The EU, two little letters that have the ability to boil the blood or to make you rejoice in happiness for ever (especially if you’re German). It is quite strange though, that something which is seen as rather insignificant and a bit useless by some is treated with such utter and continuous disdain that permeates throughout the British media on a daily basis. The only thing I normally have to say in response is ‘sacra bleu’ but in this circumstance I am selflessly allowing all to be utterly bored to tears with my views about L’Union Europe.
The war was terrible, it humbled some of the greatest powers the world had ever seen and reduced them to debt-laden basket cases. Such is the continuous power of the war that I’m guessing just within one sentence you know that I’m talking about the Second World War and not the Korean, the Falklands nor even the oft mentioned war in Afghanistan that have all happened subsequently. The First World War was labelled as the war that would end all wars, this was obviously false but the Second World War (which lets face it was a European war fought with global allies) ended all wars in Europe *quickly dusts the Balkans into Asia*.
In 1945 it would have been hard to imagine that arch-enemies Germany, France, Italy and the UK would be entered into a present day union that connects them not just economically but politically too and such is the interconnectivity between them that not only would it be very difficult to leave but the very borders of the nations in it are now blurry. Indeed, the question needs to be asked, are we one or united as one? This is what often makes UKIP and their Tory backbench wannabees scream in anger, ‘we want our country back’ or ‘give us back our sovereignty’ they shout. In the words of David Cameron, ‘calm down dear’, and I will explain.
Firstly, one must ask what sovereignty is? And after looking into it myself, I trust you will find it is as fuzzy a term as any, malleable and very difficult to understand. The UK is a prime example of this, we have a Queen and a Prime Minister, both of which are treated by the media as our leader and we are interwoven into global markets which we are at the utter mercy of and constrains our leader’s power to make decisions. What’s more the UK is for all easy explanatory purposes federalised, three of the ‘home nations’ have a separate parliament, all of which have different amounts of power and some of which actively campaign to be separate from the state. So, the UK, is a state within state? A state within a stateless nation? I give up trying to explain this one, but perhaps it goes someway to explaining how sovereignty is a complete and utter moot point, fact of the matter is, different states have different amounts of power and are unequally constrained by federalised and international factors. Consequently, the role of the nation-state and indeed the term are becoming increasingly less important in world affairs.
The term world affairs though, brings up very different visions than it did 100 years ago. In 1911, the UK, France and Germany were global powers, all of them had empires and as the British loved to say at the time, ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’ and indeed it did not. Today though, largely as a consequence of war, these very same countries are increasingly footnotes in international relations, the USA and the BRICS are the main power players now. The USA and Russia have essentially all the world’s nuclear weapons and the BRICS are seemingly the only economies the world has left with growth. Yes, the UK, France and Germany are all part of the G7, G8 and NATO but we all know now that the G7 and G8 are no longer the groups of top global economies, otherwise China and Brazil would be in there. As for NATO, it is less of an alliance and more of a US command room, with David Cameron as the tea boy, actually…make that coffee boy.
This may all sound as if I’m making the argument of, ‘we’re no longer the power we once were and because of that we must join up with our European friends’, and it’s true, I am making that argument but that is just half the story. Yes, our international prestige is nothing compared to what it used to be 100 years ago, let alone 30 years ago (i.e. Falkland Islands) but this union we have created is quite beautiful and is the very definition of democracy.
This is the boring, technical part, so in the famous words of BBC new presenters, “if you don’t want to know the results, look away now”, although this time it’s more of an opinion on a boring polity. The EU, two letters which mean so much and yet so little, too often I have heard being used as; EU-meeting or EU announcement, demonstrating a complete misinformation of what the EU actually is. It is a collection of multiple agencies working under the umbrella of a union, and it is called a union, quite frankly, because there was no other way to really say it in French, c’est la vie. When I hear Margaret Beckett MP is about to make a speech on climate change, I don’t declare ‘UK GIVES WARNING ON CLIMATE CHANGE’, no. The truth is, the media permeates this image of the EU as a global behemoth consuming poor helpless states into its realm and then not allowing them to leave, akin to Soviet Russia or even Nazi Germany. But as we know what the media say and what reality is are very rarely the same thing, the EU is in fact the polar opposite of these dictatorial regimes because the EU is enlargement by consent, as opposed to annexation by force. And for those of you who don’t remember (myself included) there was a referendum held on what was then EEC membership in 1975 as to whether or not we should continue to be a part of it. FOUL PLAY! I hear you cry, “we deserve a new referendum, it has been over 35 years since then” and that is true, but considering there have only ever been two UK-wide referendums in the history of the state, I think that’s something quite substantial, fact of the matter is, get used to it, the UK just doesn’t do direct democracy.
The EU institution with perhaps the shaddiest reputation is The Commission, this is an organization of Khmer Rouge proportions, secretly plotting to do away with national sovereignty and install puppet pro-European governments (insert evil laugh). But the reality of the situation is again quite different, all EU scholars of importance, and certainly the ones I’ve spoken to would agree that the Commission is the authority with the least power. Its most basic and important power is that of the initiation of Community legislation, not to enforce it (which is the role of the ECJ) nor to legislate on it (which is the co-decisionnary power of the European Parliament and the Council), it is in fact incredibly unpowerful as a supranational actor. The Commission is modelled on a national executive and perhaps that is why it comes under such criticism because it is also unelected (just like all the UK’s Prime Ministers then, none of whom were directly elected nor did their parties receive more than 50% of the vote). Indeed, this is the most obvious reason as to why the Commission is unelected because so many of the member states have unelected leaders, such is the proliferation of indirect democracy.
But just like the British government, only one of the European Commissioners is elected directly by the parliament, the Commission President/Prime Minister (this is a case in point of indirect democracy in practice). The difference though lies in the rest of the membership, that of the lowly Commissioners, they are appointed by their representative governments….but wait a minute! Isn’t that AGAIN just like in the UK, where David Cameron can effectively hire and fire anyone who he pleases, lets face it he’s the leader of country…or is that the Queen? Again, just like the British government, the Commission can be sacked by her parliament, although the percentages are a bit different, for the British system it requires a 55% super majority, as opposed to a basic majority in the European Parliament. I think that makes the European Commission just a little bit more democratic than the British government! Thank the lord for Lord Kinnock!
Where eurosceptics refute that there is any power in the European Union, is that of the member states, but if you do that, you refute the very existence of the European Council. It is impossible to locate the European Council on a graph of EU power, because it has simply been described as “a locus of power” no one really knows where it came from, it’s secretive and can change the organization of the EU in a flash! This is the secretive chamber of the EU that we’ve been searching for, the one that so infuriates our beloved eurosceptics, but just who is it filled with? The representative governments of the member states…
I don’t know if any sceptics would care to remember the recent attempted treaty by the European Council, where David Cameron gloriously stuck up two fingers to Delors (actually, make that Sarkozy) and said NON! That was the veto…the ultimate power of the member states, its two letters and just one syllable, and what happened? The UK wasn’t made a part of any new treaty…ahhh democracy in action…or rather UNANIMITY in action.
The fact of the matter is, it is up to the member states how the EU is governed, not the parliament and certainly not the Commission. The power of EU actors is relatively small because even via the co-decisionary legislative feature shared between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers (the representative state minister for the policy action in question), the Council of Ministers has a veto on legislation, meaning that even the directly elected parliament doesn’t have a say, it’s your very own government minister, and the process require nigh unanimity. Which is again, quite democratic.
Therefore, it is difficult to argue that the EU is undemocratic, because if it is the very reason that you wish to leave, you must remember it was the member governments who framed it and it is they who continue to have the power to change it. So please, lay off the EU and focus on your own member states if you want something to complain about. I mean, if the EU was that bad, why would nearly every other corner of the world be trying to model a supranational organisation based upon it? Cameron’s rejection of the fiscal compact will create some problems for Britain as a European player and will only spark greater tension between ‘our island nation’ and the mainland. Surely its time for the UK’s citizens sceptic and supporters to end the debate of British membership within the European Union and accept that greater ties and greater integration are inevitable.
Ken Erskine is a political hack and student of European Integration at Queens University Belfast.