EU integration and "German Europe"

We should always keep things in perspective

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Hans Kundnani has a thoughtful analysis of what he perceives as the troubling transformation of the EU (March 28, 2018). The thrust of his argument is that reforms in recent years have amplified the influence of Germany, while the EU is being refashioned as an IMF-like body for rule enforcement. Pro-europeans, he opines, need to be aware of the content and consequences of the European integration process. Clinging on to the simplistic narrative of “more Europe” as a necessary good in itself, does not help the cause of a united Europe, because it ultimately benefits German interests.

Kundnani’s advice for looking into the specifics is sound. It calls for the need to keep an open mind, to see things as they actually stand in European politics. One can relate to that by thinking about the centrality of austerity in the reform of Europe’s economic governance. The focus is on fiscal solidity and macroeconomic competitiveness, which all too often translate into structural reforms for the purposes of internal devaluation.

Still, Kundnani’s salient point of an inexorable shift to a more “German Europe” requires further scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that what has always prevailed in Europe is a well defined economic ideology as well as a vision for a certain mode of integration that should not be equated to Germany.

On the economic ideology front, the European integration process has always been about the economy first. This is not something that came about circa 2008. The project’s original goal since the 1950s was the establishment of a single market. In the 1990s, when the European Economic Community turned into the European Union, the driver for Europe’s next step towards unification was monetary union: the euro. To this day, there is little doubt that, in practice, economic affairs are the single most important item on the agenda.

The economy-centric reality of the European integration process reveals the practical morality of economic conservatism. Social outcomes are a function of market activity, where individuals as free willing agents [ought to] reap the rewards or suffer the consequences of their choices/actions. The role of the state is primarily to provide the means for the rule of law, particularly as regards the protection of property and the orderly functioning of economic activity. Whatever social functions the state may perform—any corrective measure—should not undermine economic stability.

At the European level, this prevailing morality is combined in a selective way with the principle of the equality of nation states. Each Member State is expected to bear responsibility for its domestic affairs, without reference to the system-wide parameters or emergent phenomena of the integration process. In the EU, the ethos of individualism carries over to the relationship between the European and the national level and between Member States themselves, as nations are considered discrete units. Europe is supposed to be united when it comes to the making and the enforcement of rules, but not when certain states of affairs can be conceived as purely domestic issues, in line with political expedience.

Which brings us to the mode of integration that is being pursued: differentiated integration, or else a multi-speed, multi-tier Europe. Again, this is not something new. It can be traced back to the early days of the project. At its core, differentiated integration rests on the premise that Europe is a platform where individual nation states are free to associate with each other. The form of the association may vary, depending on the prevailing circumstances, the policy concerned, and the European acquis. The impetus for furthering the integration process or for deepening it comes from the Member States, be it by means of amending the Treaties or making policy that starts from the European Council and involves the Council of the EU as co-legislator.

Differentiated integration is enshrined in the Treaties. The equality of states and their primacy in the European integration process is the view that underpins the principle of conferral and which defines the EU as an agent of the collective will of the Member States (basically what governs the distribution of competences in the EU).

More “Europe à la carte” than “German Europe”

Both the underlying economic thinking of the EU and the mode of integration that is being pursued hitherto point at phenomena that transcend the narrative of a “German Europe”. These are constants that have, at times, benefited different countries. Think about how the Common Agricultural Policy has historically been geared towards appeasing French farmers, or how the United Kingdom is an EU member while enjoying all sorts of benefits, the exaggerations of ‘hard’ brexiteers notwithstanding.

Couched in those terms, we can indeed recognise that German influence has increased considerably in recent years, mainly due to the rebalancing of power caused by the euro crisis. But we only do so with the proviso that there is nothing inherently “German” about the broader architecture. It has been like that all along and the intention is for it to remain that way.

The idea of a “German Europe” becomes plausible because of the euro crisis. It still leaves something to be desired though. It equates Germany to fiscal discipline as if (i) only the German government holds those views, and (ii) the circumstances of the politics of the euro crisis are irrelevant. Everything has to evaluated in its proper historical context, else risk false generalisations.

One may wonder about the propriety of referring to a “French Europe” once the eventuality of a European army of sorts comes about. France will still want to be the vanguard in all the places where it operates, while also spearheading the relevant EU-level policy framework.

Speculation aside, the point is that the EU is functioning along the lines of “Europe on demand”, of picking and choosing the set of rules and criteria that fit the consensus for each case. Look at the whole discussion of the vaunted “European values” and how these are threatened with jeopardy in Hungary and Poland. While the European Commission and the Parliament are doing their best to restore those values, little progress is made exactly because it all ultimately depends on the Member States.

Is the notion of a “German Europe” sufficiently descriptive of such cases? I think not.

Escaping differentiated integration

The point is—and most Europeanists understand that—only further integration can ameliorate the downsides of “Europe à la carte”. Only by creating the necessary institutional arrangements and by revising the distribution of competences in the EU can we hope for a transition to a European democracy.

This is not about the vacuous notion of “more Europe”, but of enhancing parliamentary democracy at the European level. The core problem is the centrality of the nation state in the EU architecture. We still cling on to the Westphalian view of international affairs, even though the integration process itself is a prime example of global politics moving away from the paradigms of early modernity.

I believe that in the long run it would be more interesting and fecund to question the underlying assumptions of the European integration process. Though not by means of negation, of being against whatever country or set thereof happens to have the upper hand in a given area of policy. Instead, we should reflect on how we could do more together as Europeans.

Reforming the EU is a prerequisite for improving quotidian politics. The “bigger picture” should not be ignored however. Unless the EU becomes self aware of the emergent forms of sovereignty that develop from the integration process—unless it overcomes the Westphalian worldview—we will always come back to the problem of a country’s [perceived] hegemony over the rest of Europe.