Debate: Let the Germans clean up Europe
26 April 2012
Instead of dreaming about a federal union which would be at the mercy of countries that are democratic and economic underperformers, a Dutch political scientist argues that we would do better to reinforce the role of more efficiently functioning states and allow them to take care of business.
Now that the financial crisis has been provisionally banished from the horizon, we have been treated to a number of prudently voiced ideas about the future of the European Union. This is particularly the case in Germany where the debate appears to be well underway. Angela Merkel wants to replace the Lisbon treaty and implement “major structural reforms”, while Minister for Foreign Affairs, Guido Westerwelle, has announced that he is in favour of a new “European constitution” with reinforced integration.
At the same time, in the columns of De Volkskrant, MEP Sophie in't Veld [a member of the Dutch social-liberal party, Democrats 66] has argued for a “powerful political union”, an end to vetoes, and a European Commission president who is elected by direct suffrage.
All of these well-known recipes have been once again been whipped out of the old federalist suggestion box, at a time when it should really be stowed away in an attic somewhere. In the course of the financial crisis, Germany has effectively shown that that its economic and political might can be turned to Europe’s advantage. And it is for this reason that several of the principles which provided the basis for postwar European integration are largely outmoded.
The first of these is the idea that European integration is necessary to control Germany. This consideration was certainly legitimate in the immediate aftermath of the war; but we should also note that the control of Germany via supranational European institutions was primarily an expression of French economic interests.
Within the common market, the European treaties served to protect French agriculture and industry from the dynamism of German exports. For decades, in a bid to atone for its sins and under moral pressure from France, the Federal Republic consented to act as Europe’s purser.
Weaker member states
In the course of the financial crisis, it has been increasingly obvious that European leaders of national governments are the main decision makers in Brussels. In the European hierarchy, the European Council is Europe’s board of management, and Herman Van Rompuy is its secretary, while Commission President José Manuel Barroso is his assistant.
With this in mind, the suggestion that we should a elect a Commission President through universal suffrage, which has been put forward by the neo-federalists in Berlin and Strasbourg, is quite odd. It would be much more logical to continue to reinforce the European Council, while at the same time obtaining guarantees for smaller countries.
A “political union” may appear attractive, but it would inevitably include weaker member states, which have not distinguished themselves in the fight against fraud and corruption, or in the bid for greater pluralism, openness and press freedom. France and Italy, for example, the Eurozone’s major economies after Germany, have been described as “flawed democracies” rather than “full democracies” by the American NGO Freedom House.
In view of the conflict of interest between government and media in the country [under the rule of Berlusconi], Italy was rated as “partially free”, a category that included two other EU members Bulgaria and Romania, along with such countries as Indonesia and Bangladesh.
The ratings attributed to the Netherlands with regard to these criteria are significantly higher than the European average. According to Freedom House, we have the most effective parliamentary democracy in the 17-country Eurozone (the evaluation was conducted in 2010 and thus takes into account populist Geert Wilders’ support for the government). So it would not be tempting for the Netherlands to share power in Brussels with countries which are barely efficient in terms of democracy and the exercise of power.
Fewer federal elements
When the agenda is restricted to trade and the composition of chocolate bars, these differences do not amount to an insurmountable problem. But that would certainly not be the case if there was a fully fledged political union in which member states with democracies that leave much to be desired were in the majority and could thus impose their decisions on taxes, the budget and pensions.
And that is not to mention how such a situation might impact legislation on euthanasia, and other issues that are close to our hearts in the Netherlands, which could be easily be blocked by veto. In Berlin, there is a growing realisation that Germany can and should take on the role of European leader. Ulrike Guérot, of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank has spoken of a German awakening and even of a German “catharsis”.
However, she shied away from drawing the logical conclusion: such a leadership would imply a new organisation for European cooperation, which would have to include fewer federal elements so as to allow greater space for the best qualified European states to combine their strengths in an open global economy.
We should not allow the political structuring of future cooperation to be sabotaged by allusions to Germany’s past during the war. Berlin and Strasbourg will have to wake up to this reality.