Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bickerton on EU Integration

Chris Bickerton has an interesting piece on EU integration and the Irish vote. For him, the politics of the EU represents neither a revival of class struggle at the European level nor a battle between nationalists and transnationalists. It is rather a crisis of democracy: "The EU embodies a vision of politics widespread in Europe, in which the relation between citizens and their leaders is one not of representation but of trust and faith." Trust us, the leaders say, and everything will turn out well. A new vote in Ireland would be, he argues, an expression of this view: you got it wrong the first time, the Irish people will be told, but we'll give you a second chance to get it right. This is not the way a democratic Europe ought to operate.

All this is quite true, but it does raise the question of how we get to the more representative Europe that Chris would like to see from where we are now. The institutional reforms embodied in the Lisbon Treaty are not likely to move things very far along, but neither is simple insistence that "the [Irish, Czech, Polish, French, or Dutch] people have spoken, now let's get on with real democratic reforms in lieu of this elite politicking," especially if getting on with it has to be done in a context of dismally unpromising institutions. The EU is caught in an impasse: without effective representative institutions, European elections and referenda become mere sounding boards for domestic discontent. Voters can discharge their wrath without serious consequences, because the "economic" EU will continue to function as before, while the embryonic "political" EU will continue its interminable gestation, awaiting the convulsion that will finally make its birth inevitable. Yet even with a convulsion of the requisite dimensions now looming ahead, is there any reason to believe that the obvious need for greater policy coordination will lead to democratic reform? What coordination there has been has been entirely intergovernmental, even interministerial, while at the political level the sauve qui peut instinct gives every sign of carrying the day.

6 comments:

cjb said...

I would certainly agree that the EU is caught in an impasse today. However, I don't think this impasse is one how to reform the EU in order to make it compatible with more representative politics. I think the present moment exposes the incompatibility between the EU and a democratic politics of representation. I wouldn't agree either that there is any "obvious need for greater policy coordination". As you say, the economic plan is made up of national plans. In other policy areas (farming, fisheries etc.) collective policymaking is less effective than individual national strategies, since at the EU level policy outputs are a product of attempting to calibrate internal political relationships more than anything else. What the present situation really presents us with is a challenge to the assumptions that underpin the understanding of democracy presented to us by the EU's modes of decision making (lack of transparency, reliance on expertise, neo-corporatist participation) etc. The question I think is more that of alternatives to the EU than ways of reforming or modifying the EU itself.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Fair enough, but I'd like to hear more about your alternative. One might make an analogy between the EU as it exists today and the Confederation of American states that preceded the drafting of the United States constitution. Now, the U.S. Constitution was in certain particular ways a less democratic document than many of the state constitutions it subsumed. Nevertheless, it arguably began a process of democratization that ultimately led to greater minority protections as well as more effective economic management. To have relied on "individual national [in the US case, state] strategies" would have led to an inferior outcome, in my view. So I need to know more about what alternative you have in mind.

Louis said...

I think the analogy you draw, Art, only goes that far. There was in the Confederation of American States a group whose conviction it was that the relevant level of organization and efficiency was the "federal" level. They drove the idea and saw it through, creating this combination of federal and regional political and economic levels that is the United States. It was as much a manifestation of political will as the result of an assessment of what was good for everybody.
To a large extent, there is no such will in Europe. Everybody knows what would be an economically and possibly politically relevant, more efficient, more stable level of economic governement. But there is no common conception, no political will. The national level stands in the way, as the main level of economic, political, social identification. To find an efficient solution to a common problem is not the main incentive here.
As to alternatives, they seem to be shaping under our eyes: it will be a re-nationalization of the EU system for the time being, with the Commission acting as a secretariat of the Council. I am convinced that this is, to take your words, an inferior outcome (and, to take the point of cjb, a less "transparent" one as well...). But I do not see what else could come. Not that it will make much difference, it will just emphasize one aspect of this strange apparatus that is the EU.

cjb said...

I would agree with Louis, and perhaps go a bit further. You are right Art that some of what was proposed by the Federalists in 1788 was a step away from the more directly democratic state constitutions. But Madison and others were - for that reason - explicit about what legitimized their own project, namely the principle of popular sovereignty. Whether the framers were being disingenuous or not when they stole that principle from the anti-federalists, the point is that they needed it as the basis for the proposed constitution and as the source of legitimacy for their version of the separation of powers. As Louis points out, there is no such equivalent pan-European political will. But rather than see the national as the constraint, I'd say we are seeing an emptying out of national politics but the birth of nothing (pan-European) to replace it, which leaves us in this rather unclear no-mans-land, where the only things that is new is a very undemocratic clubby world of national and Brussels-based elites.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Fair enough, but "clubby world of ... elites" could describe much of US politics at the national level up to the time of Jackson. I'm caricaturing, to be sure, but it did take time to evolve a truly federal politics. Still, your point that the pan-European political will is lacking is a powerful one. Might it be, though, that economic crisis will bring such a will forth? Remember, it was the inability of the states to pay accumulated debt that did in the Articles of Confederation. European states are about to take on unprecedented levels of debt, and they are bound by a common currency more tightly than the American states were in their early years of existence.

cjb said...

You are right that the clubby character of the European Council meetings hardly distinguishes the EU. But I think that what is distinctive is that rather than being an aberration (a decline of a properly federal politics) this is in fact the very essence of EU politics. The clubbiness is celebrated as a form of deliberative democracy. At least in the US the formal standard of representative politics is there against which the reality can be judged and denounced if found wanting. There is no such redress in the EU. On the question of political will, I do agree with Vedrine and Manent, but with the caveat that what holds a European political will back today is not the resilience of national wills but the lack of any forward movement transcending them. Nationalism in Europe is hardly in the ascendant, and yet there is nothing superceding it. On another note, the front page of Marianne is pretty striking: an example of the populist turn of the French left, attacking the rich under the theme of who is going to have a good Christmas.