Chatty book commentary: for a concentric, fuzzy, and differently democratic European Union

December 29, 2007


2007, to which we are now saying good-by, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the founding document of the European Union.

2007 was a year of crisis for the EU: it needed to find a way out of the impasse created by Dutch and French no-votes to the Constitutional treaty back in 2005. With the entry of very poor and still deeply corrupt Romania and Bulgaria in the same year 2007, this foreign-policy-bureaucratic, foreign-investment-economic-convergence machinery called Enlargement has been called into question. Enlargement fatigue is prevailing…. But now, in December 2007, the gloom slowly starts dissipating. Thanks to the famed pragmatism of the newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the constitutional impasse seems to have been overcome. The trick: strip the text of its symbols of statehood (hymn, flag), move around controversial texts and mentions and transform them into annexes (human rights charter) or quasi-footnotes (competition). Sell it as a democratic achievement aiming at bringing the EU closer to the euro-illiterate citizenry – BUT please don’t have the People vote on the text!. Call it a “simple” or “simplified” treaty but make it as Byzantine as ever (Gideon Rachman had a few excellent columns on the topic this year. Here one, and here another). In a speech a the European Parliament Sarkozy further stressed that we are “en democratie” in Europe (since when?). We should openly debate identity, common values, protectionism (in reality very much projecting French anxieties on the EU). Sarkozy further speaks out loud on the matter of the EU’s borders: at least Turkey should not be let in – yet in practice he is not blocking the ongoing accession talks.

Sarkozy this year pointed to all that is truly disturbing in the EU: its lack of clearly stated aim, its pseudo-statist nature, its “democratic deficit”, its unclear structures and ever-expanding borders. He has put forward the idea of setting up a Committee of Wise men to talk about the future of the European Union, including its definitive borders.

But will a committee of the wisest (wo)men of this planet ever solve the EU conundrum? I doubt it. Why? Because being a conundrum is the heart the matter! And this is not necessarily a bad thing, although it might disturb a Frenchman’s Cartesian state-centric mind, or your usual Euro-federalist, and your odd British or Czech Euro-sceptic. A booklet co-edited by the LSE and Financial Times Business early this year (if there is interest: I have two longish posts – 1 and 2 – on this) revealed the utter cacophony surrounding the issue of what the EU should be, what it should do, and where it should geographically end. Personally I was left with a great feeling of frustration – each single analysis was terribly insufficient in itself. It was a great revision – in “light” and “pop” – of all the good things I had learned at university on EU politics: intergovernmentalism vs federalism, structuralist approaches with spill-over effects i.e. economics will lead to political unity; EU as Christian club or not?, etc. etc. The booklet let too much room for my taste for pieces on a never-achievable European Identity. One piece of this book I had rather appreciated was CER Director Charles Grant’s scenario for Europe in 2027: economically reformed dynamic countries, a dynamic Turkey voted in by France, a working policy towards Russia in place, a few concrete institutional reforms etc. etc. His methodology? Not making heed of any concepts taught in school, such as those outlined above. A pragmatic-liberal approach, a bit pie-in-the skie, maybe – that not many embrace in practice. Yet that was about it.

However, there was one book on the matter I found quite satisfying this year, because it brings a radically different view of conventional analysis of the European Union, and is hopefully the beginning of something new. It starts in a not very endearing manner with, on page 2: “This book is written as a polemical response to the mainstream literature on European integration.” It is Oxford Scholar Jan Zielonka’s “Europe as Empire”, published in 2006, and recently out in paperback at Oxford University Press. (I loooove polemics! So I swallowed the book in a very short time). A refreshing read indeed!

Zielonka argues that policy-makers in the EU have not yet quite understood the scope and meaning of its latest wave of enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe, which he thinks is “part of an unprecedented historical process generated by the fall of Communism and the East-West division of Europe”. He believes “that the last wave of enlargement has opened the door to further EU accessions on strategic rather than strict economic, or cultural grounds”. This will probably be the case of Ukraine and Turkey. Zielonka also says that conventional analysis uses too many state-centric analogies, despite “Unidentified Political Object” metaphors.

Here, therefore, Zielonka on Europe’s external borders and institutional set-up:

“The EU is not becoming a superstate projecting its ever greater power all over Europe and beyond. It is becoming a polycentric polity penetrating rather than controlling its environment (…) Its multilevel governance system of concentric circles, fuzzy borders, and soft forms of external power projection resemble the system we know in the Middle Ages (…)”.

Zielonka on Europe’s integration processes:

“Persistent differences among European actors concerned the very nature of integration (federalism versus intergovernmentalism), the functional scope of integration (high politics versus low politics), and there were competing national agendas on every question. In this situation pragmatism, incrementalism, and vagueness were the only ways to make any progress. It has been evident from the very beginning of European integration that ambitious and straightforward cooperative projects have a fairly good chance of being shot down”. The the European Defence Community back in 1952, but also the EU Constitution in 2005-2007!: “In other words: European policy-makers were faced with a choice: integration in disguise or no integration”.

Finally, on Europe’s democratic deficit:

Democracy such as exercised in Westphalian nation states will never be possible at EU level – nor is it necessary or desirable. The EU “requires strengthening citizen participation at the local and nation state levels (which is not easy but presumably easier than at the European level). Moreover, it is important that certain domains remain outside EU competencies (…). Second, various networks of European governance ought to provide greater access to organized groups or citizens (…) Finally, the civic and political rights of EU citizens ought to be enforced. A mere extension of the rights already enjoyed within the national framework will not do. European citizens should be offered meaningful ways for contesting decisions directly affecting them.”

All this still very vague. But I thought this is a refreshing analysis of Europe that needs deeper investigation. The EU will have to definitively drop many analytical schemes from the post- and Cold War 1950s and 1960s it was built upon and still tends to use today. Instead it is high time to embrace the complexity of the 21st century globalizing world: “a plurilateral rather than hierarchical mode of governance seems better suited to the enlarged EU.”


2 Responses to “Chatty book commentary: for a concentric, fuzzy, and differently democratic European Union”

  1. euandus Says:

    Fortunately, the EU Parliament will shortly be strengthened. On the other hand, I think the appt of EU officials by state leaders does not contradict democratic principles because those leaders have been elected and repuplican democratic principles don’t function as well directly at a very large scale. If you are interested, here is a related post:

  2. Karis Says:

    While I don’t think the medieval analogy of zielonka is much use, the fuzzy borders aspect is apt, especially as in my work over many years on the periphery of the EU this has been obvious. A map of the euro zone say is v different from a map of Schengen, etc. It is a functional superlayering of borders. My conundrum at present is the suggestion by the Comoros that the way to solve the decades old dispute w France over nearby Mayotte is by a consominium or confederation, though after 50 yrs Comoros will want to grab Mayotte, abit like Madrid’s recurrent bright idea re Gibraltar. Now, I am trying to work out how far Mayotte’s bieng sucked into the EU come 2014 is going to make any such condomimium totally impossible. I do realise this is really a pure hypthesis, since the Mahorais and French Right would be up in arms. But how can part of sovereign state ie comoros be part of the EU too? it is not like Mauritus being in the commonwealth and in the francophonie, is it. Becasue fuzzy or not it does seem to me the EU is trying to create a hardish security border? and Mayotte is a sieve for the poor of east africa. They deport dozens a day. Do let me know your thoughts…. it is more complex than anything I have ever worked on. Thanks.

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