There is little to doubt that European unity was inspired by the desire for peace after two devastating world wars. With the founding of the European Union this great and noble cause has been obscured and diverted down a different path.
In 1949, the Council of Europe (CoE) was formed to create conditions for peaceful coexistence amongst the Continent’s nations by promoting collaboration across a wide range of areas, including: education, health, environment, culture, crime, child protection, and human rights. Every European country except Belarus and Kosovo has joined the CoE, and many countries in other continents have signed up to its conventions, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, US, and many more.
The Council still exists but a more radical idea became dominant: that competing national interests could be eliminated by creating a single Continental nation. The implicit theory is that a single nation would have a common purpose, that national interests would be subsumed into the supranational interest and future conflict would thereby be avoided. The EU was initiated by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 with the mission statement of “Ever Closer Union”, then going through a number of stages as later treaties initiated further integration. The EU adopted the symbols of the CoE – its logo, flag and anthem – putting the original Council in its shade.
A theory that is pursued regardless of whether there is strong supporting evidence is an ideology and may not achieve its purpose. There are numerous examples of unions that haven’t worked, often resulting in civil wars to achieve separation. A union of willing members may succeed as long as the common endeavours satisfy all, but local identities will still exist and reassert themselves if a majority aren’t satisfied. A majority in the UK did not feel the Union was satisfying their needs but the ideology is so strong it has reacted with reproach and obstruction. So how’s it going elsewhere?
Italy has long seemed unable to rule itself effectively, changing its government almost annually since the war, so it tried outsourcing the responsibility. Regular devaluations of its currency were ended by abandoning the lira for a currency it couldn’t control. Outsourcing hasn’t really changed things except that it has swapped self-government for rulers who put other (and others’) interests to the fore rather than Italy’s own—especially German interests, which are very different.
Although trust in the EU (and Germany) has slumped greatly during the past year, most Italians would still prefer to have euros in their pockets than their own currency, which is hardly surprising in view of its relative strength and stability – so far. After a couple of decades, extrication from the eurozone (EZ) would be difficult but La Liga, which previously threatened to introduce a parallel currency (the mini-BOT), is still supported by around a third of voters and together with other right-wing parties could form a majority, threatening the cohesion of the EZ and the Union itself.
However, another leader has been appointed (not elected) with a track record of keeping plates spinning – Mario (Whatever It Takes) Draghi, ex-president of the European Central Bank. He told the Italian senate, “Supporting this government means agreeing with the irreversibility of the euro, it means agreeing with the prospect of ever closer European integration, which will arrive at a common budget able to sustain countries in times of recession.”
Germany may have an issue with that; what will voters think after Merkel has left office in September? So far she has managed to keep the country on side with the EU, compromising just enough on the debts and deficits of other members. Last week der Spiegel published a survey which showed that about two thirds of her citizens have a lower opinion of the EU than before its vaccine programme descended into a shambles. They blame von der Leyen* rather than Mutti but her successor won’t have the same influence in support of EU policy. The more Eurosceptic AfD gained significant ground against her party at the 2017 elections and represented 12.6% of the electorate.
The first verse of “Lied der Deutschen” is no longer part of the national anthem because “Deutschland über Alles” (Germany above all) has regrettable associations. Citizens everywhere generally put their own country’s interests first so it is not surprising that Germans are reluctant to shoulder the economic burdens of others and the scales are repeatedly tilted in its favour.
France has an even more sceptical electorate. President Macron is an enthusiast for the Union but Marine Le Penn, leader of the National Rally party (previously National Front), is again a close challenger. Presidential elections are due next year. When Macron was asked if the French would vote to leave the EU in the same way as the UK, he said: “Yes. Probably, in a similar context.” He added: “You always take a risk when you ask in a referendum yes or no on a very complicated subject.” (from Macron the Munificent)
Sweden too is fairly sceptical; it lost an ally and the clout of the UK when it chose to leave the EU, the pair had voted the same way 88% of the time on EU matters. The possibility of ‘Swexit’ was often discussed; shortly before the Brexit referendum a Sifo poll showed that 36% wanted to follow whatever UK voters decided, 32% wanted to remain in the EU. The Swedish economy is far smaller than the UK’s and its intra-EU trade (relatively) much greater. but who knows which way the undecided will sway if the EU continues to struggle with the critical issues of Covid, the euro and migration or if Brexit is a success.
We have mentioned only four of the 27 member countries but from Poland in the East to Portugal in the West and from Italy to Ireland many citizens are questioning the objectives, methods and benefits of belonging to the Union. The “different path” is a major distraction, the primary focus is ever closer union and much of the rest is simply virtue signalling.
“Competing national interests” have scarcely diminished further than the CoE achieved, which is clearly demonstrated by recent actions. Sympathy for Ukraine is undermined by the Nordstream2 pipeline which will cut Ukraine’s revenue and allow Russia to threaten its future gas supply. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, just signed with China, assists Germany in its (now) largest export market but completely ignores human rights violations (Uighurs and Hong Kong) and threats (Taiwan), level playing fields (so vital in UK trade relations) and intellectual property theft. The carbon reduction agenda is going nowhere in Germany which is opening new (filthy lignite) coal mines. There have been squabbles over migration, personal protection equipment and vaccine purchases. “Local identities” are asserting themselves.
As for “supranational interests”, these are scarcely liberal and enlightened. Why does the Union threaten a disenchanted ex-member rather than focus on its supposed aim of promoting peace and harmony in Europe? Protection from competition is its foremost concern through tariffs and trade barriers, including with developing nations; they seek to rival the US, Russia and China rather than improve international freedom and fairness. There is more genuine virtue in the conventions of the CoE, though its work has not been strengthened and nor has that of international organisations like the WTO.
It seems unlikely that the EU can achieve its actual objective, let alone its nominal ones, without major changes. Perhaps a strong leader will replace its collections of misfits—a Xi Jinping (or Napoleon)–to enforce integration. It may instead break apart with serious consequences for many. Or it might re-examine its goals and become more like its suppressed sibling, the Council of Europe, but with knobs on to give it more oompf.
The “different path” is a major distraction; the primary focus is ever closer union and much of the rest is virtue signalling, e.g. the ‘green’ agenda.
There are many “competing national interests” (e.g. vaccines, PPE, China accord, Nordstream 2, rule of law). And these leave many unanswered questions, including:
- What are the “supranational interests”?
- Would there have been a major Continental/World war without the EU?
- Are “local identities” likely to reassert themselves
- Why does the Union threaten a disenchanted ex-member rather than focus on its supposed aim of promoting peace and harmony in Europe (and beyond)?
* Ursula von der Leyen was appointed Commission President over the expressed wishes of the European Parliament. Her reputation for administrative competence was low in Germany even before the appointment but this is never an obstacle for EU preferment.