The EU: a union of state bureaucracies?

Jean Monnet said that we are not building a coalition of states; we are creating a union of peoples (“nous ne coalisons pas des États, nous unissons des hommes”).  So no, in response to @brunobrussels, we are certainly not a union of state bureaucracies; or, at least, that’s not what we aspire to.

But what’s the reality? Has the EU successfully delivered Monnet’s vision?  Or has it fallen short?

I think I answer that question partially in my previous post (Institutional Imbalance), but I still feel that Bruno deserves more of a reply.  I detect in his reaction – and I hope he’ll correct me if I’m wrong – the premise that power belongs more naturally with nation states and national parliaments, and any move to transfer sovereignty to a higher tier than the nation state effectively strips sovereignty away from its democratic home.

In his excellent book ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ Jared Diamond describes how people have historically organised themselves in ever-more-complex configurations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states; and then those states evolve into ever larger structures, with ever larger numbers of citizens.

Diamond argues that humans have a strong interest in forming part of ever-larger state incorporations; but also that they tend to have a strong vested interest in the status quo.  As a result, they tend to resist upward incorporation even at the expense of their own longer term interests.  External pressure is usually needed to force the upshift to broader political structures (again, see my previous post); but, when this is realised, it tends to benefit all members of that new, larger, political structure.

To my mind, Diamond’s thesis offers a clear understanding of the tendency towards euroscepticism but also why this tendency is an historical dead end.

The nation state is no more ‘natural’ a political unit than any other, including the EU.  Arguments against the EU which are premised on the notion that the nation state has more legitimacy qua nation state than any other political structure are, I strongly believe, fundamentally flawed, and guilty of historical subjectivity.

Of course, there are those who argue that the EU’s structures are less democratically accountable than its Member States’, and that this means that sovereignty should revert to those Member State structures.  But this isn’t an argument against the EU.  It’s an argument – right or wrong – for reform of the EU’s structures so that they become more democratically accountable.

(Aside: I managed to squeeze the above into five tweets, but thought it preferable to go long form rather than spam people’s twitter feeds. This shows how useful Twitter is as a tool for forcing you to get your point across in as few words as possible.)

Update added at 15.46 CET 20/2/13:

It’s been suggested that I don’t really address the question of whether Monnet’s “Union of People” has been achieved.  What many eurosceptics fear is that the EU represents Big Government washing out the power of individuals.  It has also been put to me that the EU is an elite project which seeks to remove politics above society.  Let’s take these charges one by one.

Does the EU seek to remove politics from society?  This one is easy: of course it doesn’t.  If it did, why would so much money and effort be put into attempts to legitimise the EU with its citizens?  You might argue that those efforts are not very effective, but you cannot deny that those efforts are made.

Is the EU an elite project?  I see this as a meaningless question.  Restructuring a society’s political system has always been the task of an elite; Robespierre, Trotsky and the Gracchi belonged to an elite.  Popular support, or democratic legitimacy, is of course a different matter, but let’s save that one for another day.

Is the EU “Big Government”?  As Diamond argues, government has a tendency to become bigger over time, if by bigger we mean extending into more areas and bringing more people under its wing.  But what about ‘big government’ in the passive-aggressive, dismissive sense used by certain libertarians who fear that citizens are excluded from the decision-making process, or that government takes decisions about citizens which are none of its business?  In this respect, the EU is no worse, and probably a lot better, than most of its Member States.  EU competence is very clearly defined in a Treaty which has been negotiated by the Member States and ratified by the Member States.  There is double democratic legitimacy: firstly, through its Member States which are all representative democracies and which both appoint the executive and form one chamber of the legislature; and secondly, through the directly elected European Parliament, forming the second branch of the legislature.  I’m not going to address the question of whether this democratic legitimacy is sufficient, except to say that I personally think there are flaws; but to paraphrase Churchill, no-one pretends that EU democracy is perfect or all-wise.  It’s the best we have, until we put our heads together to make it better.

Does the EU wash out the power of individuals?  As soon as humans started organising themselves into political structures larger than the family, individuals gave away some control over their own lives in return for a higher degree of security.  Modern political structures attempt to find a compromise between the benefits which accrue from collective decision-making and the desire we all have to make independent decisions about our lives.  In this respect, too, the EU is no worse and probably a lot better than most nation states.

One final point: far from excluding the individual, the EU is there to benefit the individual citizen.  This is hard-baked into the Treaty.  The EU provides its individual citizens with many rights and freedoms which are guaranteed by the Treaty.  Those rights and freedoms should not be taken for granted.  Outside the EU, they might come under threat.

2 thoughts on “The EU: a union of state bureaucracies?

  1. Martin Cole

    I was not convinced by J.Diamond’s book GG&S on first reading and less so today. It was not necessarily nation states driving civilisations forward from Europe. The French Religious Wars strike me as more of an ideological battle between mercantile individualists from all along the Atlantic seaboard versus collectivists then based in Rome, now shifted to Brussels.

    1. ottocrat Post author

      I’m not sure that this is what Diamond argues. I would certainly take issue with your suggestion that there is an echo of the French religious wars in today’s EU!


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