Simon Usherwood / Feb 2016
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. Photo: European Union
I’ve just starting teaching my first-year undergraduate module on European integration. It’s always a happy time, as I explain how simple it is to grasp, and the students stare back in disbelief. Even my suggestion that things were going to be super-easy this year because of all the information floating around the British referendum was met with a degree of scepticism.
The thing I’ve always liked about this module is that it forces me to go back to basics, to focus on the core ideas at work in the European Union, so that I can then build on them with the class.
Alongside from the (doubtless first of many) reminders that the Council of Europe is not the same as the European Council, we talked about the start of the post-war period of European integration. I do this not to sell the conventional story of the grand progress of a European project, but to point out that what we have is a product of blockages, compromises and contingent responses to contingent events. In short, there never has been any inevitability about the European Union, let alone any of that famous finalité politique (as my profs in Bruges liked to talked about).
But one point that did leap out as we talked about principles and ideas were the notions of equality and non-discrimination. I’m talking here about the level of member states, rather than of individuals, although one can easily see how the two levels fit together and reinforce each other.
One of the reasons why the European Defence Community fell in the early 1950s was that the equality of member states was not respected: West Germany had to put all its military capacity under international control, while the others only had to put part. That might have made a degree of sense in a time of growing Soviet pressure and of persistent French unease about a Germany state with weapons, but still not enough to make it actually happen. Indeed, it marks the last time that such an imbalanced treaty got anywhere in Europe.
This notion of equal sovereign rights and status still holds a powerful place in the EU today. Witness the degree to which treaty reforms have sought to avoid any suggestion – legally, if not politically – that multi-speed Europe is actually variable geometry Europe. All policy developments are open to all member states and there is always some degree of pressure for all member states to work towards being part of all policy areas.
It is also very visible in the discussions about British membership. Donald Tusk’s letter outlining his package of proposals made this very clear, talking of not being willing to compromise the core principles of the Union while trying to find scope for accommodating the UK’s objectives.
Thus the relationship between euro zone ins and outs is to be shaped by mutual respect rather than anything that might be construed as a veto. The safeguard mechanism on access to in-work benefits is a temporary restriction, controlled by the Council, rather than placed in the hands of any one member state. And even if ‘ever closer union’ doesn’t carry any obligation by itself to further integration, member states still have to abide by all the other, more specific provisions of the treaties.
In short, and to misuse the hollow phrase from British politics of recent years, we’re all in this together.
But are we really?
As Tusk’s letter also reminds us, the UK has already got the most extensive set of opt-outs of any member state - from the euro to Schengen to police and judicial cooperation – and other member states also present a very mixed bag. The British media had a minor moment when they discovered the Danish protocol on property purchases from the Maastricht treaty, taking it as proof that anything is possible, especially if the UK were to be as lack about implementation as some other member states. Ask any pan-EU company if the internal market is complete and you’ll discover soon enough that the gaps – even if narrower than before – still remain.
Parity of member states has always been something of a fiction, a rhetorical device to demonstrate good faith between partners, but its limits have also been clear. In decision-making, some states count for much more than others, even when we talk about unanimity. Likewise, the capacity of the Commission – or anyone else, for that matter – to check full compliance with legislation is limited, the work often being effectively farmed out to those prepared to bring cases to the Court.
We might argue that the old vision of some more clearly federal system has been parked and we are now in an era of a muddled getting-by: who would go for another constitutional convention these days? The euro crisis has shown how far we are prepared to go down the route of ad hoc solutions, riding in and out of the Union’s institutional framework. In the absence of a masterplan, we do what we have to, however that might look.
The big question is whether that means we are also ready to give up what coherence we currently have. Even if the UK doesn’t end up with anything more than Tusk’s proposed package, we do not have to look far to find others who would ask for special treatment, or who might have special treatment given to them.
Do we accept that we are all different and that this means a much more mixed bag, or do we stress instead our commonalities, our shared vocation?
There is no easy answer to this, but unless we acknowledge that it is a question, we are likely to continue to find ourselves in an organisation that fails to achieve anything. That might make for some great discussion points for my class, but it’s no reason at all to condone this sorry state of affairs.