This article will be the first part of a body of work which I will write in the aim of formulating a coherent set of internal and foreign policies and ideas which will perhaps allow the EU to overcome its current troubles and prosper for the future. I am not labouring under the delusion that policymakers will read this blog and will implement my suggestions-this is written for my own benefit and if someone who has influence in these things should come upon it and think there are good ideas than so much the better.
Right now the EU is in deep crisis. The world is not doing too hot generally, but it seems that Europe is the worst hit (of course ignoring the absurd levels of debt that the USA is actually in). The Union, as an institution which is incredibly complex is also facing complex problems. While I clearly don’t hold all, if any, of the answers, at least to me some things are self evident.
The first step in tackling any problem in the political arena requires strong leadership. Unfortunately, the EU is by definition diametrically opposed to the notion of leadership in the national sense. Such a figure would be instantly opposed by almost all involved. The alternative therefore is to fix the system of leadership which we do have currently as it appears to be deficient in several ways. Running something through a council is ineffective at the best of times but it is necessary when considered in the context of Europe’s ultra violent and divided past. But answer this one question-how is a system designed to be fair and provide decisions which everyone is at least partially happy with supposed to endure when the decision process is so skewed in favour of certain Member States? How long are the rest supposed to go along with this? The system seems to have gotten along fine for a long time, but when the chips are down, no one likes having their fate out of their own hands (and nor should that be the case), which is why the time is finally ripe to challenge Franco-German dominance of the EU.
The logic goes that France and Germany are the biggest contributors into the common pot and therefore should have the most say-this isn’t obviously institutionalised or often verbalised, however this is the thought process which prevents other heads of state from consistently challenging France and Germany over common policy proposals. Naturally, France and Germany don’t always agree and they don’t always get their own way in the Council, especially on highly emotive issues. However they do have a definite degree of dominance over other member states, even other net contributors such as the UK and the Netherlands. There is a degree of fairness to the chief contributors getting slightly more of a say, however the level of disparity is not appropriate. Lets not forget that the Council is far from being the only place where this dominance is expressed-a quick look at the top appointments in the Commission and other institutions will also demonstrate how disproportionate the situation is. Clearly, this cannot continue in the current situation-when times are hard people are a lot less likely to accept being ordered around by a ruling clique. The fact that France and Germany consistently get together to hammer out a common position before summits, with the expectation generally being that whatever they decided will then be adopted (subject to cosmetic changes after they have finishing throwing the occasional bone to Italy, the Netherlands or Spain) is both insulting to the rest of the EU 27 and makes a mockery of the EU decision process. Being the EU’s sugar daddy (especially Germany) surely affords you some perks but should it effectively lead to Europe surrendering itself to France and Germany on a platter. (The irony in Germany’s case of course being that they so recently fought such a bloody war to conquer Europe-they need not have bothered-their cheque book would have done instead).
It is heartening therefore to see something like the Visegrad group emerge. It is good that a large and strong block of member states have appeared who have the capability (if not always the need or desire) to oppose the Franco-German position on key issues. Visegrad is not quite as strong, but it is a start. I read a piece in Stratfor recently which suggested that Bulgaria and Romania should join the Visegrad Group and I for one think that is a sound idea. That will strengthen the bloc enough to ensure that France and Germany cannot steamroll over the council and will provide wavering Member States another strong grouping with which to side if they do not agree with what is being proposed. There are two big problems with such a state of events. Firstly, a face off between France and Germany on the one side and Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (+ Possibly Bulgaria and Romania) will rekindle the old East vs West divide. Furthermore it could lead to a constant stalemate in the council which would cripple EU decision making. This could of course be avoided if the politicians involved act in good faith and do so intelligently. However if we could trust them to do that, then we would not be where we are now in more ways than one. To a large extent the problem with France and Germany dictating policy is that they often do not do so in good faith. Overtly, the idea is always for the benefit of the Union however it is a very naive soul who believes for a second that their individual leaders are not constantly trying to make it so their nations benefit the most. The council is not a place where the common interest takes precedence and that is why we need the Commission. How then are we to believe that any member state could be trusted to make a decision in the common interest? For my part I see that as nonsense. In order to avoid the need for Cold War mk2 in the EU council every member state must be more willing to be robust in the face of Franco-German domination. That won’t be easy, but it must become the norm. Personally I don’t think they hold that much over the rest of the EU 27 as seems to be the common fear. By that I mean, that the relationship is symbiotic. The net payers contribute the vast part of the EU budget and in return get disproportionate representation across the institutions. However, a look at the relative in/out stats for the EU 27 shows that France and Germany’s position is not that unique. While they are the two biggest contributors the difference between them and say Italy in the UK is not vast. While they provide the biggest net amount into the budget when you factor in the money they get back, they are not the most hard done by per capita-those would be the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Should those states also not have a similar say? Moreover since their situation is such, why are they not pushing the status quo harder?
The UK’s case is unique, in the sense that it is the politically strongest member state outside of France and Germany but most “wins” it gets revolve around trying to extricate itself from the day to day life in the Union and from its obligations. Therefore, the UK, which could have been a leader of the EU and a major counterweight to the “Dictat” has instead made itself into a political non-event through its own Euro-skepticism. The way which the UK treats its EU partners means that it could never become a leader in the Union-you cannot lead those who widely despise you. A major PR drive (as well as tackling Euro-skepticism at home) is necessary if the UK is to assume a role in the EU which would benefit both it and the Union as a whole. The other closest possible rival is Italy, who however has genuinely been in agreement with the policies emanating from Paris and Berlin-or at least Silvio Berlusconi has (the two not being quite anonymous). Once he finally, mercifully, goes it may be another story and we may have a genuinely powerful member state with the appetite to have more of a say long term (provided that their economy doesn’t collapse in the mean time).
The reason this is such an issue is that we must get our political process in order before we can successfully deal with our financial problems. In fact our political situation is possibly one of the major roadblocks to fixing the crisis. It should by now be obvious that the approach of brutal austerity and vast bail outs is not working. This is the stance taken by France and Germany and they seem unable or unwilling to consider another approach. The main strength of the EU is its many “heads”-at this stage we should use them all and come up with a better solution than the one being peddled by Paris and Berlin-they have hijacked the EU’s decision making process for too long and what is more, their solutions aren’t helping. The latest, Tobin tax idea is actually quite good but that can’t make up for everything else. Simply put we need all hands on deck to tackle the problems we have and that means Member States need to step up and bring France and Germany down to Earth one way or another.