“You were the future once.” So said David Cameron to Tony Blair in a notable exchange during the latter’s final years in office. As I sit today drinking a blanche at a pub on Place Luxembourg, Brussels, so the phrase could be adapted to fit my evolving experience of this city over the years. For me this was the future once. What is it now I wonder?
I passed through Brussels on the way to school exchanges in Verviers right from 1997 and started coming to Brussels often from 2000 onwards in the context of federalist campaigning work. I remember justifying a move to Berlin in 2001 that it would be important to spend some time elsewhere, as Brussels would be where I would eventually end up as someone who wanted to work in EU politics.
So it proved – 2002-03 was my first stint in the capital of the EU, followed by a year in Bruges. Despite the woes of working for an ineffective MEP, Brussels life was still a fascinating, eye-opening experience. The joy of friendships with people from across Europe, a Europe that had just ushered in the Euro and was on the point of bringing in 10 new countries.
I wonder is it the politics? Or the passage of time that has changed my view? Now I view the fat, suit wearing German lobbyists sat a few tables along from me in a new light. The young Spanish women with the extravagant shoes sat opposite, fresh from working in the European Parliament across the road, working in a bright eyed way towards the cause of European unity. Or biding time in that job before passing a concours so as to be secure for life, a rare security in today’s labour market? That will eventually turn out to be a golden cage for them?
A lot has physically changed on Place Lux. The bar I’m sat in was a hollow wreck for a decade. The bars have expanded, the buses – still dangerously driven – are at least new models. But the barbed wire still blocks the road just off rue du Luxembourg and the remnants of broken car windows still line the gutters. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
At a brunch yesterday with the blog nerds – Joe, Kosmopolit, Ronny and Anda – conversation turned to how we assessed the performance of the various members of the European Commission. Where else, mused Ronny, would anyone else be discussing this? Where else in Brussels, it could be added, would the people in the discussion have been so scathing in their assessment, and not want to actually tear down the whole house of cards? Perhaps we are just a depressingly small crew of people who are more motivated by the political outcomes of the Brussels processes than we are trying to lobby for our corner in these circles, or selfishly motivated to work inside the walls of the institutions’ anodyne buildings.
In the meantime a German MEP who plagiarised her thesis and hence cheated to get elected, and a Romanian MEP who was ready to take payments from lobbyists, still operate in the building across the road.
Maybe my grey feeling is due to the weather. Maybe it’s something deeper. But I can’t help feeling there is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with the way politics is pursued in this town. Yet it’s not as if I have an easy way out, for solace in populism, functionalism or nationalism are so much worse. But what is the way forward for me here? What can make me appreciate the symbolism of the young people coming down the steps of the EP with their blue and yellow bags full of information about the Parliament, rather than fear that those very same citizens are probably not going to even bother to vote next time the elections roll around?
[NOTE: this piece was written 20th June, but I’ve only found time to post it 21st June]
… Then our views don’t differ much! 🙂
“If the EU didn’t exist, should it be invented?” I really don’t know how to answer your question…
I guess if the EU hadn’t been created in the aftermath of WWII and during the Cold War, there would be very little chance that we would be considering creating it now. Like we wouldn’t consider creating France, Hungary, Catalonia or the Land of Bremen if they had never existed before…
But That’s not the case, and all this doesn’t mean that each of these levels doesn’t have a role to play in the contemporary times, on the contrary.
Like we say in French : avec des “si”, on mettrait Paris en bouteille.
What’s actually your point of view?
“Right, societies don’t need states, anarcho-capitalism is the solution, and States are guilty for the financial crisis.
Come on, this kind of proto-liberal “point of view” is just sick. I’m not for big governments, but we cannot seriously make this kind of statement after what’s happened / happening in the financial sphere.”
I didn’t actually say anything like this, but if you study history, specifically the history of Bretton Woods and the monetary system that it brought in, then you will discover that the current crisis was inevitable and indeed due to the state control of the money system. Read Jacques Rueff.
About “love”: I don’t know about Trooper Thompson and I will let him answer on his own on this if he deems it relevant, though I suspect his answer will not differ a lot from mine on this specific point. We all know that “love” is a word that can stand for a lot of different emotions – so different from one another sometimes that we should find it strange to see the same word being used for all of them. But such are the intricacies of language. As far as I’m concerned, when I speak about “love” for Europe, what I mean is that state of mind where we feel that we belong to one and the same group, one and the same entity, of course with a lot of individual or sometimes even collective differences between us, but all of us sharing a common background, a common destiny, a common set of values, a common vision of our history and also of our future. Maybe that’s what you mean when you use the word “identity”? If you don’t want to call this state of mind “love”, fine with me – call it something else if you are more comfortable with that. I don’t care too much about the label on the box as long as we all agree on what is in the box 🙂
Now how can we bring the EU to listen more to the populations of Europe? Ha, this is a very good question indeed 🙂 and I don’t think that rioting in the streets would be the best answer to this question 😉
Having them “staffed” in a more democratic way, e.g. by having the Council President or the Commissioners elected, or at least chosen following a more democratic process, would be a good starting point. At least they would be more accountable to the populations of Europe – an accountability many people across Europe think and feel has been missing right from the start until this very moment, which is no news. But I don’t think it would be enough.
A couple of years ago the Commission sent an electronic enquiry around, which was titled “Can EU hear me?”. The objective of this enquiry was to find out what could be done to improve the image of Europe in the general public, and what the EU institutions could do better. This objective of course was commendable, and the pun in the title brought some humour to it, but nevertheless it was flawed in two major ways. The first flaw was that it worked much like a poll: it was sent only to a few dozens of select people, all of them working either with EU institutions or within EU-supported projects – and not even to all of such people. This raises several questions, among which: what were their selection criteria? The second flaw was that, at least as far as I can remember, it was more concerned with the EU’s public image and popular support than it was concerned with actual efficiency of the policies – when the population’s focus would be expected to be on the second point rather than on the first one.
I think what is needed is a change in culture – a change in approach within the institutions themselves. They too often use a top-down approach on issues and are more concerned with how they can bring people to understand that what is good for them is what they are trying to bring – instead of using the bottom-up approach that, for example, most of private small companies tend to use. Yes – private companies (at least SMEs, I know it is not so self-evident as regards big corporations) listen more to their markets and client base, and determine from such information what they should bring to them (well, because it will sell better 😉 ) than the EU institutions (and even most national and/or regional governments for that matter) listen to their populations. If a company wants to convince a market base to buy a product they have no real need for “because it will be better for them”, it will not work. If the same company detects a need in its market base, asks itself how it can address it in the most effective possible way, then goes back to its base saying “Hey, I have heard that you need something that will do this and that, just wait, I think I have something in store that will do the job just fine, just try it” – it has a lot more chances to work. Mutatis mutandis, the same process is at work in politics – whatever the level.
As regards the Euro: there hasn’t been yet any proposal for a referendum to leave the Euro and go back to the currencies of old in any country, that much is true. But there are recurrent rumours that given the current poor state of the Euro and the countries of the eurozone, there are at least in several countries at national level plans for exit strategies from the Euro if the situation keeps getting from bad to worse. Thus this could happen even without the populations being asked for their stance on the matter. I am no finance buff, so I won’t risk a prognosis in that field. I just hope that just as it has so often been the case in the past, a good crisis will make countries and country leaders realise that “together we are stronger” and make them cooperate more closely – and that it will help towards a solution.
Otherwise: according to you, what is Euroepan unification about in the globalised world of 2011? Is it just a given – something that already exists, is not worth suppressing but could work better than it currently does? If it didn’t exist already, should it be invented? If yes, why?
“I would say you are looking at this from the viewpoint of the state, not society.”
Right, societies don’t need states, anarcho-capitalism is the solution, and States are guilty for the financial crisis.
Come on, this kind of proto-liberal “point of view” is just sick. I’m not for big governments, but we cannot seriously make this kind of statement after what’s happened / happening in the financial sphere.
@ both of you
I’m just referring to results of opinion polls, I’m not interpreting them. I’m not saying that 55% of the young French people are going to make a revolution for Europe, just that they answered ‘yes’ to a question they’ve been asked on the phone. I’m not saying they all love the Euro, just that they haven’t voted against it yet, which is a fact. The Euro is still standing, whatever you believe to be “people’s mind”.
We should all stop expecting people to “love Europe”, because people don’t love institutions. They will never “love” either the EU or the UK government or the pope or the Franc or whatever you want.
I’m not a EU supporter, I don’t love the EU at all. I don’t love the French government either, nor do I love our flag or support our parliament. But I’m both French and European, I have both identities. Understand the difference?
And even though I don’t love the EU, I just think it is absolutly necessary to have a democratic (not an “ero-cratic”) governement at European level. We should all stop talking about love, that’s not the issue.
How do you make the EU “listen more to the population of Europe?
“That’s why I think it is always useful to explore the arguments of people who think differently – and even to go so far as wondering whether there might be some justification of their opinions in real facts. I call this dialogue.”
It’s very simple, really. I want the laws of my country and the taxes I pay to be decided in my country, and debated by a Parliament which is accountable to the people.
I don’t care what the French do, that is for the French people to decide, and I trust the French to know better than me what France needs, and ditto the rest of the EU.
“The problem is probably that Great Britain is not really a EU member, as it doesn’t participate in any major EU project.”
I agree. We are not part of continental Europe and have a different viewpoint. I am sure one of the major differences is that the political establishment have always been dishonest in this country about the significance of EU membership. The perfect example is the Constitution / Lisbon Treaty. Across Europe, politicians were saying that the two documents were almost exactly the same, but in Britain, we were told it was not, because all three main parties promised a referendum, and they wanted to avoid this.
I can believe that many French people want a United States of Europe, and if that is what others want on the continent, then so be it, but I would not want my country to be part of it, and if the people of my country were given the choice, I expect they would agree with me. For this reason, the political establishment, which is pro-EU, will not allow the people to make this choice, and in fact denies that there is any possibility of a United States of Europe being formed. Therefore there is no real debate on the benefits or otherwise of such a thing in this country, and there is a lot of anger towards the politicians and the institutions of Brussels.
If we had a choice, maybe we’d want to stay. Because we have no choice we want to leave. We are not volunteers, we are conscripts.
“just wonder how this cooperation and this integration would ever be possible without common institutions based on a grand vision.”
I would say you are looking at this from the viewpoint of the state, not society. European people have always cooperated and integrated, trade has always crossed borders. The point of the common institutions is to force nation states to do things which they don’t want to do. I don’t want this. A national government should not implement European directives against the wishes of their people, and national governments should not give away sovereignty, which belongs to their people and not to the politicians.
Life wasn’t bad before the Euro. I liked lira, francs, pesetas etc. I never met an Italian or Spanish person who wanted to give up their own money. The Spanish people I know still work out large sums of money in pesetas in their heads!
Just for the record: on a personal level, my heart beats for Europe as strongly as yours – and if the poll mentioned in the article you linked to in your comment does indeed reflect a pan-European reality… well, maybe it’s just hight time for a revolution 🙂
Reading news such as this one warms my heart – but I cannot help wonder whether it is really representative of youth throughout Europe. Of course, only very few people go so far as talking of leaving the EU, even in extreme right wing parties. But we should not be mistaken: people who definitely have a problem with European unification do exist in the population.
Although I am a convinced pro-EU and a supporter of the Euro, I have a good friend who has in recent months – even before the Euro crisis – been vocal enough and explicit enough in her opposition to say in full words that if she ever had any power to speculate on the Euro in order to destroy and suppress it – don’t be afraid, she hasn’t any 🙂 – she would not hesitate one second to go ahead “because the Euro has brought so much misery to common people”. She did not say “poverty”: she went so far as to use the word “misery”! I think it is an exaggeration in describing the fact that more and more people find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet – after all, we don’t see yet entire crowds begging in the streets or not having enough to eat. And I will be the first one to argue that the Euro alone cannot be held entirely responsible for an economic decline that started decades before its introduction, for fierce consumerism in society, for the lack of a social Europe, for regression in social welfare standards, for anarchistic capitalism… or plainly for poor management of individual domestic finances by the concerned individuals themselves. And very few people would go such lengths as suggested by this person who remains, in spite of her Euroscepticism, a good friend of mine – very few people would go such lengths, be it in words or in deeds. Yet I remember a poll one or two years ago that said that 62 % of people across the eurozone were dissatisfied with the Euro and linked it to a regression in their living standard. Whether totally justified, partially justified or not justified at all (I personally hold the second position) this is a feeling that exists in a large part of the common population – and as such, it cannot be just ignored or waved away. It has to be faced – and properly.
That’s why I think it is always useful to explore the arguments of people who think differently – and even to go so far as wondering whether there might be some justification of their opinions in real facts. I call this dialogue.
“They mostly reject Europe because the EU is seen as destroying jobs, or, as a neoliberal institution.”: when I read such a sentence, my immediate reaction consists of saying: yes that’s exactly it! Remember the French “No” to European constitution in 2005: besides a right-wing “No” from national sovereignty supporters, which was expected, there was a whole campaign for a so-called “left-wing “No””. A campaign that listed arguments along the following lines: “yes we DO love Europe and want more Europe, but at the same time we hate neoliberalism – and what we see in the so-called Constitutional Treaty for Europe is that a whole set of neoliberal policies defined in previous treaties are going to be set in stone within a Constitution – and No, as left-wingers and supporters of a more social Europe, we just cannot go for that”. National-sovereignty-supporting “No” plus more-social-Europe-supporting “No” equalled a majority of “No” in the popular vote. Interesting situation…
“They don’t feel angry about Ashton being a “European minister for foreign affairs”. They just don’t know her or care about her.”: here again I agree. This in fact reflects the common population’s growing disinterest for politics and political issues. Here I remember a former colleague explaining why she didn’t care about politics and politicians: “Are they going to give me a payrise?” – nothing else, nothing more, nothing about transparency, about politicians being involved in electoral fraud or financial scandals – nothing of that kind. No. Just a basic interest in daily subsistance and improvement of living standard. The “full trough” I mentioned in a previous comment? I think so. Whatever any well-born idealist is going to think of such a stance – if Europe is seen as “emptying the general trough”, this is not going to win her any popular favours. Even less if the “common trough” of the general population is emptied just in order to fill up another “trough” – that of people who already have more than enough to eat. Are the young Greeks demonstrating on Syntagma square calling slogans that favourable to the EU? I don’t think so. Do they love Europe and the EU enough to get over some hard financial sacrifices? I haven’t heard that so far.
“I don’t see Europeans demonstrating against the two major EU political initiatives recently launched, namely on a European financial transaction tax or on rating agencies. I think the support for such initiatives is overwhelming.”: that’s it once again – the question is not about the legitimacy of the EU, but about measures that are widely supported in the population against who they feel are the “banksters who hijacked states’ money and robbed entire populations”. Any institution that is seen as fighting this category of society will be considered legitimate by the common people. So, yes, if the EU acts in that direction, EU will win legitimacy in their eyes.
I am not saying that European institutions as such are either superfluous or meaningless. I am saying that they should listen more to the populations of Europe, and have more respect for their concerns. And, by the way, why not – be “staffed” in a more democratic way.
But my question is and remains: who is going to reopen the debate on what the European Union is really about?</b
What is European unification about today, in 2011? in an otherwise globalising world? in a world that is quite different from the world of 1957, when the Treaties of Rome were signed?
It’s fine to write that 55 % of young French people are European federalists at heart – but what will it take for them to take action? to get to the streets? What does European federalism mean for them? Are there echoes in similar support elsewhere in Europe? Are they all willing to unite, work together, coordinate? That’s what remains to be seen as far as I’m concerned.
And how do you ensure that your “Cooperation framework agreements” (= directive) are respected in all EU countries, if you don’t have common institutions?
Do you think that European countries would launch lawsuits against each other when one of them starts to violate one of these agreements? European countries never launch lawsuits against each other.
I repete what I just said: I don’t beliebe in European cooperation without common institutions.
Just look how European states reacted in the 19th century. They all cooperated during economic booms, but all cancelled free trade agreements as soon as the economic buble burst out (1873, 1929). All. Cooperation depended on economic cycles.
Is it something we can call a sustainable economic cooperation? No.
Is it economically optimal? No.
Would European states’ reactions be any different today if we didn’t have common institutions? No. Why should they react differently? Our governments have all tried to bypass single market rules since the financial crisis began.
Do French, southern European people in general appreciate the economic benefict of integration? I can tell you, no they don’t. It’s almost the only thing they don’t appreciate in Europe. Neither do they reject Europe because of European symbols, nor because of the EU’s policial initiatives that “impinge on their national sovereignty”, because both these notions are very abstract from their point of view. And aren’t they abstract?
They mostly reject Europe because the EU is seen as destroying jobs, or, as a neoliberal institution. But they don’t feel angry about Ashton being a “European minister for foreign affairs”. They just don’t know her or care about her.
Actually, going beyong people we meet in the street, Europeans are far more federalist than we think. 55% of young French people are in favour of “United States of Europe” (http://www.pressefederaliste.eu/jeunes-francais-etats-unis-europe ; Older non federalist sources showed the same levels of support in the past). The level of support to the EU is still majoritary in all EU countries except in the UK. The level of people expressing a European identity as well, except in the UK. Voters do not elect anti-European governments in any country except the UK and the Czech republic, nor do they support Euro-sceptics at European elections.
So, coming back to your comment, the problem may indeed be mainly a British one. And I don’t see Europeans demonstrating against the two major EU political initiatives recently launched, namely on a European financial transaction tax or on rating agencies. I think the support for such initiatives is overwhelming. People don’t question the legitimacy of the EU on such issues. Maybe except in the UK?
I tend to think along the same lines as Julien-223: Europen unification is in the first place a grand vision. But according to me, the arguments presented by Trooper Thompson go far beyond the fact that he might be a Briton and that the British stance in and on Europe is what it is. After all, I heard the same arguments listed by national sovereignty supporters everywhere – even if France just before introduction of the Euro – a long time ago, and I still read them on many blogs dealing with European politics – whatever the language, and therefore the virtual “population”.
The heart of the argument is that bilateral cooperation agreements – or multilateral ones for that matter – would have been just as efficient in reaching economic integration in Europe, provided the private actors involved in such cooperation benefited from it. Want continental integration rather than global one? Easy. Introduce in any national external trade policy a “continental preference” clause of some sort. Reach agreements that will serve as general cooperation frameworks. And from then on – let the private sector and individual initiative do the rest. (Why does this argument remind me so much of the US Republican Party? the libertarian flavour maybe?)
By the way – I also think that if left to their own appreciation, populations do appreciate the benefits of economic integration – be it European or worldwide – but are not interested – or at best scarcely nterested – in any integration that would go beyond the economic level. Even in such an a priori pro-EU country such as Luxembourg, I heard back in 2002 firsthand from a Luxemburger that the Euro was about the maximum that was commendable in terms of European integration – and that even the Euro was a limit case. If you could hear such arguments from a Luxemburger, just imagine what you could hear from French people, from Belgians even, from Britons of course, even from Germans… and let’s not talk about the rest (Danes anyone?).
Populations in Europe still remain to be convinced that they will benefit from further European integration beyond a peace that has been taken for granted for decades, and a Euro currency that is currently demonstrating more weakness than strength and that many within them make responsible for a real regression in their living standard. And if you want to tell them that they already have benefited from much more, of course first of all give concrete examples with facts and figures – but please don’t be afraid to submit those arguments to public debate and to the expected counterarguments of “did we really benefit from that” and “what about the drawbacks?” Being afraid from the less rosy aspect is not good advertisement for European integration – quite the opposite I would say. And too rosy an image will earn the populations’ benevolent indifference at best.
Of course there is another way to win the population’s hearts for Europe (and maybe for the world as well?): make them partake in the grand vision, create in them the desire to unite and come together, come what may. Convince them that we all have a lot in common, a lot to share, and that greater things are realised by working all together than by remaining each one in their own little corner. And this will be no less of a lot of work… who, within the “bubble” or outside of it, is ready to undertake this? Not a lot of people I’m afraid.
First of all: how many of those who claim to work for Europe (in national governments, in European institutions or anywhere else) are really convinced themselves of these things? That would be a good question to ask… wouldn’t it?
And I’m not even starting to talk about the total disregard shown by European officials for the concrete expectations of those they are expected to serve. Not just novels, but whole libraries could be written about this. I have worked for EU-supported projects myself, so I have some idea of what I’m talking about in this respect.
I just wonder how this cooperation and this integration would ever be possible without common institutions based on a grand vision. I don’t believe in a single market, on a shenghen area, on environment or transport liberalisation policies that would be based solely on member states cooperation. Let alone the Euro. My State (France) would never resist the temptation to come back to its old ways, never.
For an Englishman, Shenghen may be very abstract. I grew up 5 mn from the Belgian border. Now, they are planning a tube between my city and the adjacent belgian town. What would happen if Europe turned into a mere intergovernmental cooperation? The tube would not be built, because the risk would be simply too great the the Shenghen area could disappear.
The only actor currently currently intervening to prevent Denmark from reestablishing border controls with Germany is the European commission. I don’t see why this would change in the future.
The problem is probably that Great Britain is not really a EU member, as it doesn’t participate in any major EU project. So Britons can’t really say what would be the consequences of transforming the EU in a mere cooperation agency, or of withdrawing. What would be the difference for them?
I’m not particularly optimistic myself, but for slightly different reasons I suppose.
I am reminded a little of Ludwig von Mises discussing the forces which broke apart Austria-Hungary and why liberalism failed in central and eastern Europe (with regard to the First World War).
The problem for Austria-Hungary was that the ideas coming out of western Europe, about liberalism and democracy didn’t quite make it through the translation process. Democracy had to be stifled, because all the different language groups would pull apart, due to the rise of nationalism, which rejected the idea of peaceful coexistence and self-determination. Therefore, the only way to keep AH together was increased authoritarianism from the centre.
I’m not suggesting exact parallels, but I think that Brussels has raced ahead, trying to create the centralised, homogenised European state, hoping to have it all in place before the masses had a chance to consider what was going on. In this way, democracy has been stifled, because it has the potential to stop the process in its tracks, but the risk is that the pressure will build up and blow it apart, destroying the good as well as the bad.
As I may have said before, I believe the benefits of cooperation and integration are possible without the grand vision and the institutions of Brussels. As a libertarian I draw a sharp distinction between society and the state. The EU project has been at the state level. I dislike my own state, which is too powerful, unaccountable and secretive, and thus I see no benefit when it merges into an even greater leviathan, which seems even less accountable and further removed.
@ Trooper Thompson
I don’t agree with your conclusion but you do make a very good point – what has been done in Europe at large to make Europeans citizens love Europe?
The argument of avoiding war and ensuring peace could work in the first one or two decades after WWII; from then on, peace within Europe has been taken for granted ever since – all the more when it turned out that the old European political powers had gradually lost international relevance if left by themselves alone.
The benevolent indifference of the European populations could benefit the building of the EU as long as prosperity was ensured – but it is the kind of benevolence that lasts only as long as things go well. As soon as the weather starts to get cloudy, it’s the end of indifference – and also the end of benevolence.
I understand why the founding fathers of the European project could have been wary of the European populations. I believe just as well that if the populations had had a say back in 1957, the Treaties of Rome would never have been signed, because the populations would not have been ready to see allies in their war enemies of scarcely more than a decade ago. The memories of war were still too fresh – and I doubt if even the “Never Again” slogan would have been enough to defeat them. I would not be surprised to hear that people like Monnet and Schuman were considered by some as traitors to their fatherlands back in their time.
But basing on this to make Europe a vision of the elite, and to have the unification project covert and elite-driven, with the populations having scarcely a grasp over it – the European Parliament was elected for the first time in 1979, and it’s about all the EU has ever had in terms of actual democracy – was obviously not such a good bet. Betting that “what makes the pig growl is an empty trough”, and relying on prosperity to draw the populations to the project and win their support, only resulted in the decades-long benevolent indifference of most.
All this has nothing to do with the actual merits and failures of the European Union (even if it is a cliché of the national sovereignty supporters that peace and prosperity have much less to do with the unification of Europe and the European Union than a lot of Europhiles would have it). It is all about the way European populations perceive the unification process and the European Union. Do they feel “European” enough, do they love Europe enough, do they identify enough with Europe to accept making sacrifices for Europe? If yes, to what extent? These are the real questions.
Are the popular demonstrations in Greece an answer to those questions?
If they are – then it is more than high time for the European institutions to involve the populations, and to listen to them (if it is not too late already). If they don’t, I am not very optimistic about the future of European unification. And I don’t think the European governments are that ready to save the process at all costs. Their reluctance to coordinate and speak with one voice on more than one occasion, even in times of crisis, is not exactly evidence of an enthusiastic belief in, and adhesion to, European unification.
The things you hope for in Europe can never be achieved through Brussels. You cannot unite people through force, you will only unite them against you. This is what Brussels has done.
Those of us who believe in national sovereignty will win in the end. We have love on our side, love for our countries. You can’t defeat this.
The advice to steer clear of Brussels if you like Europe should probably be given to every young enthusiastic europhile. Yes, the way Brussels works is pretty depressing but then national policy-making is not very different: networking, lobbying etc were not invented in Brussels 🙂 Sometimes I think we hold the EU to a very high democratic standard which a Member State would possibly not meet. Politicians in the Member States are often seen as being disconnected from the citizens: just consider all the talk about the number of millionaires in UK government. The rise of populist parties is due also to the sense of powerlessness among those who do not enjoy the benefits of free movement or globalization. Many people just don’t feel that national or EU politicians are listening to them.
Maybe the way to resolve this is to move towards a federal union with clearly delineated responsibilities between regional, national and supranational authorities. The current situation is just constant power struggle. Too bad the EU constitution failed: just when the EU had the chance to deliver something ambitious, it all had to muddle through again…
The first think that came into my head upon reading this post was one of my favourite aphorisms, something I share with every young enthusiastic europhile who joins our team:
“If you like Europe, steer clear of Brussels”.
On a personal note: I left in 2000, after 8 years. Off to Australia, wife and kids in tow, to start a new life. And was back within the year.
Brussels is, for this family guy, a very livable city, full of character and without the Big City problems of Paris and London. But then, I don’t live in the EU bubble, I live in Belgium – my wife and kids are Belgian, my kids go to Belgian schools and have Belgian friends. My best friend is Belgian.
So I probably survive because I have a life outside of the bubble, and don’t need to spend every second evening networking on Pl Luxembourg for either work or to make friends – last Tuesday’s panel was perhaps the 3rd “Place Luxembourg party” I’ve attended in 20 years.
So I focus pretty much on what I was doing when I first got here as a freelance science journalist – helping explaining complex, jargonistic, technical stuff which is actually more important than most people realise.
And in my spare time I try to puncture the bubble, inflated more with pompous hot air than anything else. Anyone who does care about European democracy should have the same objective.
Unlike Ronny (see comment), I think we have a better chance getting people to puncture it from the outside – after all, as he pointed out in recent posts, there are few people within the bubble with much interest in more light being shone into their corner.
Moreover, Institutional Reform is neither the right way of doing it – it’d be hijacked like everything else – nor a feasible proposition.
Sorry for rambling.
Very interesting article. Your questioning is exactly what made me stop working in European affairs.
The least I can say is: many left Brussels for the same reasons, but not everybody should leave. Or rather: not all “Euro-dissidents” should leave this city, because that’s what would pave the way for populists, functionalists, technocrats and lobbyists.
We need people like you to stay there. We need “EU humanists”, “European republicans”, “EU révolutionnaires”, or whatever you may call yourself, to remain in this city and try to influence the bubble from the inside.
Forget about Koch-Mehrin and Severin, it’s not the core of the problem. Forget about incompetent commissioners, they are just half as incompetent as the least useless French minister. We have thousands of these people in our institutions in France, we were also informed recently that we probably have rapists and pedophiles in the government. See! Brussels is really not so corrupt.
No, the problem with Brussels is that it can’t stay a bubble. We need people to take power over it. Because I think we can’t get rid of Europe. The EU will always exist, it will always get more power, above all unwillingly, especially if eurosceptics manage to destroy it, because it will simply reappear in another shape. See what “the EU” is currently imposing on Greece: everybody wanted to avoid that, but in the end, they all forgot about the so-called “subsidiarity principle”. The EU has de facto taken over the Greek government. I don’t believe in the end of Brussels, even if Marine Le Pen is elected president.
Bleak post, but understandable in this European political climate.
“[..]something deeply, fundamentally wrong with the way politics is pursued in this town. ” Is it the politics done in Brussels or is it rather that the European politics is done in Berlin and Paris? Just looking at the way Chancellor Merkel and her cabinet has succeeded in worsening the economic crisis at almost every opportunity, to please fleeting national or state electoral campaigns makes me almost despair for the future of this project. Right now I am just waiting and hoping for a competent and honest leader of Germany. I see that as the only practical short and mid term solution.
The real solution is of course to minimise all intergovernmental aspects of the Union, and replace it with national or supernational decision making, where effective transparency and accountability is possible. The line between what lands at national level and what is on union level would be difficult, but putting more and larger competencies in the middle is a perfect recipe for leaderless, unaccountable politics, aspiring to the lowest common denominator instead of lifting the eyes towards the common future.
The thing is inherently undemocratic and unaccountable. EU PR has no incentive to be “good” responsibility is completely diffused between the institutions and the member states. It isn’t as if an initiative will “fail” because of lack of public engagement. It “succeeds” as long as you get the states on board.
The answer is fundamental reform. Partly I think there should simply less fingers in the pie: the power of the regions and member states completely destroys any coherence in EU policies.
In the immediate, I can only think of an elected Commission/Council president as a partial answer. At least European politics would have proper campaigning, proper debate and a “face” to lead to it after the election. It would immeasurably strengthen the Commission relative to today and it might, just a little, reduce the current regime of “government by hackneyed compromise”.
(I also think the economic crisis and the mediocrity of current national governments have much to do with your funk.)