Dialogues on EU politics
On the specifics of EU politics and the European integration process
With this publication—Dialogues on EU politics—I have tried to convey ideas in a dialogical format. The book explores some of the common themes in the European integration process, while delving into political theory and philosophy when necessary. Some notable topics include:
- what binds together the EU polity;
- the EU as a federation;
- the EU as a republic;
- Europe’s differentiated integration;
- the propriety of referenda in modern democracy;
- whether neoliberalism is inherent to the euro/EU.
These are complemented by theoretical insights on politics as well as on method, such as:
- the meaning of democracy with fundamental rights and the rule of law;
- the distinction between primary law and the constitution;
- the scopes of sovereignty and its emergent nature;
- the notion of “democratic sovereignty”;
- the incrementalism of EU policy caused by the gradualism of European integration;
- the disaggregation of the subjects of inquiry.
On the level of communicating ideas, I find the dialogue to be a very powerful and didactic tool. It has a certain flow to it that make it easier to follow. Ultimately though, this is an experiment. Whether the rigid structure of the essay can be replaced by a method of analysis that is equally effective yet more intuitive.
These are fictional discussions between friends. The setting is a bar or a cafeteria that serves alcoholic beverages. I have personally had some of the most rewarding debates in that kind of environment, hence the choice.
This is a short book. It is meant to complement the work I do on my EU politics blog, and everything I have written over time in the books section of my website. It rephrases old ideas of mine while introducing some new ones.
As for the presentation of the Dialogues, it is a web-based
publication that looks exactly like a series of blog posts. I publish
in a native web format, because I find it technically superior to other
alternatives such as
Finally, the Dialogues on EU politics is distributed free of charge under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License version 4.
On the homogeneity of the European polity
Artur. This is one of the finest ales I have ever tasted. Belgian, right?
Beata. Yes, it comes from an area near Brussels. Top quality product. Of course, the cost here is higher than in Belgium. We have to cover transportation fees. At least though we do not need to worry about tariffs and similar impediments to trade.
A. You can thank the EU for that. Cheers!
B. Well, yes and no. The idea of the single market is not specific to the European Union. The EU was established in the 1990s. The single market started out in the 1950s with the European Economic Community. The EEC only wanted to create a trade block out of its member countries. An area for free trade, without arbitrary restrictions on the movement of the factors of production. So yes, let us thank free trade for our ale.
A. Pedantic as that is, you are right. The EU is the successor organisation to the EEC. It thus inherits both the positives and the negatives of that era.
B. And most importantly, the EU is no longer just about maintaining a trading block. That idea remains with us, but is now part of a greater whole. The EU wants to become a political union. That has always been its ultimate end. We are moving there. Slowly, yet steadily.
A. I hear this claim quite often. I think it is based on a false premise, namely, the distinction between politics and trade or economics more generally. Free trade can only be instituted as such. It is not a natural condition. It took years of high level diplomacy before we could reach a stable state of affairs. The same with the values of individuality or property rights. These derive from the political process, in the sense that there can be a politics that either denies or reinforces them. In short, the world of trade is predicated on human convention.
B. Fair enough. The distinction between the EEC and the EU pertains to the scope of the integration process. In the former case, politicians had the ambition to establish a trade block and nothing else. Whereas with the EU, the ambition is to potentially have a supranational dimension to every area of policy. Not just trade, but monetary and fiscal affairs, police and security, social issues, and so on.
A. It is a difference of political agendas?
B. Yes. Now we can look at the historical context to appreciate the reasons leading to this change in focus, but the point remains.
A. What if we suggested that instead of two agendas, the one is the continuation of the other? Perhaps my question is best understood in terms of the euro’s integration. You start with something minimal—and I use that term loosely here in order not to say “incomplete”. So the starting point is just a single monetary policy supported by a generic set of macroeconomic conditions. After a while you realise that more is needed to make it work. The Stability and Growth Pact is not enforceable, the rules are not sufficient for realising their stated ends, etc. So you build on top of it, in the form of the current economic governance, only to realise that you are still missing something. A common budget, a euro-specific legislature, the refashioning of the Eurogroup into a proper Council formation, a euro Commissioner or finance minister. Eventually a fully fledged government. And so, the gradualism of the European integration process is, in this sense, the method of realising that the initial plan can only work as an intermediate or temporary measure towards a more holistic solution.
B. Your suggestion then is that rather than treating the EEC and the EU as fundamentally different, we see them as points on a trajectory towards political union. That would justify the notion of “ever closer union”. It had to start from somewhere. Trade was it. But to establish this theory of continuity, we need to look into the factors of a single polity and whether the EU can satisfy them. Political union presupposes a high degree of homogeneity, whereas a common market is, more or less, a pact to eliminate trade barriers.
A. Homogeneity is indeed important when speaking about any kind of union or set. There needs to be some property that qualifies the items as parts of the whole. In politics we witness different types of homogeneity: tribal, ethnic, and civic. Tribes can be seen as the social extension of the family unit. Members of the tribe are relatives, the elders are the chief decision makers, the younger ones engage in working activities for sustenance, and so on. There is a defined hierarchy and division of labour. Ethnic homogeneity pertains to cultural commonalities between people who have no blood ties between them or who are very distant relatives. A common language, a shared history, and the overall feeling of being more or less closer to the members of the ethnic group than to outsiders. Whereas civic homogeneity is predicated on agreed upon values or conventions. It is the closest to a social contract.
B. For obvious reasons the EU could only qualify for the civic sort. And here we have the interesting case where ethnic sentiments can co-exist with an overarching feeling of civic union. Whether this is a new phenomenon, or the intermediate phase from civic union to the formation of a new ethnic sense of belonging remains subject for another discussion. What interests me right now is to determine whether this supranational civic sense of togetherness—this ‘Europeanness’—is in any way the equivalent of a national identity.
A. The modern world order is established on the construct of the nation state. This is the conceptual identification of a people with a state and a given territory. International affairs are, in fact, relations between nation states. The nation in the sense of an ethnos could have existed from antiquity, but the nation state is a relatively new idea. To reach this point, political thought had to draw clear delineations between the state and other forms of hierarchical communities, mainly those of organised religion. Secularism was the foundation of sovereignty in its current form, for it decoupled supreme political authority from either the monarhic or ecclesiastic traditions. In a manner of speaking, traditional nations or new civic ones were fastened upon the construct of the impersonalised sovereign state, thus forming the nation state as we currently know it. Perhaps this is the criterion of togetherness: sovereign will formation.
B. Is the EU sovereign?1
A. The short answer is affirmative. But seeing as the EU is a rather complex entity with all sorts of nuances, a simple “yes” does not suffice. Rather than speak about sovereignty as a monolithic whole, let us refer to factors of effective sovereignty. Those are the means necessary for the exercise of supreme political authority. Forget about the headline features, such as whether the EU is recognised on the global stage as a single nation or not. The EU may well not fit into the old moulds of political thinking.
B. Analysing sovereignty makes sense also because of the agreed upon distribution of competences within the EU. The Treaties foresee the three principles of conferral, subsidiarity, and proportionality. The idea is that whatever area of policy is explicitly given to the EU is its own competence. It is managed by the supranational level. What is designated as shared between the national and supranational levels, will involve a mixture of intergovernmental and Community methods. What is not listed remains with the nations with the EU having only an advisory or ancillary role.
A. In which case, your question should be about the different combinations and institutional arrangements that enable the EU to be sovereign. To exercise supreme authority, that is. What you described hints at differences of scope. There is national sovereignty, the one where the nation is assumed to have full control over the means of governance. There is international sovereignty, where nations agree to pool their resources in order to mutually enhance their capacities. And there are global agreements that set out criteria and universal principles, including the definition of sovereignty. These too are “supreme political authority”, though they generally lack a political agent capable of enforcing them, depending instead on decentralised implementation.
B. If these are anything to go by, they would imply a revision of the typical understanding of ‘power transfers’ from the Member States to the EU. Rather than transferring power, nations are in fact uniting their forces as a precondition for enjoying sovereignty at the national level.
A. Indeed. The principle of conferral, in particular, can be misunderstood as ‘power transfers’. And there are those who insist on the vacuous notion of ‘more Europe’, which can further obfuscate things. The right way is to rethink sovereignty as immanent to the political process. It is not limited to the nation state. It is not fixed. Where there is politics between states which creates conditions for future political affairs, we can say that some emergent sovereignty is realised.2
B. The EU may therefore be treated as sovereign over issues where it has explicit competence. Perhaps the same can be said for areas of policy that are shared with the Member States, since no one nation can act on its own.
A. However, note that describing it along those lines can still given the impression of ‘power transfers’ and top-down control. This is seldom the case.
B. True, it should instead be argued that the EU is sovereign as a result of the Member States being jointly sovereign over their common affairs. The distribution of competences is but a working arrangement which renders concrete the specifics of this emergent sovereign capacity.
A. Do we then need to worry that the EU is not a nation? I mean, the emphasis on the nation presumes the construct of the nation state as some objective, immutable magnitude. But politics evolves. We can have areas of competence that were traditionally understood as belonging to the national domain being instituted at a supranational level. And they work just fine, at least in principle.
B. Maybe the problématique of Europe as a nation has to do with the homogeneity we discussed earlier. This is put forward as a litmus test, typically to suggest that since the EU is not a nation it cannot become a single polity.
A. In which case, we would have to broaden our understanding of homogeneity beyond the confines of the nation. The basic fact that there can be a scope of sovereignty that can only be discerned as an emergent phenomenon in inter-state relations, would suggest that a community of interests is the minimum requirement. This can be couched in terms of civic nationalism, but that would still carry along all the legacy of nationalism, and the somewhat outdated concepts that surround it.
B. The ancient distinction between the polis and the oikos can come in handy. This is what the Romans referred to as the res publica and the res privata. The common and the private good. We can thus conceive of a republic as a covenant predicated on common interests. An overarching agreement to conduct the affairs of public life in a certain way.
A. This is a promising approach. However, my concern is that the term “republic” is also hinting at the nation state. Some argue that the European Union should turn into a republic. Maybe they mean it should become a fully fledged federation or something to that effect, but this generally misses the point. The EU already has a res publica, and a rather developed one at that. When for example we are discussing ways to reform the Economic and Monetary Union, we are in fact concerned with optimising the institutional arrangements pertinent to the management of a segment of public life. This is sovereign will formation, whether it is formally called that way or not.
B. Federalists or proponents of the ‘EU as a republic’ generally see in the EU an aberration. It has elements of a confederation and a federation, some issues are handled at the Community level, others intergovernmentally within EU law, and others still outside the acquis though as an extension of it. What these people want is the EU to be streamlined. To have a canonical way of doing things, one that conforms to standard norms of political conduct, and stick to that.
A. Those are fair points. Maybe an apt description for such movements is European civic nationalism, in its numerous variations. They may oppose ‘nationalism’, but what they truly mean is that they are against European nations standing in opposition to each other. If there is one limitation in this federalist worldview is that it tries to model the EU after the nation state, with obvious examples being nations that have a history of federalism. But I think the EU does not need that. The way the integration process is unfolding hints at new realities, new modes of polity.
B. Federalism and republicanism have sound principles. What you are effectively suggesting is that we do not identify or otherwise conflate these political theories with the historical construct of the nation state. These ideas can apply in other contexts, whereas the nation state is more or less confined to a specific set of arrangements.
A. The EU already has federalist ideas. The distribution of competences is a prime example. It also incorporates republican principles. Think about the operational independence of European institutions. The EU has robust horizontal and vertical separation of powers. The argument then is one of degree not category, i.e. that the EU should have more or less of this or the other, not that it should be created anew on a totally different basis.
B. Interesting. Homogeneity then is not inextricably bound up together with the nation state. It can derive from the protection—or pursuit—of a common good, such as with the European Treaties. Does that mean that the EU is more or less complete?
A. No, it is not complete. There are many areas that require lots of work. But here we are discussing the principles, not the specifics of quotidian politics. And what we see is that the European integration process forces us to rethink several aspects of politics. From sovereignty to the sense of belonging. The gist of the matter is that we should not use the nation state as the yardstick. Our results will always be wrong that way.
B. I see. Shall we have another round?
A. Oh, why yes!
On democracy, aristocracy, and ochlocracy
Denis. The Greek crisis has been going on for almost a decade. There seems to be no end in sight. Surely, the EU could have found a solution. Why have they not delivered?
Carla. The EU has a rather inefficient way of making decisions. If it is the Community method, the European Council has to offer guidelines on future policy. The Commission then works to materialise those ideas, typically in the form of new legislation. The legislative process can take years. The European Parliament and the Council have to agree separately on any amendments they wish to introduce and then come together to reach a compromise. And that is just the standard method. When it comes to things like the Greek crisis, the situation is more complex. You have the Eurogroup, which is an inter-governmental platform that does not work exactly like the Council, and then you add the various stakeholders, the IMF, the ESM, the ECB, the Commission. In short, the EU has no simple way of doing things.
Beata. The crisis management has been proven inefficient. But you need to appreciate the context. European integration is a process that started in the 1950s. We are gradually harmonising the laws of the Member States to eventually develop a political union. In the meantime, some areas of policy remain incomplete. The governance of the euro in this case, or other major issues such as security and defence.
Artur. Regarding the euro, the EU’s basic problem was two-fold. Firstly, it did not have the mechanisms to mitigate the financial crisis. Secondly, its economic vision was heavily influenced by neoliberalism. The architects of the single currency genuinely believed in some of the fictions of mainstream economics, such as efficient markets, rational expectations, and the like. They thus thought that rational markets would correct frivolous spending of private and public actors. So there was no real need to have institutions in place that would do that job. To be fair towards economics though, many economists warned against the euro. It did not seem like it could satisfy the criteria for an optimal currency area. The decision was political: to change the focus of the integration process, from a single market to an economic and monetary union and, ultimately, a political union.
D. How naive of them! Surely they should have known better. Rather than start from uniting politics, they tried the riskier approach of a suboptimal currency. The euro almost failed. That would surely have jeopardisedd the entire project.
B. Perhaps they did not calculate the risks properly. But on the balance of driving the integration process forward and not doing anything substantial, they opted for the former. A leap forward. It is a tricky method, though seeing as the euro is being reformed into something more workable, they did get what they wanted. We now are at the stage where the legal framework is almost complete. Much of the remaining debate is on enhancing political institutions, such as a parliament for the euro area, a fiscal capacity, and the like.
C. That is typical EU conduct. Some top-down set of measures that create at least as many problems as they purport to solve. And then when the time comes to assess whether “more Europe” has been beneficial the various apologists argue that the ‘true’ solution is yet more of the same. More power to the Brussels apparatus.
A. Indeed there are pro-Europeans whose lack of self-criticism can turn them into a caricature of themselves. However, we should be careful with generalisations. Not all arguments for deepening the integration process come down to the largely meaningless notion of “more Europe”.
C. Some are more refined than others, though they all essentially agree that transferring power to the centre is a net positive.
A. Is this really the case though? What exactly do we mean by moving power to Brussels? Is it like a command centre that adopts decisions without the involvement of parliamentarians and national governments?
C. I mean that power is taken away from the national lifeworld, from the locus of sovereign will-formation. Brussels is a detached bureaucracy. It does not represent a particular people. The European Parliament is underpowered,3 while the Council is a glorified platform for inter-governmental horse trading. The nation states should not give away their sovereignty to this emerging superstate.
B. There is a tendency to beautify past experiences and to think of newer ones as inherently inferior. National democracy has had its fair share of problems, especially on handling issues with a cross-border dimension. You speak of the EU’s inefficiency in adopting decisions, but the truth is that there is a trade-off between efficiency and participation. The EU takes decisions by involving a large number of stakeholders. Apart from the legislative process, it also actively encourages feedback from civil society over a range of issues. For example, the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe is a public document meant to stimulate the debate on European politics.4 National parliaments can discuss its content, it could play on local media, and so on. The case of Greece is exceptional, in that it was a unique systemic failure. Though not just of the euro architecture, but also of the Greek state and political establishment.
A. If efficiency were the only criterion for judging the propriety of a government or its actions, then we should not be talking about democracy. Totalitarian regimes can be more ‘efficient’ at executing a single task, such as waging war or oppressing any dissenting voice. They have all the means at their disposal and no normative or legal constraints to stop them.
C. Democracy is a terrible system. It gives the impression of participation but what really happens is that big business and powerful interests dictate the agenda. And democracy was a misguided idea even in ancient Athens. The Athenians sentenced Socrates to death for some dubious reasons, exiled or forced out of the city the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Aristides, and inflicted all sorts of injustices on the most brilliant among them. The mob can never deliver justice. Only the enlightened ones can, those who know what they are doing.
D. No wonder the philosophers were against it then. Aristocracy, the rule of the alphas, is what they would rather have.
A. There are a number of interwoven topics here. Rather than discuss them as a bundle, let us take them one by one. Helps with understanding things. You say that democracy allows corporate interests to impose their own plans on the rest of society. The right word for that is corruption, or collusion, or anyhow a deviation from the norm that should be punishable. Corruption is not intrinsic to democracy. What happens if you have a corrupt autocrat who wields absolute sovereign authority? That will be the most egregious form of corruption you can get. Then you mention the Athenian political system and raise some valid arguments about the crimes it committed. But you are missing a few crucial insights. Athenian democracy and modern democracy are fundamentally different. They did not have a codified corpus of primary law, a constitution, which would institute the rule of law and guarantee fundamental rights for individuals and groups of people. Their democracy was, in fact, a perversion of the idea of “majority rules”. For them the rule of the majority was absolute: a zero-sum game were the minority opinion is effectively obliterated. That is ochlocracy (rule of the mob). Its modern variants are regimes that best qualify as “majoritarian”, if not outright authoritarian. One of the euphemisms for those is “illiberal democracies”.
B. And do not forget aristocracy, the darling folly of theorists who do not care about the practicality of their models. Sure, having ‘the best’ take command sounds like a decent plan. It is, after all, what happens in every field of endeavour or expertise. But the political whole is very much unlike purpose-specific hierarchies, such as the army or a business. Politics encompasses all the professions, all the areas of expertise. Politics as such is heteroclite. There can be no political expert in the same sense there can be an army general. Anyone can be a good politician or statesperson, not just political science graduates and legal experts.
D. So there basically is no way to find the best person for ruling over the others?
B. That is not exactly the point. The idea is that democracy decentralises the process by which someone can rise to power. In a sense, democracy creates a level playing field, so any person, regardless of their professional or cultural background can potentially become a leader.
A. Politics is not a unified area of expertise. It is a reflection of our collective knowledge. No one can be well versed in all specialisations. Just as there needs to be a division of labour for productivity to pick up pace, so must politics be diversified in order to encompass ever more of the shared knowledge. Some think that only lawyers or policy analysts are fit for politics. But this is a misunderstanding. You can have an established sportsperson or an artist in charge. They have proven themselves in their own profession, have experience with ‘real life’, and can bring some fresh ideas to the table. That is invaluable.
C. You are still speaking about representation though. What people really need is strong leadership. A nation that thrives. Security, peace, a stable income. Only policy wonks or insiders care about day-to-day politics. Most people just go about doing their business.
A. Is that not a division of labour though? People appoint representatives exactly because it would be counter-productive to have everyone deliberate over every single decision in the political process. As for stability, you are limiting it to the surface aspects, while omitting the qualitative ones. You can have a certain equilibrium under an absolutist regime, which nonetheless is a miserable form of life. There are many countries around the world that prove this. What people really want is a dynamically stabilising equilibrium that is on an upward trend, in terms of the availability of material goods as well as the freedoms of quotidian life.
B. Authoritarianism can, at the very best, deliver stagnation. The opposite extreme, ochlocracy can also lead to regime uncertainty, instability, distrust in the predictability of the law, corrosion of institutions, while making arbitrariness a common feature of the political process. The virtue is in moderation, in the middle between the extremes: democracy in this case.
D. But not like the democracy of ancient Athens?
B. Ancient Athens did not have constitutional norms such as the protection of the rights of minorities, fundamental rights and individual freedoms. The rule of law, something we now take for granted, was secondary to the rule of the majority. Furthermore, concepts such as nationhood and sovereignty did not exist at the time. Their democracy was predicated on tribal relations. In effect, it was the various families that were represented in the ecclesia of the demos. Modern democracy typically applies to a sovereign nation state that functions in accordance with republican and/or federalist constitutional norms. The European Union is, in some important ways, an extension of that idea. And modern democracy is representative, not participatory, exactly because it would be virtually impossible to have an all encompassing state—a nation state or the EU—while also maintaining the kind of directness germane to tribal hierarchies. This is not to say that greater participation is impossible or undesirable, but that there exist certain constraints—essentially trade-offs—to what a society can do.
A. Having the aristoi rule can be a particularly oppressive form of top-down decision making. Perhaps the closest analogy in the modern world is how large software multi-nationals treat the consumer. Look at Google’s or Facebook’s attempts at creating their own panopticon. A system of mass data mining that can profile everyone and make predictions on their likely behaviour. Which is then exploited to deliver advertisements in a manipulative way. Or look at how Microsoft has evolved into a company that no longer sells Windows but actually rents it out. Have you read their End User License Agreement (EULA)? Probably not, because it is hundreds of pages of legalese, which basically say that they have the right to maintain backdoors to your system and control it remotely, and that they have no responsibility whatsoever if your inherently insecure operating system gets hacked or is effectively compromised by the NSA, other spy agencies or private actors. Here you have the software experts, the aristoi, taking decisions in their own interest, presumably to make things better, more convenient. This is a form of tyranny in the making. You as a consumer have no control over your data and the products you think you bought. An aristocracy may seem like a good idea—the notion of the philosopher king—but it can very easily become a dystopia of the worst kind.
C. There is no perfect system. What matters is delivery. Getting things done. Not dithering for what seems like an eternity.
B. You need results that are consistent with the dignity, self-respect, and aspirations of people. Results that do not introduce permanent negative effects on social groups.
A. Exactly! And to continue with my analogy of software companies, it is no surprise that more and more indiviuals, small businesses, non-profit organisations, and public bodies are turning towards free-libre software; software that is made for the community of users for the sole purpose of having a workable computer with useful applications. People choose free-libre software because of its intrinsic freedom. They understand that they may have to learn a few new things, or adapt their workflow in some areas, but they value their freedom to choose over the convenience of a corporate black box that spies on them and abuses them.
D. Seems like an aristocratic variant of the EU would be a despicable elitism. While an ochlocratic or majoritarian one would always favour a group of states against all others. A zero-sum game. At least the current system guarantees broad-based consensus or agreement over most issues. Sure, it can work better and that is where the efforts should be focused on. Communication is key. Just like with the publication of the White Paper on the Future of the EU or the reflection papers that followed it. Europe needs more of that. So that non-geeks such as myself can better understand what “Brussels” really is. Otherwise, the myth of the “detached bureaucracy” will persist. But enough of that, I need another whisky.
A. I am a simple fellow. I hear “whisky” and I nod my head in agreement.
On federalism and European integration
Artur. When it comes to European politics, are you a federalist?5
Beata. In principle, I am in favour of a European Union that operates as a fully fledged republic. I guess that qualifies me as a federalist, though I do not necessarily insist on the EU having to follow in the footsteps of other nations, such as the USA or Switzerland.
A. Those paradigms you are alluding to support the theory espoused by many of the “United States of Europe”. I think the US model has more currency than the Swiss one. But you say you do not want that, yet you still believe the EU should operate as a proper republic. My question then should be whether you think the EU already follows federalist constitutional norms. Does it?
B. The typical self-defined federalist would argue that the EU is not a federation. And I agree. There are too many elements that are inter-governmental. These reflect competing national agendas. The policies they make are not meant to directly promote some European good. They are a compromise between governments, based on criteria such as expedience and the promotion of the national interest. The way the Greek crisis has been handled is a case in point. A federation would initiate procedures to restructure Greek debt and have Greece default within the euro area. Instead, a series of technical measures have been turned into a set of hotly contested political totems. Everyone who thinks objectively agrees that debt relief is a necessity. Inter-governmental politics has hitherto prevented that from happening in an orderly and timely fashion.
A. What you are describing is fair enough, but I do not see this overall inefficiency as proof that the EU does not already function in accordance with federalist constitutional norms. The mistake is to conflate matters of principle with quotidian politics. You object to the EU’s inter-governmentalist practices on grounds of practicality. Look at the US, the darling of many a federalist. One can hardly forget the seemingly endless negotiations for such ‘technical’ items as raising the debt ceiling. Major disagreements exist in every kind of polity. These lead to deadlocks or, anyhow, tend to prolong and complicate a process that would seem rather simple and straightforward. What the euro crisis really teaches us is that without sufficient institutional arrangements and predefined mechanisms, a major crisis is enough to fuel controversy, distrust, and to ultimately make any solution much more difficult than what it would have been.
B. So your suggestion is that we treat inefficiencies as technical rather than normative constraints?
A. Indeed! Constitutional norms are one thing, the political process is another.
B. So which are the constitutional norms that, in your mind, qualify as federalist?
A. Everything pertaining to the distribution of competences within the EU is a good start. We have the connatural principles of conferral, subsidiarity, and proportionality. Conferral means that certain powers are explicitly given to the European level, while others are shared between the Union and the Member States. Whatever is not conferred upward remains with the nation state. The Union can only have an ancillary or marginal role on such policies. What makes the principle of conferral something better than the misunderstood “power transfers to Brussels” is that it has to be consistent with subsidiarity. The EU should not be granted powers that are not of a Union-wide reach, for that would violate the principle which stipulates that decisions should be taken at the closest level of government pertinent to the task at hand. Finally, proportionality ensures that any power is limited in scope and any action thereof must not create conditions that would change that constitutional order. To my mind, these establish a vertical separation of powers within a multi-level polity. That is a federalist tenet.
B. Yes, but that is not the whole story. The EU does not have an elected executive. In fact, it does not have a single executive, but two institutions that perform complementary functions. The European Commission is typically likened to a government. In practice it does what any national executive would do. However, the Commission’s impetus to action is exogenous. It does not decide on the direction of the integration process. That task is trusted with the European Council, the platform where the heads of state or government meet. The European Council is, in fact, the Union’s deciding executive. It adopts ‘guidelines’ that the Commission must follow. To that end, the Commission is the implementing executive. Such bifurcation is not standard for federations. A federal Europe would have an elected government, which could be led by a prime minister or a president depending on what would work best for us.
A. This is one of the many peculiarities of the EU. And there are other examples that add force to your argument, such as the practice of differentiated integration, what is commonly known as “multi-speed Europe”. The EU is not a unified whole, but a mosaic or patchwork of multiple combinations of Union, with states advancing at a different pace or towards diverging ends. The common thread is the European Treaties. Every instance of differentiated integration must be consistent with them, such as the fiscal compact or the treaty that established the European Stability Mechanism.
B. Which is why we often speak of the EU as being sui generis. It is in a league of its own.
A. Well, yes. Though I do not find that line of reasoning particularly interesting and fecund. Federations are quite diverse. Switzerland is a federation, so is Belgium, Germany, and even Russia. It would be pointless to argue that these systems are more or less the same solely by virtue of qualifying as federations. Every polity has its unique features. And that is to be expected given that in each case decisions are adopted within a different context, against the backdrop of unique historical-cultural path dependencies. What I am interested in is to identify the things federations have in common or, more specifically, what democracy within a federal system looks like.
B. So how would you conceive of the various aberrations of EU politics. Inter-governemntalism or the bifurcation of the executive mentioned earlier? Are these consistent with federalism?
A. The way to approach those issues is by looking at the history of the integration process. We have an early attempt in the 1950s at the creation of a single market. In the 1990s this culminates in the refashioning of the European Economic Community into the European Union. A single currency is introduced, supranational competences are expanded, the European Parliament gains a more central role. Looking ahead, we contemplate several elements of a fiscal, financial, security, and even political union. We also are at the beginning of a process that will deliver us a European army or, at the very least, an ever closer form of coordination on matters of security and defence. Fiscal policy or the military are cardinal expressions of statehood. But we are not there yet. Just as the euro initially lacked certain institutions that would render it robust to shocks, so the various areas of European policy are still under development.
B. Following that train of thought, you would treat the aberrations as intermediate steps towards a potential normality?
A. For the most part, yes. I think that as the integration process deepens, we reach a point where practices of the past are no longer tenable. Ten to fifteen years ago the idea of a fiscal union was near blasphemy. Today it is the most sensible course of action. Do not underestimate the shift in thinking brought about by material changes. Oftentimes people must see things in their immediacy in order to appreciate the importance and propriety of certain actions.
B. Fair enough. Would an elected government for the EU be consistent with the step-by-step process you outlined?
A. An elected government as a replacement for the College of Commissioners would be the logical extension of the spitzenkandidaten process. Ideally we would have transnational lists for Members of the European Parliament, from where the new government could come from. What I do not think is absolutely necessary, is the abolition of the European Council. I have come to believe that a deciding executive, one that can think long term and reach a consensus among European nations, is ultimately useful. Perhaps though, a deciding executive should have a more specialised role, such as on matters of primary law—amending the Treaties—or for instance where differentiated integration is indeed a necessity. The specifics may vary and I need not digress at length.
B. What you have put forward seems to explain why certain self-styled federalists are fervently pro-EU. There are, however, those who think that the EU is a step away from federalism. It is a confederation, whose midpoint is the nation state and the national interest.
A. The problem with concepts such as “federation” or “confederation” is that they are not defined in precise terms. There are no clear delineations between the two. The same is true for the notion of the unitary state. Greece is such a state and so is Spain or the United Kingdom. While they all are formally the same, there are profound differences. Greece does not devolve power to regional governments. In the UK the system is close to a federation. Spain’s case is similar. At the other extreme, we have Russia, a federation that tends to be governed as an ever centralising unitary state. The only way to claim that the EU is this or the other is by means of comparison to some other federal system, say, the USA. While that is a worthy endeavour, it should not be definitive. We already touched on the uniqueness of each polity and the importance of history. Furthermore, we must keep the gradualism of the integration process in perspective. The EU is not the end product. It evolves, so give this moving target time to mature.
B. A federalist, therefore, would be someone who insists on a direction to the integration process that greatly expands upon the existing federalist principles of the EU. They would want the non-federalist elements, such as inter-governmental affairs, to be reduced to a minimum. Quotidian politics would thus be allowed to unfold along the lines of federalist political theory. What you have not mentioned is the constitution. Federalists would want one too.
A. I would rather speak about primary law, because the constitution is an instance of that. In international relations, treaties have a special function as they are above the national constitutions. Treaties do not replace national basic law though, but frame it over a certain set of issues. Trade agreements have the same effect. The European Treaties are, in essence, a form of inter-state covenant. But there is much more to them. European law, as developed through the integration process and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, has substantive qualities that do not require national constitutions to apply.
B. Such as the principle of direct effect…
A. Yes. Even if a Member State does not transpose European legislation into national law, a citizen can still claim any rights emanating from it.
B. Still, you are not referring specifically to a constitution.
A. The constitution is a codified corpus of primary law, whose codification happens within the national or cultural lifeworld. There can be a constitutional order without a single formal document, such as in the United Kingdom. European primary law has developed from a small set of generic trade agreements into a rich corpus of norms and legal principles. The European citizenship and fundamental rights are some headline examples. Apart from the material implications on individuals, the Treaties define the EU architecture, the roles of all entities involved, the distribution of competences, even the provisions for exiting the Union. They set out a fully fledged republic, even though it is not referred to as such. For all intents and purposes, the Treaties are a constitution. Unless, of course, we want to insist on regarding them as international law, which completely ignores the specifics of the European integration process.
B. Is this a good constitution though? Would a federalist be satisfied with it.
A. I have said nothing about my evaluation of it. My position concerns matters of principle. Qualitative issues are another discussion altogether. Seeing as I am running out of beer and am a bit tired, I cannot comment at length, so I will just share some final thoughts on federalism.
B. Shall I order another round? Half pints at least?
A. Judging from the content of our discussion, I think we had enough already. I digress. Federalism is a sound worldview and European federalists have made several important contributions to the thinking about Europe. What we need to bear in mind though is that the federalist movement need not fundamentally refashion the existing architecture. Several of its facets already conform with federalist tenets. And this will only be made ever more apparent once key policy areas are integrated further, such as fiscal policy, security and defence. As for the qualitative parameters, these no longer concern federalism per se, but only sensible policy making.
B. The bill please.
On EU differentiated integration
Denis. You once told me that the concept of “two-speed Europe” is actually misleading. Would you care to elaborate?
Artur. Since you bought me my single malt, I will gladly do so. Where should we start from?
D. Why is “two-speed Europe” inaccurate?
A. This concept refers to the European integration process. It basically means that not all EU Member States are at exactly the same level in the integration process. The reason “two-speed Europe” is problematic is because there are in fact multiple speeds and tiers or directions.
Beata. Which is why you refer specifically to the European integration process, rather than just the EU.
A. The European Union is the constitutional order that emerges from the integration process. The Union’s primary law, the Treaties, are the cornerstone of this process. However, there are certain cases where European leaders choose to work outside the EU framework. The reasons may vary, though it usually comes down to political expedience.
B. Such as when they signed the fiscal compact or the treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism. Strictly speaking, these were outside EU proper. Right?
A. They were, hence the conceptual distinction between the EU constitutional order and the integration process. The key point though is that the two are complementary. Whatever happens within the context of the integration process will eventually become part of the European Union; part of the acquired legal order, the Community acquis. The fiscal compact, for instance, is an integral part of the Economic and Monetary Union’s governance. The fact that it technically is outside the proper EU order does not render it any less important, some European law manqué.
D. So what exactly is it with the fiscal compact that could not qualify it as ordinary EU law?
B. Not all Member States agreed to it.
D. So how did it come to pass?
B. The Treaties provide scope for “enhanced cooperation” or, in the case of security and defence, “permanent structured cooperation”.6 Practically the same. Coalitions of willing and able Member States can proceed with deepening their integration in line with the Treaties. Other countries are allowed to join in at a later stage. And so, we have several instances of such enhanced cooperation which create those multiple speeds and directions. The technical term is “differentiated integration”.
D. I see. So what are some other examples of differentiated integration? You know, just the big picture.
A. One is the Schengen passport-free area which even encompasses non-EU countries. Though perhaps the best example for our discussion is the euro. Back in the early 1990s some countries were raising objections to the idea of a European single currency. To circumvent the obstacle of veto rights, a decision was taken to allow those with reservations to opt out of the euro, giving the others the chance to proceed with monetary integration.
B. And the euro is a great example of differentiated integration in that it has multiple speeds but also multiple directions. Of the countries that agreed with the idea of a single currency, some have joined, others are expected to join once they meet certain criteria, while Sweden is technically in the process of deciding how it wants to proceed. Those are the multiple speeds. The formal opt out clauses represent different directions.
D. It seems to me that this greatly increases the complexity of European politics.
B. It does, especially if one wants to be precise. On the flip-side though, it is a means of driving the integration process forward.
Carla. There are major downsides though that you seem to pass over in silence. What this cherry picking does is increase the pressure on non-participating Member States. The more the ‘core’ EU comes closer together, the higher the difficulty for others to keep up. The way the euro was ushered in was just a misguided idea, a sacrifice to the altar of ever closer union. Consensus should always be the guiding principle. Nations are equal and should be treated as such. What we are increasingly seeing is some Member States leading the charge, bypassing the objections of others.
B. There are risks. Alienating groups of states could ultimately be detrimental to the longer term prospects of the EU. That is unlikely though, seeing as the countries that do proceed further are becoming more like a unified whole. There are strong bonds and powerful incentives to stay the course.
A. There is a more abstract, yet vital insight as well. One of the side effects of the gradualism of European integration is that many areas of policy can only become fully fledged over time. The initial programme may not cover every case or be robust to a range of shocks. The euro is, once again, a case in point. A monetary union is established. Fiscal rules are generic and there is no coordinated macroeconomic policy. Prudential oversight over the banking sector remains limited to the national level, with no monitoring of systemic phenomena. It soon becomes readily apparent that the model is insufficient and unsustainable. Fiscal rules need to be more specific and enforceable. Economic coordination is needed to better promote convergence. Banks require system-wide oversight. These reforms were implemented in the midst of the euro crisis, with the fiscal compact being part of the deal. Currently we are approaching the next phase of this overarching attempt at creating a genuine Economic and Monetary Union: everyone realises that without a supranational fiscal capacity and without the commensurate democratic legitimacy and accountability, the system will remain fragile. I thus believe that the gradualism of the integration process causes incrementalism on the policy front. In other words, incrementalism is germane to gradualism. Enhanced cooperation thus functions as the instrument that releases the built-up pressure, preventing things from imploding when universal consensus is not possible.
D. So basically your suggestion is that once a major push is set in motion, it is difficult to revert the changes it brings along. It also is impractical to remain in the intermediate phase as that would be the worst of both worlds.
A. Take the European Stability Mechanism as an example. It too is part of the differentiated integration we have been witnessing. Without this fiscal backstop, without some countries agreeing to set it up, while letting others pursue their own priorities, the euro would have collapsed. Or, at the very least, the pressures would have been much greater. And that would mean a far more grinding economic crisis.
C. But the way you put it makes it sound like an organic phenomenon. It just emerges from the circumstances. What about the Europeanist agenda of ever closer union? Why not consider this part of a greater plan at unscrupulously realising a political union?
A. My theory is consistent with my overall view that circumstances condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients. Past events tend to delineate the realm of possibility of future decisions. But I do not subscribe to a naive variant of determinism whereby the circumstances themselves cause new circumstances ad infinitum or in a self perpetuating way. Yes, the choice to proceed with the euro in the first place was political. In some sense it could be seen as a leap of faith. At that time, they could have just settled with the single market. Anyhow, the current politicians could not just go back in time and prevent things from happening. Their choice was between inaction and a compromise with a form of action that may not have been optimal or the most desirable in a general sense. Inaction would have caused more problems than it would have solved, which practically limits the margin of choice to practicalities and details.
B. This is similar to the argument of Greece exiting the euro. Some say “why can’t we just go back to where we were before?”. Once you are in, conditions have changed so dramatically that the previous state of affairs no longer exists. Exit would not revert to the pre-euro days, but to a new scenario of non-euro days.
D. The euro crisis was an exceptional case though. Here I can understand why differentiated integration was pretty much a necessity. But how about the euro in the first place, or some plans I am hearing of having enhanced cooperation over security and defence? What is the pressure for not seeking out unanimity?
B. The original decision to go with the euro was also adopted under a certain degree of pressure. The single market cannot function optimally with wide discrepancies between states over a range of macroeconomic issues, such as inflation and longer term interest rates. Similarly, on issues of security and defence, we are confronted with a range of threats, from terrorism, to resurgent regional powers, to cyber offensives, and the like. European leaders face the choice of either doing nothing or trying to integrate further in order to cope with the challenges. Differentiated integration is the only tool they have if some countries are obstinately refusing to proceed. Again, there are downsides to a multi-speed, multi-directional Europe, but inaction can well prove even more costly.
D. Basically this means that there is no coming back to a one-speed, one-direction Europe. There is divergence, which over time can culminate into an EU exit: what the United Kingdom is doing.
C. No wonder the Brits want to leave. They see all this and think that the eventuality of a political union will not be to their benefit. National sovereignty is preferable to a superstate spearheaded by Germany and France.
B. There are many reasons underpinning Brexit. The UK was a reluctant member from the start. Do not forget though that not all British people want to leave. This is the sad outcome of marginal majorities being allowed to have constitutional ramifications. Also, we should not rush to conclusions on this matter. Negotiations are still underway. Maybe Brexit will not be what some hardliners would wish for. At any rate, I guess that a ‘soft’ Brexit will only further reinforce the idea that differentiated integration is a viable option.
A. It all comes down to pragmatism. Europeans can pretend to be one big happy family with no disagreements whatsoever, or they can agree to disagree and implement policies that are necessary under the prevailing conditions. There are no instances of a perfect course of action. Politics is about finding the most optimal trade-off between possible pros and cons within a given set of circumstances. EU exit can be a major downside that needs to be balanced out with potential gains from the emergent sovereignty of sharing power and pooling resources at the supranational level. I expect differentiated integration to become ever more prevalent as one series of enhanced cooperation compounds another. Whatever the case though, we should remember that the integration process is not being fragmented. Everything becomes part of the aqcuis as Europe moves to a new position.
D. All this talk makes me thirsty. Let me buy us a round of something light. Gin and tonic.
A. That is not how you pronounce “whisky”.
B. You are shameless!
A. I prefer “connoisseur”.
On referenda and democracy
Artur. Shall we pick up the discussion from where we left it the other day?
Beata. What was it about?
A. Referenda. Whether they are sufficient or appropriate in modern politics and for what reasons.
Denis. Interesting topic. First though, remind me of that long drink you bought me yesterday.
A. Brandy sour?
D. That one.
A. Though I do prefer my drinks neat, I can recognise a decent compromise. In a long glass you add two to three ice cubes. Then five to six drops of Angostura bitters. Proceed with a measure of brandy and an equal portion of fresh lemon juice. Top up with sparkling water. Stir mildly and serve with a wedge of lemon. Simple and delightful, especially if you use some good quality brandy.
D. Great, I shall have one of those.
B. So, referenda. We were talking about Brexit and the fact that the “leave” camp had barely won. The result of the Brexit referendum is a generic opinion of a marginal majority that is allowed to have far-reaching ramifications, including of the constitutional sort.7
Carla. That is democracy. The rule of the majority. Simple.
A. The rule of the majority is but a facet of modern democracy. If we take what you claim at face value, then the only democracy is the ancient Athenian one or something of that sort. And we already discussed that system’s capacity for abuse of power against minority opinions, individuals or groups thereof.
C. This is typical Brussels apologia. Whenever the people vote against the superstate a chorus of EU panegyrists will seek to delegitimise the very notion of popular vote. Why can’t you just accept that the EU is a much maligned entity?
B. “Much maligned” is an exaggeration. Sure, there are people who hold strong feelings against it or at least against certain policies. Just as there are others who are fervent exponents of it. But it is outright erroneous to infer that most people are against the EU. The American and British media in particular have got it all wrong with the various europhobic movements. They gave them much more importance than they deserved. People in Europe have seen the likes of Trump and would rather not give power to someone of his kind. Your data is partial and inaccurate.
A. Technicalities aside, Carla touches on a matter of principle that is worth considering in its own right. What is the place of referenda in a modern republic.
C. Yes, my view is that the will of the people is the ultimate authority within the state. When the majority decides, all others must fall in line.
A. And what if we do not know what exactly is the majority’s decision. Can you give an objective definition of the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”?
C. That is political rhetoric. A simple comment. Let us not attach more value to it than what it merits.
B. So what exactly does the “yes” vote mean in terms of the specifics of exiting the Union?
C. The particulars are for diplomats to figure out and legislators to enact. The people defined the overarching theme. No more EU membership.
A. I find a certain tension in this line of reasoning. On the one hand, the highly complex maters of EU membership, international trade, and international relations, are reduced to a simple binary choice. On the other, we do not expect the people who decide on that set of cardinal issues to actually have any say over their implications. You recognise that the particulars require a certain degree of expertise. But then you are fine with simplistic reasoning, with describing the EU and the European integration process as a monolithic whole, as something that is either all or nothing. The truth of the matter is that there are various permutations between membership and association with the EU that simply cannot be described in simple terms and presented as a binary choice.
C. You are basically suggesting that the people are a bunch of fools and that only experts should deal with politics?
A. No, far from it. My problem is with fallacious reductionism. Even the world’s greatest expert cannot deliver a definitive judgement when their only choice is between a generic “yes” or “no”. Complexity of this sort should be considered by the parliament, the most appropriate body in a state. This gives people’s representatives the chance to examine the specifics and to introduce amendments wherever necessary. Deliberation is key. If a referendum is an absolute necessity, it can be on the ultimate decision of the parliament, not vice versa.
C. Parliamentarians are representatives of the people. Their power is derived from the bottom. To that end, you cannot have parliament impose conditions on the people. Sovereignty always is popular sovereignty.
A. This is a concept that arguably comes from the French Revolution, with which I have some major disagreements. I find it incomplete. Take the case of a republic. The people agree on a constitution, which defines their state. The constitution essentially is the framework that allows for the pooling of resources at a level above the individual, such as the community or the nation. The state is the means through which the people can become sovereign. Now consider the legitimation process. The people legitimise the primary law and the institutions of the state. Then the laws of the state do in turn render legal and acceptable the norms that govern relations between people within the territory of its jurisdiction. Popular sovereignty and state sovereignty exist in a virtuous cycle. I refer to all this as “democratic sovereignty”.
B. And republics have a balance between the power of the people and that of the state. If all power rests with the state we have totalitarianism. Whereas if all power stays with the people we have anarchy. Now, the logical conclusion of popular sovereignty being the only one is that anarchy is the most appropriate political system. However, even anarchists agree that they need certain institutions to govern their life. These may not form a state per se, but perform the exact same political functions. Institutions such as individual liberty—yes this is an institution that should not be taken for granted—or the principle of private property. Opinions may vary though that is the general idea.
D. So you are basically saying that the state and the people are kind of equals that exist in a symbiotic relationship? Okay, maybe that is not an apt description, but that one may not be fully realised without the other?
A. When it comes to republics, I think that is the case. Depending on the situation or the policy area at hand, we witness power flowing from the bottom to the top or vice versa. Hence the argument that democratic sovereignty is the virtuous cycle of legitimation between the people and the state.
D. You mean that there is no fixed hierarchy?
A. Order is context-dependent. Republics provide scope for choosing the most appropriate course of action and synthesising the various means of decision-making.
B. This is unlike the extremes of absolute state or non-state, totalitarianism or anarchism. Moderation is a virtue, as Aristotle would put it. One of the uniting themes of those systems is that they demand a robust, immutable hierarchy. Which can lead to a tyranny of the few or of the many, of the central authority or the local community.
D. Like ancient Athens that we examined the other day? Though if I recall correctly there was something else that the Athenians lacked.
B. A codified corpus of primary law that protected certain inalienable rights. In Europe we have an advanced legal system, where fundamental rights are being protected by law. The freedom of speech, the presumption of innocence, the distinction between criminal and civil offenses, and so on. We cherish the rule of law. No majority can simply vote to censor some group of people or, worse, agree to sentence one to death. The Athenians were experts at that, exactly because they had no such legal mechanisms.
A. And this relates to my claim that the state too has sovereignty. Only the state can protect freedoms in a manner that is objective, consistent, and immune to mood swings fueled by demagogic rhetoric.
C. This theory of democratic sovereignty is just too idealistic. Tells us nothing about the real world. I mean, look at the influence of political parties, lobbyists, big business. We need someone to clean up this mess. In the meantime though, the political elite is not to be trusted. Referenda are the only means people have to circumvent the powers that be and make their voice clear.
A. Corruption can exist in any system. It is not germane to democracy, to the presence of political parties, or whatnot. As for referenda being an instrument against the establishment, that is but an illusion, a pernicious fancy of populists. You forget that it is this ‘elite’ that will interpret the result of the referendum, set priorities, carry out negotiations, and enact the relevant legislation.
B. Speaking of idealism, is not ‘the people’ that toils against the machinations of ‘the elite’ an ideal as well? Has anyone actually ever seen this exalted hive mind? The fact is that citizens have a variety of opinions over a range of issues. Complexity is key. Speaking in the name of the people is a sign of self-righteousness, of deciding yourself what the ostensibly homogeneous body of citizens actually believes is the case. That is the work of charlatans.
D. But is not the state also acting in the name of the people? And are not elected officials acting on behalf of the people?
B. Yes, but there is a distinction to be made. Firstly, the state acts with the long term good in mind, not just what the majority of the people believe in present time. That is why we speak, among others, of the need to protect the environment or to have sound state finances. These are matters of inter-generational justice, which only the state can properly address. As for citizens’ representatives, these stand for certain ideas and are typically elected on a partisan platform. The government and the parliament thus need to balance their own ideology with the needs and priorities of the state.
A. Apart from everything we discussed thus far, here is the problem with having a simple majority effectively decide on the constitutional order of the state. There is no orderly functioning state where the primary law can be influenced by means of a straightforward vote. And I speak about constitutional issues since EU membership has exactly that effect. There needs to be a qualified majority for changing the constitution and, in some cases, snap elections where the new parliament must also ratify the revised law. There are checks in place. By stipulating that the will of the people is absolute we are effectively obliterating any attempt at a compromise, at the synthesis of views that is necessary to have some degree of inter-generational justice. Referenda can be useful, provided they follow the same norms of republicanism. Reifying the people into a single-minded whole, while treating its will as absolute, only makes it impossible to argue against its decision. That is dogma.
C. There is no perfect way of doing things. The referendum sends a clear signal of what the majority wants. And the majority knows quite well what is good for them and their posterity.
B. Except that the referendum does not send a clear message. The fact that the result needs to be interpreted means that the government can instrumentalise this ‘dogma’ Artur spoke of to pass through any kind of agenda, including a very partisan one that is not representative of the distribution of views within the society.
A. We said before that the state is a pooling of resources that enables the people to be sovereign. To comment on your claim that the majority knows what is good for the coming generations consider the important separation between micro and macro spheres. Families may know what is good for their children, but only a macro entity can avoid the pitfalls of paradoxes to private action that appear in the transition from the micro to the macro level. Just as only a central authority with macroeconomic power has the means to break the vicious cycle of the paradox of thrift. Only the state can, for instance, run deficits in order to finance a transition to an ecological form of production and consumption. And only it can mobilise resources in pursuit of system-wide programmes that will deliver results ten or twenty years into the future. Micro and macro scopes should always be in our mind when we discuss social, political, and of course economic issues. Otherwise our conclusions will always be hindered by prior misunderstandings.
D. Okay, I have had enough of this! Now that you said “micro”, have you considered a venture into micro-brewing. Who knows, you might be able to make something like the Trappist ales.
C. Now that is something I would be keen on!
B. We can also add our own spin to the recipe. Berries, pineapple, peach, kiwi. All the goodies.
A. My dears, only the good monks of Belgium have the resources to produce a beer as fine as that. And their most valuable quality is their resistance to the temptation of adding such exotic ingredients. Trust me.
On individualism, neoliberalism, and democracy
Carla. You cannot separate neoliberalism from the euro. The two are inextricably bound up together.
Beata. You mean that there can be no other policy than a neoliberal one? Elections are irrelevant?
C. A newly elected government cannot just go ahead and implement its agenda. It has to comply with the terms of the Stability and Growth Pact and all the other laws relevant to the governance of the Economic and Monetary Union. And since European legislation cannot just be amended at the national level, the government must be fortunate enough to find allies in Europe in order to try and reform the EU. Practically impossible. The very design of this system perpetuates neoliberal policy making. Only EU exit, with the corresponding repatriation of sovereignty, can ensure a path away from the neoliberal paradigm.
Artur. I think we need to disaggregate the subjects of our inquiry, otherwise our conclusions will not be accurate enough. You seem to be bundling together the euro and the EU. I think that is a mistake, for the former is narrower in scope than the latter.
Denis. I suspect that sweeping generalisation of the sort “the EU is neoliberal” cannot withstand scrutiny. Things are more complex than that.
B. They are. The EU engages with a whole range of policies that are to the benefit of the average consumer. From environmental policy, to food safety, to the protection of the single market from monopolistic practices. And of course there are the more pertinent issues of migration and asylum, security and defence, as well as police cooperation against terrorism. Have you not seen the decisive action of the European Commission against the dubious business practices of the likes of Apple and Google?
C. Fair enough. Let’s stick to the euro. Do you not see that neoliberalism is enshrined in the very framework that governs Europe’s single currency?
B. The rules of the system are primarily focused on sound state finances. However, as the EMU proceeds towards greater integration, the intention is to closely monitor systemic or cross-border macroeconomic phenomena. Thus the policy recommendations will not be just about fiscal discipline, but also about reforms and structural adjustments. The intention is to achieve convergence between the Member States.
C. Structural reforms and the like are the buzzwords used to conceal the fact that a concerted offensive is to be launched against the weakest in society as well as trade unions.
A. I think we need to keep things in perspective. Yes, the euro was conceived as a predominantly neoliberal project. That was back in the 1990s, when the Western establishment thought it had won the battle of ideas. For them there was no alternative to the conventional economic wisdom of the time. Still, we should not forget the primary purpose of the single currency, which had little to do with macroeconomics per se. The euro is a political project, a driver for further integration towards political union. What that means in practice is that the underlying thinking does not simply follow the views of eminent economists. For instance, the euro was arguably not conforming with the model of an Optimal Currency Area. It came into being regardless.
C. Where are you going with this historical overview?
A. To argue that prevailing ideas are trapped in the web of their era. Since the 2007+ economic crisis it has become readily apparent that many of the headline issues of 20th century macroeconomics were in need of thoroughgoing revision. It is simply irresponsible in this day and age to blindly subscribe to the ideology of the likes of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. In practice, we are moving away from such minarchistic tendencies. Even central banks have changed their thinking.8 Their current policies are being referred to as “unconventional” when in fact they should be understood as the new conventions of monetary policy. The central bank is expected to actively seek to manipulate yield curves and help complement the policy initiatives on the fiscal front. We blithely speak about neoliberalism in the same way people did in the 1980s and 1990s, while we pretend to neglect just how much the world is changing around us.
C. Sure, things change, yet much remains the same. Neoliberalism is as much about economics as it is about ethics. It rests on individualism and postulates that individuals bear full responsibility for anything good or bad that happens to them.
B. That is true. Individualism is the underlying morality of neoliberalism, but also of other schools of economic thought, such as the Austrians, from where Hayek comes from.
A. Though I would argue that individualism can be traced back to Biblical mythology as well as the secular ethics of anthropocentrism. Human is believed to be free in a decontextualised sense. To have free will no matter the circumstances. With absolute freedom comes absolute bliss or punishment. Heaven or hell. That kind of binary. No wonder the USA is the land of ‘economic freedom’ and the number one country in terms of incarcerations. Now, I am a free will sceptic, because I recognise that both natural and social-cultural forces can mould and determine human action. It would be a mystery for the human body, a biological system of chemical reactions, to somehow be immune to the forces of probabilistic cause and effect. It also seems outright false to ignore the social, cultural, historical structure within which human agency is made manifest. It is pointless to speak about some decontextualised individual freedom in an otherwise oppressive society. Think about social exclusion, racial segregation including the case of ghetto areas, domestic violence, mistreatment of women, discrimination against LGBT people, and so on. We need to look at the contextualised human being, which requires a more holistic understanding of the environing factors and conditions.
C. That is high level stuff. I do not see what your point is with regard to the euro’s inherent neoliberalism.
A. In continental Europe we do not have such a strong view of individualism as do the Americans. Or such tribalist or feudalist social organisation as do the Saudi Arabians. The welfare state in Europe is much more advanced compared to the rest of the world. What we lack in the European Union is not principles. It is the instruments for social policy that exist at the national level. The reason we think of the euro as primarily neoliberal is because only its fiscal, monetary, and financial aspects have been integrated at the supranational level. We thus have a mismatch, where the emphasis naturally is on macroeconomic metrics rather than society. But this problem has nothing to do with some unflinching commitment to radical individualism. It is a side effect of the gradualism of the European integration process. Corrections will come in the form of a supranational fiscal capacity, which will, among others, provide automatic stabilisers across Member States. That is the direction.
C. Europe has the same religious or philosophical world-view as the USA. Why do you discount the power that individualist morality has?
A. Because action on the policy front already indicates a shift to a more holistic morality, even though it is not couched in those terms. I will provide two examples of practical ethics beyond individualism. The first is Europe’s fiscal framework. Yes, the ostensibly built-in austerity drive of the system. Sound state finances are, from a moral perspective, a commitment of the current generation to not place any burdens on their posterity. Inter-generational justice. Social justice, if you will. The second example is environmental policy. Practical ecological thinking and action helps mitigate some of the most pernicious externalities of human conduct and, once again, represents a tacit commitment to respect this planet for all of its species, us and those yet to be, for us at home and those in other countries.
B. I must admit that I have trouble with your first example. How is fiscal discipline not neoliberal?
A. Because you are confusing the principles it covers with the politics of the euro crisis. Europe’s problem can be described as a failure to adapt its policies to changing circumstances in the economy. Fiscal discipline should apply in times of economic expansion, while it should be relaxed during recessions.
D. But EU policy makers insisted on implementing austerity in the midst of the economic downturn. Is that not an obsession?
A. It was misguided, though justifiable once put in its proper historical perspective. The euro was launched with a generic set of fiscal rules that were practically unenforceable. There were no institutions for providing a fiscal backstop to the monetary union, while there was no means of effectively coordinating policy between the Member States. When the crisis struck, policy makers decided to gradually correct the flaws of the original architecture. A considerable part of that work has been done, though we still need to see much more action in areas of supranational fiscal policy, system-wide deposit guarantees, and democratic decision making. Against this backdrop, I claim that European leaders should have been more ambitious from the start, should not have built a severely lacking monetary union, and should have taken tougher political decisions in a timely fashion. These would have greatly eased the crisis and would have shown that the actual problem is not with the fiscal rules themselves, but with the prevailing politics between the Member States.
B. So you see the legal framework as more or less neutral?
A. No law is truly neutral. It is permeated by a certain mentality. Still, laws are open to interpretation, while there is sufficient scope for alternative action. What is needed is political will. Look at the Commission’s recent reflection paper on reforming the Economic and Monetary Union. It basically admits that they got things wrong and that Europe should have more tools at its disposal in order to conduct macroeconomic policy in a fairer, more effective fashion.
C. In essence, your view is that neoliberalism is a by-product of the prevailing politics, not of the rules as such. However, the way I read such items as the fiscal compact, I find it hard to imagine there being an alternative to neoliberalism. Hence my argument for exiting the EU in order to restore national sovereignty.
A. All dogmas rest on the premise that there is no alternative to their own version of the truth. And all dogmas prevail when those who disagree with them fail to realise that they have internalised the fiction that there are no alternatives. This then functions as an ex post facto rationalisation of the tendency to withdraw. Fatalism engenders nihilism. I cannot subscribe to that view. Politics is about sovereign will formation. Austerity is not some natural calamity or some mechanistic process of legal documents. It is the collective decision of the incumbent politicians. Attack the prevailing mindset on its specifics. Put forward tangible alternative measures. Vote for those who want to enact reforms. Whatever you do, recognise that things can be done differently without waiting for some miracle or the planets to align.
B. The greatest strength of democracy is that it always finds a way to cope with a problem. And it can always correct past mistakes. Think about the politics of the euro crisis. The distrust between the countries of the North and the South, the fact that political thinking had yet to fully grasp the problem Europe was facing. The decisions adopted back then were flawed, but there is no one claiming that they were set in stone. The EMU will be reformed, so it is likely that some exaggerations will be smoothened.
C. That is wishful thinking, because the fiscal compact is here to stay.
D. But it was said earlier that the major flaw of the EMU is that it is unbalanced. Some policies have already been integrated while social issues remain fragmented along national lines. I assume you would suggest that with the entry into force of more measures for supranational social policy, the invidious effects of austerity will be ameliorated?
A. The idea is to always treat a political phenomenon in its proper context. To account for its historical drivers and to trace patterns that point to changes further into the future. Yes, that is basically my point. The shortcomings of the EMU are in large part due to its incompleteness. Again though, even once economic and social policy are integrated at the supranational level, we will still need the right political leaders to take decisions in the interests of society at large. The political process is the most important domain. Laws themselves are not sufficient.
D. And avoid sweeping generalisations?
A. That too. By the way, and speaking of dogmas, have I ever described you my epistemological litmus test for engaging in dialectic, in joint research?
C. Keep it short and we should be fine.
A. Dialectic is the method of cooperatively arriving at a greater truth than what either side to the argument initially knew. Participants in dialectic share a common virtue. They are willing to recognise errors in their argument and are eager to abandon their view in favour of a more cogent one. The dialecticians are interested in the truth, not in “winning the argument”. For the dialectician, “losing the argument” actually means being emancipated from a falsehood, which is a net positive. Now about the litmus test. If someone has no intention to ever abandon their view, if their ideas are absolute and perceived as devoid of any flaw or error, then they lack the epistemological virtue necessary for dialectic. They simply cannot be argued with. This virtue is parrhesia, or else boldness to speak one’s mind and courage to recognise errors as well as valid points for their intrinsic qualities instead of who states them.
D. So when someone truly believes in the fatalistic notion of neoliberalism being ingrained in the EU architecture?
A. They fail to see that they could further improve their knowledge, or to escape from their fallacies, were they be willing to engage in dialectic. In other words to be exposed to a different thinking process, to conduct further research, and to critically assess their formerly held position.
Mr. Biermann. Sir, you must be fun at parties. Pay the bill please. I must close the cashier. There is no alternative!
The Dialogues on EU politics is a different take on my corpus of political analysis. I have used fictional characters to convey my ideas in a dialogical format. My hope is that the dialogue is more entertaining to read than a series of essays. Perhaps it also turns out to be more didactic.
I find the dialogue superior to the essay in at least one important respect. It makes the thinking process more evident. Apart from the actual arguments, one can follow along with the rationale. It thus is possible that readers will arrive at different conclusions than the ones presented herein. That is a feature of the dialogical format I much appreciate.
The Dialogues is, for the most part, a piece of theoretical work. It is rather abstract. There are relatively few references to day-to-day political issues, party politics, and the kind of affairs that influence the agenda. I think a blog is better suited for technical analyses on rapidly evolving states of affairs. A book seems more appropriate for inquiries into the structure of things, the patterns, the qualities that remain constant or which are less likely to change over extended periods of time. Bar some allusions to current events, this book can be read in the summer of 2017 or in 2020 and still be relevant. That is how I would like it to be.
ECB independence: concept, scope, and implications. My full review of the European Central Bank’s role and conduct. Published on April 2, 2017. [^]