The result of the referendum in Ireland sparked various comments whose quality largely depends on how people perceive the European Union. It was the same after the unsuccessful referendums held in France and the Netherlands a couple of years ago. The voices stating the bad things in the European Union and saying what makes it so unpopular in many member states are plenty. Unpopularity is naturally taken as a negative political value. However, what does that tell us about the European Union itself?
The European Union is a political project founded on the idea that by broadening market freedoms the security zone in Europe is being strengthened. The political and legal boundaries of that project need to be determined during the widening and deepening of the integration process, that is to say – based on experience and learning from mistakes. The political integration is the object, but there is nothing more specific than that.
What should the purpose of the European Union be? The basic public good that it should supply the member countries with is security. The way to achieve that is based on understanding the European history, above all the previous century, and in comprehending the modern political thought, namely the liberal thought, the Enlightenment thought and the rationalistic one. This basic idea is in accordance with Kant’s idea of a perpetual peace. It is about a political system, a Union, where sovereignty belongs to member states, but it is taken in the negative sense: as a responsibility to protect the individual freedoms of their citizens and the citizens of the European Union. What does that actually mean?
In regard to security, the European Union is founded on an understanding that the greatest risks to the European peoples and states are in fact posed by the European peoples and states, be they from inter-European wars, or from opposing imperial interests or finally from totalitarian, above all nationalistic ideologies. In what way does the European Union eliminate or attempt to eliminate all those dangers?
First of all, by turning international politics into domestic politics. The direct to that would be the forming of a federal state. However, as Kant had argued, that could be dangerous to the freedom of individuals and nations. Therefore, what was set out was the liberalization of commerce and the creation of a network of contracts which bind them based on the well known rule of four kinds of freedom relating to: the commodities market, the financial market, labor market and services market. This is the liberal idea that free trade makes wars unnecessary and useless, above all wars between the European states and nations.
Along with the contracts and agreements also comes the forming of appropriate institutions which should provide the political conditions for the deepening of commercial integration, but should also attend to the process of enlargement of the European Union. The European Union grew from 6 founding states to the current number of 27 states. And the sole idea of the Union is that all European states, defined by political geography or maybe even some other qualities, have a right to apply for membership.
This free trade zone should eliminate the danger of armed conflicts between the European states. The next important characteristic in the construction of the European Union is that the outer sovereignty, unlike the one in federal states, is left to the member countries. While the free market and political space internalizes the relations between the European states, the decision not to transfer the responsibility for outer security to the European Union but to leave it to the member states has for a consequence that they cannot have imperialistic goals. This may be easier to see if it is shown in a negative way.
Namely, the European Union cannot have hostile relations with anyone, because it does not have a unified foreign policy or its own ground forces. By that it indirectly restrains member countries from having hostile relations with countries outside the Union. It also stops them from having imperialistic goals. The decentralization of foreign and domestic security policy disables the European Union as a whole to engage in resolving international problems by force, and any single member state will threaten the safety of other member states if it would fall in with a policy of force anywhere in the world. This other thing is not entirely ruled out, except in the relations between the member countries. But the political price of that choice had seriously grown.
By forming the European Union not only is a great part of Europe being pacified, and potentially the whole of Europe, but the Union itself can engage in peaceful relations with the rest of the world, and that practically includes the member states themselves. Again that is in accordance with Kant’s philosophy that with the growth of the zone of peace grows everyone’s interest in peace, inside and beyond the pacified part of the world.
Finally, by forming the Union which above all has an obligation to widen the zones of freedom, the inner impulses for totalitarianism and authoritarianism are being held back. Furthermore, there was a significant loosening up of ideological disputes, which are largely responsible for inner and outer totalitarianism, above all the nationalistic one. It being almost futile if it is not aggressive toward other countries and peoples, the ideological social movements with those goals cannot be politically successful in EU member states. And in fact, at least up to now, totalitarian movements and parties were neither successful in the old nor in the enlarged European Union, and the populist movements are not getting great results.
From all this you can see what is characteristic of the European Union: it provides its member states with a central common good which is security, but above all in a negative way – by making the member states responsible of their own sovereignty, and not by taking over their sovereign responsibilities. That is also in accordance with Kant’s idea of cosmopolitanism, and this idea of confederation was promoted by Hayek too.
This kind of structure of the Union makes it popular up to association but not later. On the one hand it is because it redefines the meaning of sovereignty of the member states, which is frustrating, because parts of the public are asking why, if they live in a sovereign state, can they not make decisions not caring about others? On the other hand, all changes instigate distrust, because the public in member states is not ready to transfer the authority to the Union, being that it does not correspond with the idea that the union contributes the public good in a negative and not in an activist way – that it does that as a commercial and a political system and not as a state, to put it in those terms. Because of that the suggestions which are perceived as raising the center’s authority and which are not in directly connected to commercial freedoms or to the European and global public goods, are being disapproved from the member countries’ public. Not all of them are, though, but the question why there are such differences I will leave aside here.
This kind of structure of the European Union finds resistance from both the left and the right. From the left because the Union is not democratic enough. But the growth of direct influence would damage their national sovereignty, and this is exactly what the citizens do not want, at least not the citizens of the countries which voted against the constitutional reforms in the Union. Then again, from the right comes criticism that for the lack of democratic responsibility, the European Union is too bureaucratized. The main argument is that free trade is enough and that there is no need for a central bureaucracy. This objection extends to the common money, because that way a central European bank is formed, which is also an institution that is not directly connected to the national states and their business policies.
To see how valid these objections are, one should first consider some basic facts. First, how much does the European Union cost? The immediate, fiscal costs are about 1 percent of the European Union’s GDP. Just for comparison, America’s federal budget is somewhere around 20 percent of its GDP. Some federal states have smaller budgets, some larger ones, but they all spend much more money than the European Union. Also, in all those states the central government has a greater role, simply because they have a constitution and a legal system based on it. And that leads to higher bureaucratization on the central government’s level.
If these facts are taken into account, it is clear that the European Union contributes to Europe’s security and stability at a very low price. Paradoxically speaking, it is one more reason for the lack of interest in broadening its authority and increasing its budget, and that leads to the consequence that there is no interest in the democratization of its institutions.
Is that what is sought, let us say from the viewpoint of those who see the idea of Europe in liberal, rationalistic ideas and the ideas of the Enlightenment? The answer is, as far as I am concerned, affirmative. Consider the following question: If the European Union was to have a unified foreign and defense policy, what would its aims be? The Union would be a great, global superpower. Considering the history of major European powers, cautiousness compels us to be cautious of this sort of Union. Also, if the current systems which exist in most European states were to be introduced in the European Union, what would its budget be? And what would it be spent on? Kant believed, as well as some other liberals (or neoliberals) that states should not have a right for deficit financing, because loans are being used for funding wars and other megalomaniacal projects. Also, that the basic public good which a Union of that kind should bring is peace or security, and based on the rule of law and not on military force. And finally, and most importantly, to be a guarantee for the individual freedoms, above all keeping the citizens protected from their own states.
The European Union should reach for those goals, so the unpopularity of alternative suggestions and the mistrust in different political goals is founded in the sole idea of the Union of European states.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic
- I wrote about it in detail after the popular rejection of the constitutional treaty in France and the Netherlands: Vladimir Gligorov, „Wilting Europe“, Wall Street Journal, 13.06.2006. ↑