly, other governments did not seriously press the matter. David Cameron’s disengagement from the EU – of which this was just the latest example – is viewed as equivalent to the constructive engagement demanded of everyone else.
If the British premier is keeping his country on the sidelines, his fellow leaders reason, it is to prevent the UK unleashing its destructive urges on the EU. They should support this effort rather than stretching their luck.
Far from punishing Britain for its detachment, other governments therefore reward it. They know that this kind of disengagement comes at a cost to the UK and its capacity to influence EU affairs. They are prepared to compensate Cameron by taking allowance of his priorities on issues like financial regulation as if Britain were a fully paid up member of the EU.
It is odd that the UK is being given this special treatment. After all, by current standards the UK is no longer particularly exceptional. Almost every other country in the EU harbours the kind of destructive eurosceptic forces found in Britain. Yet no other government is rewarded for keeping these forces under control.
It must therefore be the UK’s back-history, rather than current political realities, which explains its odd-man-out status. The pungent legacy of past British governments has not been forgotten, and Europe’s leaders recall just how low their expectations of Cameron were before he took office. Cameron is being rewarded for not being as awful as expected.
But is it wise to give Britain a special status based on its past misdemeanours? Measured against the European policy of previous governments, Britain’s current disengagement cannot help but look like a rare example of self-discipline and selflessness. Viewed from the perspective of his broader political agenda however, Cameron’s behaviour in Europe looks altogether less constructive.
This, after all, is a government whose overriding aim is the creation of a “Big Society” – the prime minister spends most of his time lecturing the British people about the need for active membership in their community. Funny then that at the European level the premier is displaying a distinctly anti-social disengagement from the Community.
An increasingly British EU, opposed by Britain
It is not far fetched to draw this parallel. If Cameron advocates social engagement in his domestic affairs it is because he views it as an antidote to his pet hate – top-down meddling. His political philosophy embraces traditional British principles such as the primacy of convention over bureaucracy, and reactive adaptation by government as opposed to abstract and radical new laws. It is noteworthy that he does not apply this philosophy to his European policy.
Since 2007, when the first of many political plagues was unleashed on Europe, the other member governments have nudged aside the European Commission and its unfortunate tendency for bureaucratic meddling. They have laid emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of EU law. And they have stressed the importance of slow and steady constitutional adaptation as opposed to radical big-bang solutions. In other words, they have taken up many of the traits espoused by Cameron in his domestic policy.
Yet it is the Cameron government which has looked most ill at ease in this new-look EU. It is not just that Britain has detached itself from various positions of influence. London is stressing the need for a referendum in the case even of minor constitutional change. And it is exhorting the rest of the bloc to pursue top-down economic integration. In his European policy, Cameron is promoting many of the political principles he most dislikes.
European governments are accustomed to British euroscepticism of the shouty, foam-flecked variety. But the current government’s European policy is hardly more constructive. It is turning the EU into just the sort of place the British dislike – rigid, unresponsive to the British people and prone to radical top-down settlements. As a means of making the UK’s relationship with the EU unsustainable though, it’s rather good.
The Danes are jumpy about immigration from North Africa. The Germans and Austrians worry about Polish plumbers. The French are dead set against Romania joining the EU’s Schengen Area. The headlines may be exaggerated, but one thing is certain: the merest hint that immigration is not under rigid control makes Europeans nervous.
Recent developments in Denmark show why. Membership of the EU’s passport-free travel area means individual governments can’t control migration in the same way as they used to, but there’s a good reason – the Schengen Area is a cornerstone of the EU’s prosperity and political cohesion.
Denmark’s failure to explain and defend this trade-off to the public is just one of a long line of missed opportunities by EU governments. The EU-27 are liberal democracies boasting strong, outward-looking economies. The fact that they cannot bring migration under complete control should actually be a source of confidence and pride.
And yet, no European government says this. For years EU immigration policy has instead been consumed by the task of overcoming the obstacles to migration control, to the extent that the bloc’s core values have been eroded. By rather punitive means, the EU has sidelined all those who might compromise it.
Its carrier sanctions punish transport firms which unwittingly help illegal immigrants into the EU. Its employer sanctions will discipline businesses that hire irregular immigrants. Its foreign policies have been used to cajole third countries into signing agreements on illegal immigration.
The results have hardly been salutary. NGOs, firms and third countries have felt bullied, leading to implementation-gaps and an absence of voices to explain the inevitable failures of policy.
Fortunately, the EU is moving away from this approach. Rather than pushing firms, businesses, NGOs and other countries into implementing migration policies to which they are almost wholly opposed, the EU has discovered the idea of “partnership”: the Union is trying to increase its control over migration by forming consensual alliances with other actors.
Through so-called mobility partnerships, for example, the EU and third countries are developing a common approach to shared migration challenges. The EU is also building partnerships with migrants themselves – prospective immigrants will be given greater opportunities to enter the EU legally so long as they commit to leave again after a limited time.
But such partnerships bring their own risks. This new approach is based on much the same aspiration for control as the last one. And even though the EU is now working in happy tandem with other actors, this aspiration remains just as unreachable. The migrants with whom it has partnerships might, for example, wish to stay in the EU longer than foreseen. Partner countries may elect new governments with a very different idea of the national interest.
As its new friends turn out to be less reliable than it had hoped, the EU will find itself drawn to those few partners who can actually deliver what they promise. Such relationships are usually unhealthy – either because the favoured partners gain too much influence, or because their reliability is sustained by some unsavoury traits.
The EU seemed, for example, to be moving towards something of a partnership with Libya before recent events intervened. A cautionary tale: Libya’s reliability as a partner in dealing with illegal migration was based on some distinctly authoritarian traits. And through this relationship, Libya was able to gain leverage over the EU, threatening to unleash a wave of uncontrolled migration on Europe should things not go its way.
Such dilemmas are not restricted to migration policy. The EU finds itself knee-deep in a whole series of efforts to show voters it has things under control – from its financial stability to global economic competition. So far it has rightly and successfully concentrated on increasing its capacity for action. But the even trickier challenge will be to make EU citizens at ease with the fact that this capacity is finite. This will require the EU to involve its citizens more actively in policy and reduce their feelings of helplessness.
If it ducks this challenge, the EU risks falling into real difficulty. Just look at the current political turmoil in the UK. There, successive governments formed relationships with actors who, variously, promised them control over the economy (the banks), communication (the Murdoch press) and the world outside (the US). These relationships have all begun to crumble, but not before the government had seriously compromised itself.
When the EU was founded, its treaties were declared valid for an unlimited period. The desire to make European integration permanent and irreversible helps explain why the bloc’s founders did not create a proper procedure for member states to leave. Leaving was supposed to become unthinkable: in the course of integration, states would be broken down, and a new entity – perhaps a Europe of interdependent regions – would take their place.
Today, this kind of talk has dried up. With the EU lurching from crisis to crisis, one thing has become clear: European integration will continue for an “unlimited period” only in the sense that there is no firm date for its expiry. Far from being broken down, the member states are showing their vitality by obstructing further cooperation. And the question about how to leave the Eurozone, the Schengen Area, the EU itself, is becoming almost mainstream.
The reasons for all this talk about withdrawal are not hard to identify. Faced with international competition from tricky characters like China and Russia, the publics of big member states in particular wonder why they belong to an organisation that seems geared towards reducing their room for manoeuvre. A series of poorly thought out political projects has only stretched their patience.
Yet, the big members are not the only ones talked of as candidates for leaving. Fired up by the idea of Europe of the regions, a number of the EU’s sub-national areas aspire to “independence in Europe” – independence from the mother-state, under the protective umbrella of EU membership. Funnily enough though, if a region were actually to attain independence it might well have to leave the EU.
It is a vexed point, but legal wonks suggest that EU membership would not automatically extend to a newly-independent country. The existing EU members could well insist on it withdrawing, if only to make it apply for re-entry. After all, many EU members have separatist movements of their own to contend with, and would be terrified of “independence in Europe” becoming the norm.
Commentators have been warning of such developments for years; but they have largely missed the irony: had the EU faced up earlier to the possibility of member states leaving, it could actually have nurtured integration. This is because a withdrawal clause can be a boon to cooperation. A well-formulated withdrawal clause can reduce the incidence of withdrawal.
If there is clarity about the rights and duties entailed by leaving, for example, governments are forced into a more active commitment to cooperation. They can’t pretend to their voters that they are trapped in an arrangement against their will (as most Eurozone capitals seem to do these days). And they cannot petulantly threaten withdrawal (as Italy did in response to the recent Schengen crisis).
Moreover, clarity about how to leave a union can give governments the leverage they need to block excessive centralisation, to avoid marginalization in the negotiations that matter to them most, as well as to prevent serial exploitation at the hands of their partners. Such problems are at the root of the EU’s current crises.
It is unfortunate therefore that, insofar as the bloc has dared formulate exit rules, it has viewed these as a liability rather than a boon: the EU prays the exit rules will never be used, rather than drawing them up in such a way that they never have to be. It is no surprise that Article 50, the general withdrawal clause included in the Lisbon Treaty, manages to leave the two key questions open: how would a withdrawal procedure work and what status would a country enjoy after it had left?
As a result, Article 50 strengthens big member states by giving them the power to bully their way out of the EU. And it allows all member states to interfere in one another’s internal affairs and to threaten breakaway regions with EU exclusion if they dare move towards independence.
This is a sour end for the old dream of Europe of the regions. But it is the logical outcome for a mode of cooperation which has too often preferred wishful thinking to imaginatively exploiting tricky realities.
The European Commission has just presented its proposal for a new “multi-annual financial framework”. An “MFF” may not sound like much, yet the instrument hiding behind this harmless acronym is a mighty one – a legally binding agreement setting out the EU’s budgetary framework for the years 2014-2020. It will cover around one trillion Euros.
The MFF-proposal thus amounts to the Commission’s vision for the future. The EU’s executive might have chosen almost anything for its theme – from “solidarity” to “crisis management” – but it has plumped for “economic growth”. Given the confusion about what the EU’s existing agenda for growth and competitiveness actually entails, the MFF offers the Commission an opportunity to reinvigorate its efforts.
No bad thing. EU immigration policy is indicative of a whole range of policy areas that could do with a blast from this direction. Too long locked in a rather esoteric debate about “rights” and “security”, the EU’s current immigration policy fails to exploit the contribution that immigrants can make to Europe’s economic growth. Active budgeting could foster a more open stance to workers from abroad, as well as boosting policies that encourage EU citizens to work in other member states.
Yet, it will be tempting for the Commission to avoid such issues during the MFF-negotiations. Getting bogged down in debates about migration would disrupt its own narrow agenda for the budget. The Commission would above all like the EU to have greater powers to raise its own finances in order to end its financial dependence upon member governments who only care about getting their “fair share”. From this perspective, it would be easier for the Commission simply to name-check the crowd-pleaser “economic growth” and focus its real attentions on its own narrow budgetary politics.
Happily, the proposal’s migration-related priorities suggest that the Commission will take the bull by the horns, actively using the MFF to shake up immigration and other stagnant policy areas. Two of the MFF-proposal’s priorities – the better management of the EU’s external borders and the improvement of social integration – have for example long been identified as prerequisites for a more dynamic immigration policy. And the MFF-proposal’s headline effort to improve cross-border transport through a “connecting Europe facility” would enhance labour mobility throughout the EU at a time when many member states are rethinking their commitment to passport-free travel.
Yet, this choice of priorities may turn out to have less to do with the proposal’s nominal goal of boosting growth and more to do with political expedience: Financial support for the protection of external borders may simply be aimed at placating peripheral southern and eastern member states. The cash allotted to immigrant integration may just be a sop to rich northern states. And by creating projects such as “connecting Europe” with a strong cross-border element the Commission may simply be making it harder for member states to calculate how much they are benefiting from the budget, thus slyly undermining their ability to demand their “fair share”.
There’s a strong case to be made for the EU-27 to pursue goals like economic growth and competitiveness together. There’s good reason to argue that the EU-27 won’t achieve those goals if member governments keep focusing on their just returns from the budget. There’s a rather world-weary argument in favour of allowing the EU to raise more of its own finances in order to overcome that deadlock. And there’s probably even a case to be made for raising this cash through a tax on financial transactions. Will the Commission make that case?
With the reform of the EU’s passport-free travel area under discussion in the European Council today, here is a bluffer’s guide to interpreting developments.
Why did the system collapse during the Arab springtime?
It’s a bit of a puzzle: in the 1990s, Schengen states managed to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants. Since then, they have adopted measures to deal with such challenges together, introducing tools to help one another with border control and with mass influxes of refugees (Frontex, the common borders agency; 2001’s temporary protection directive). Moreover, the Schengen Area now includes 25 members. Yet, last month, the system collapsed at the sight of just 25,000 Tunisians.
Why has this bigger, apparently more integrated bloc stumbled over such a small number of immigrants from North Africa? It is tempting to put it down to racism – to the idea that the EU can deal with white immigrants from, say, the Balkans but not with North Africans. The reality is more prosaic. The arrival of the 25,000 highlighted a simple fact: the Schengen states have so far only pretended to work together to meet common challenges. With the gradual enlargement of the Schengen Area to 25, the bloc has actually undergone disintegration rather than integration.
Take, for example, the move in 2004 to drop the rule that common policies on borders, asylum and immigration must be adopted by unanimity. This shift to supranationalism is often taken as a sign of the governments’ deepening integration on Schengen-related matters. Actually, the reverse is closer to the truth: it shows how member governments can bypass the lack of agreement between them and adopt policies without an active consensus. This means that the bloc has indeed adopted common rules, but they tend to be loose and poorly formulated.
What reforms are needed to strengthen Schengen?
The Arab Spring highlighted the weakness of this setup. Faced with an influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers from Tunisia, southern EU states could not force their northern partners to help them. For their part, northern EU states wanted southerners to improve their own border standards and asylum capacities so they could deal with the problems themselves, but again the rules were not strong enough to force this. With each side frustrated, trust broke down and unilateralism broke out.
To prevent this becoming a regular occurrence, the Schengen bloc needs to introduce a stronger system – one that allows southerners to gain reliable help from northerners whilst increasing northerners’ scope to make southerners raise their standards. Southerners would thus have to agree to the current plans for greater supervision (stronger Schengen evaluation mechanism; more robust standards on the ‘second wave’ of asylum standards). And northerners would have to agree to provide border resources on a general basis (boost Frontex’s power to call upon national resources) as well as to take in refugees in case of a crisis ( for example via a proper EU asylum resettlement scheme).
But it is still unclear whether the current crisis has overcome the old obstacles to this kind of quid-pro-quo between North and South. Predictably enough, southerners have been resistant to the plans for greater supervision and northerners have been critical of stricter rules on solidarity. Moreover southerners themselves are in no hurry to sign up to tough rules on solidarity – they like to receive help, but they are not so enthusiastic to provide it. And northerners are keen on supervision mechanisms to deal with tricky southerners, but simply can’t face the idea of being supervised themselves.
Does it matter if the reforms fall short?
There have already been headlines such as “Frontex strengthened ahead of summit”, suggesting success is possible. Yet, it is crucial to ask in what way Frontex has been strengthened. In the past, the Schengen states have boosted the Commission and the EU agencies (the new Asylum Support Office; Frontex) precisely because there was no agreement between them. Giving centralized bodies the power to act on their behalf was easier than actually working together. If the member states simply boost Frontex’s capacity to act independently of them – to build up and deploy its own border resources – they may strengthen the agency but not necessarily the passport-free area.
The key task, then, is for the European Council to achieve an active intergovernmental consensus around slippery values such as “solidarity”, “trust” and “mutual responsibility”. Since these values are relative, this is best done through precisely the kind of political wrangling we have seen over the past weeks. Such wrangling gives each state a feel for the others’ problems and capacities. But if the member states today short-circuit this process and simply empower EU bodies to act for them, it will be hard to maintain trust and cooperation between them when a crisis breaks out. With new rules on the table permitting the reintroduction of national controls, this could be a fatal flaw.
35 years ago, an EU struggling with a difficult enlargement (Denmark, Ireland, UK) was plunged into economic recession. Officials watched nervously as the EU’s approval-ratings dipped. According to opinion polls of the time, citizens were increasingly sceptical about whether their country was really benefiting from EU membership.
Despite this, officials found reason to be cheerful: the same polls revealed a growing sense of solidarity and trust between the citizens of the different member countries. Asked whether they supported the idea of helping out another member state in economic difficulty, more and more citizens replied in the affirmative. The figures couldn’t really have been much higher.
In the UK, support for the idea of showing solidarity with other member states rose from 59% in 1973 to 77% in 1976. In Germany, the figure was 72% even after the country had provided economic aid to Italy. And Europe-wide, citizens were developing a sense of trust in one another too: the same citizens who had been sceptical about the immediate benefits of EU membership believed that binding their country to the other members would pay off in the medium term.
By the end of the decade, analysts were predicting a rosy future for the EU. They felt that popular trust and solidarity were the inevitable result of cosmopolitan education and the increasing europeanisation of the public – they would thus grow and grow. Today such predictions have proved wide of the mark. As the EU comes to terms with the most recent round of enlargement and the latest economic crisis, all sense of solidarity and trust between member states has evaporated. Governments are refusing to support each other unconditionally and are seeking new means to supervise one another.
But is this a bad thing? After all, values such as solidarity and trust are usually – and indeed rightly ought to be – reserved for those about whom we care least. We unhesitatingly donate money to some unknown victim of a natural disaster on the other side of the world and are happy to trust that this cash will be well spent: it really has no implications for us if it is not. But to be generous or trusting towards those actually connected with us is either lazy or timid.
It’s the reason why successful, close-knit communities are so full of mistrustful, nosey, uncharitable people. Members of a successful community are prepared to interfere in the affairs of their neighbours, to demand things in return for a show of support. They know that a community whose members tiptoe around one another will not survive for long. The same is true of the EU.
If this is so, it raises the question why so many EU officials and commentators are currently bemoaning the lack of trust and solidarity in the bloc. Why would they lament the death of values based on complacence and a disinterest in one’s neighbours? The answer, most probably, is that life is smoother when neighbours do not interfere in one another’s affairs. Take the Schengen Area, the EU’s passport-free travel zone. Its member governments have long found in the values of trust and solidarity a useful means of bypassing the tougher aspects of cooperation.
The governments of the founding Schengen states – Benelux, France and Germany – were the first to embrace “solidarity” and “mutual trust”, in the 1980s. Suddenly finding themselves interdependent on highly sensitive issues of crime and immigration, they were desperate to retain a high degree of national autonomy. “Trusting” one another was a small price to pay for being left in peace, so too was showing “solidarity” and individually regulating their home affairs in what they deemed to be the European interest.
Many of the states which have subsequently joined the Schengen Area have also been keen on trust and solidarity. With successive enlargements, the external borders of the passport-free zone came ever closer to problem areas in North Africa and Eastern Europe whilst seeing countries join which have more limited experience with issues of immigration. These states have embraced “solidarity” and “trust” as a means to leverage support and resources without giving others a say about how they regulate their own affairs.
The end of trust and solidarity is thus really an end to autonomy. Each member state is now having to face up to the fact that its desire for autonomy has only prevented it from interfering in the affairs of its partners. This is a community being shaken out of complacence.