On the merits of European integration

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On July 23, I wrote an essay on left-wing euroscepticism. The gist of my argument was that the left cannot afford to adopt a principled stance against the idea of European unification. Based solely on the magnitude of tweets I received—a rather inadequate indicator—my impression is that it resonated well with, among others, some people in the United Kingdom.

Given the forthcoming referendum on Europe, this should not come as a surprise: citizens are holding a public debate on the merits of European integration, the scope, quality, and outlook thereof, for the purpose of ultimately reaching a decision on what they really want to pursue.

Notwithstanding the individual narratives on either side, the very process of deliberation is in itself interesting and fecund. I write so from the perspective of someone who has spent part of their life in countries that have, in my [perhaps misinformed] opinion, not committed sufficient time and effort to the evaluation of European integration: Greece and Cyprus.

For instance, a noticeable part of the Greek population treats arguments against the euro as akin to heresy, with former Minister of Finance, Mr. Yanis Varoufakis, being accused by some for high treason. On which facts is such overzealous support for the euro based on? Favourable interest rates? Full employment? Prosperity? Improved democratic institutions? Increased leverage or influence in Europe’s “core”?

These questions are rhetorical and not germane to the present essay, my point being that public dialogue is intrinsically good: it is the quintessence of a properly functioning democracy, while its absence or degeneration into witch hunting can only lead to detrimental effects, at least over the medium-to-long term.

To that end, I here elaborate on the part of my perspective on Europe that was not presented in the aforementioned essay (although it is traceable in a series of analyses I have written over the past weeks). Namely, the principled support for European unification as well as the distinction between a European Democracy and the self-serving telos of an “ever-closer Union”.

My intention is to suggest that substance has to take precedence over form: democracy is a prerequisite, it must come before anything else, including integration that appears to be for its own sake.

Between global and intermediate objectives

Political change occurs in time, without being a function of time (it is inter-subjectively instituted, it is not a natural/secular force). People pursue ends that can have several phases, each producing varying results such as short term gains and long term pains. The European integration process is one such case: a concatenation of events spanning several decades, with positives and negatives to be discerned throughout the years.

There are global and intermediate objectives. The former concern the ultimate end, while the latter are instrumental for pursuing it. The global objective of European integration has never been rendered concrete. Instead it has been deliberately shrouded in vagueness: “ever-closer union”.

While the global objective of European integration has not been clear, the intermediate objectives have been quite specific, and all are of the same sort: a firmer grip on power from the supra-national political stratum, achieved through the transfer of competences from the Member States to the Community level.

This shift first occurred as a modest and rather innocuous harmonisation of trade provisions in specific categories of commodities. It later expanded to a single market predicated on the free movement of goods, labour, services, and capital. It was eventually made manifest in the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).

Though the trend is clearly pointing towards the centralisation of all meaningful power on the policies over which the Union is competent, it still remains unclear what the plan for the future is.

The intermediate objective of the euro

While sharing many features with previous steps in the integration process, the introduction of the euro deserves attention of its own due to the important modal differences between a looser form cooperation (the EU) and a system of shared responsibility (the EMU).

The euro is perhaps the first case where the global objective is hinted at: a “political union” of sorts. The single currency was supposed to accelerate the process of making incremental steps towards an “ever-closer union”. It was internally perceived as the economic means for pursuing the end of political unification: a catalyst in the acceleration of the European integration process.

In splendid elitist style, the euro was touted to the public as yet another “technical” measure for improving the living standards of ordinary people. However, the citizens ought to have provided their explicit consent and ongoing commitment to the project, for contrary to the regulation of, say, tariffs, the single currency ramifies to most if not all areas of social and economic policy.

The state whose currency is the euro no longer has monetary sovereignty, both to adapt gracefully to the trade cycle and to always rely on a lender of last resort. Fiscal policy is severely constrained courtesy of the Stability and Growth Pact, the Two-Pack and Six-Pack of regulations, as well as the Fiscal Compact. All while the single market prohibits, at least in principle, any restrictions on the movement of capital, which could have been considered as a reliable instrument in a concerted effort to tackle high profile tax avoidance (fiscal engineering), or mitigate unsustainable capital flows.

Whatever one may think of Syriza, the radical leftist party heading the governing coalition in Greece, the fact is that their brand of leftism is incompatible with the EMU architecture. Even keynesian-style economic policy is practically prohibited, let alone anything more ambitious for the role of the state to ameliorate consistent market failures and try to eliminate social inequalities.

The euro is a stateless currency in that it is not underpinned by a genuine republic representing the interests of the system at-large, without disregarding the particular needs of each of its parts.

Though pessimistic about its prospects, I am of the opinion that in spite of its current flaws the EMU can be democratised and be made socially sustainable by the establishment of a European Democracy. This however is but a mental exercise of trying to identify the most optimal state of affairs in an otherwise hypothetical scenario. It is based on the assumption that future integration will engender forms of democratic rule that are comparatively preferable to current paradigms.

I fear though this is not [likely to be] the case. The latest official statement of intent, the so-called Five Presidents’ report for the completion of the EMU, which I have already criticised (see here and here), is firmly rooted in the approach that has made the single currency what it is: a quasi-confederal order that is debasing national democratic life without compensating it with a greater Euro-level democracy.

Instead of making a bold step forward, the five presidents clung on to the failing, albeit vaunted, traditions of the euro’s architects. Their vision for at least another decade of integration is to reinforce the technocratic structures of the EMU; to iterate on the process of diminishing the scope of action for elected governments; to realise the vivid imagination that there are no alternatives to the pensée unique. Is that something we want, need, or have had a debate on?

Ever-closer union: a false global objective

A principled support for Europe is inseparably attached to a firm commitment to democracy. By “democracy” in this very context I mean two things:

  1. The traditional understanding of self rule and popular sovereignty as is made manifest, at least in principle, in nation states;
  2. A trans-border state of affairs, a modally novel democracy as compared to that of the nation state.

[Also see Normative aspects of the future European Democracy]

Put differently, European integration is desirable insofar as it nurtures a European Democracy and, conversely, it is not good when it is pursued or realised at the expense of [the very capacity for] democracy. The specifics of the euro, have clearly demonstrated that what the supra-national level actually represents is a quasi-confederal technocracy.

Because “technocracy” may seem prima facie too exaggerated and tendentious a claim, allow me to elaborate on its specifics:

  • dual heteronomy: heteronomy is the opposite of autonomy, it is when rules are exogenous to those who are supposed to implement and live by them. In the case of the EMU, we come to understand that no parliament, be it the European or any national one, can conduct an ex post review of the legal framework governing the single currency. As for governments, none can pursue an economic policy that is suited to its specific, circumstantial needs, since the rules are binding in nature and of an effective constitutional force.
  • quasi-permanence: in contradistinction to any given republic, the “constitution” of the EU/EMU, the Treaties, cannot be amended unless all Member States agree to the need for them to change. Then the prospect of “constitutional” reform hinges on the situational power relations between states. Interests coagulate along national lines rather than the typical ideological divides of right versus left (and permutations in between). This is in stark contrast to ordinary procedures for amending an independent country’s constitutional order.
  • sovereignty mismatch: while each Member State is democratic, their sum is not, for no European Demos has outright legitimised the supra-national level of authority, while no single European government exists to be held accountable to a European body politic. This is a reflection of Europe’s paradigm of what I consider to be “common rules without common politics”, where “governance” is joint/common, while legitimacy and accountability are several/separate, limited to each Member State.

I can think of no better term than “technocracy” to describe a supra-national level—a quasi-confederal stratum—that is neither a democracy nor an oligarchy. This is not an indictment towards any given group of situational agents or patients. It is a critique of the structures conditioning their behaviour.

Technocracy is the inevitable outcome of an incomplete pseudo-constitutional order that prioritises rules (technical aspects) over politics (normative aspects). Apart from the emergent conditions contributing to the effective technocratisation of the broader edifice, there exists a very specific ideological tendency for the de-politicisation of legal provisions, especially when these are peculiar to economic governance (e.g. the excessive institutional independence of the ECB, or the Maastricht criteria of 3% budget deficit and 60% public debt).

Couched in those terms, I find the notion of an “ever-closer union” to be highly problematic. It represents the typical quantitative approach to rule formation that has ushered in the euro, i.e. the method of integration that continues on the path of legal harmonisation without being underpinned by an outright commitment to the creation of a genuine European Democracy.

Instead of relying on nebulous terms that can open up a broad sluice gate for the introduction of questionable authority, let us speak of clear global objectives: a European republic or, if that is not possible or wanted by fellow citizens, a looser form of inter-state cooperation limited to some kind of a common market.

Integration with representation

My understanding is that inexorable European unification is not a good in itself. It shall partake of goodness only when it is instrumental in the creation of a European Democracy founded on a codified constitution that is outright approved by plebiscite.

The positive proposition can be analysed thus:

  • The global objective is a European Democracy, which for practical purposes will be designed as a federation;
  • Any intermediate objective must always contribute to that end.

Then the negative proposition is:

  • A global objective that deviates from democracy is undesirable as it deprives citizens even from the type of self-rule they would otherwise exercise at the national level;
  • Intermediate objectives can only strengthen and calcify existing states of affairs, in particular the quasi-confederal technocracy.

To rephrase the Bostonian slogan, I support “integration with representation”: a democratic transformation that is scrupulous not impetuous. I can fathom no promising future, at least not in normative terms, in the self-valorising process of integration qua “ever-closer union”.

What we currently have, especially the EMU, has been derailed from our expectations and aspiration as citizens of otherwise democratic states. This Union, as it currently stands, has to be excoriated for debasing democracy and be lauded for whatever material goods it delivers. It is a matter of constructive criticism and of putting things back on track.

PS. I would like to thank my friend @hughbs for his fruitful comments. Whatever errors herein are my own.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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