Whatever the outcome of this EU summit, more harrowing than historic, the deep stalemate preventing any significant deepening of the European integration process has emerged into view.
It is true that, as a result of the general emergency, which can truly be called “historic,” Europe has accepted that common debt is necessary to deal with the consequences of a crisis from which no one will come out unscathed. And yet, the “emergency brake” offered to the “frugal” quartet led by the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is the device that best illustrates the theoretical and practical impasse that the European Union finds itself in. Any individual state may refer another country’s spending plan to ECOFIN (the club of finance ministers) and the European Council (the assembly of governments), which will then examine it and possibly reject its implementation, delaying the funds.
As soon as the EU vehicle gets its motor running, what matters most are the “brakes.” Whether it is a question of general principles of common fiscal policy, migratory flows or minimum democratic standards, the national interest as established by the dominant powers is putting a stop to things. These “brakes” are nothing more than the power given to national sovereignties to paralyze the development of the Union by exercising a veto. The fact that this is most often dictated by the petty contingencies on which the national political classes thrive is an obvious reality, and one to which the latter remain stolidly attached.
Let us try to look at a few absolutely paradoxical scenarios. Let’s suppose that the Val d’Aosta region had the prerogative to block the Italian national budget because some intervention by the state in southern Italy was not to its liking. That is the European model that Mark Rutte favors. Let us then imagine that in a small German Land governed by the extreme right, laws of a certain kind were enacted, for example setting out the exclusion of “non-Aryans” from teaching positions, without the federal government being able to have any say in it. That would be the model of Europe preferred by Viktor Orban.
The fact remains that Italy and Germany each have a Constitution that puts such scenarios outside the realm of the possible, while Europe has lost the opportunity to adopt one, a failure whose consequences anyone can now see. State sovereignties are running rampant, blackmailing and being blackmailed in turn, emptying of significance and impoverishing every common political dimension. And the citizens of Europe are supposed to remain silent spectators of a game played among governments.
The European Commission has countless flaws: it is pervaded by technocratic thinking and bureaucratic abstractness. But it has an indubitable merit: it represents the principle of overcoming national sovereignty, and the task (admittedly within the framework of the long-dominant neoliberal economic principles) of orienting itself on the basis of a general and common vision. The diversity of national plans and perceptions has manifested itself in the reaction to the pandemic emergency and the inseparable interweaving of the damage suffered by Europe in all its parts. There has been a complete lack of sensitivity on the part of a number of national governments, in anything beyond the rote and hypocritical call for “solidarity.”
Therefore, any transfer of powers from the Commission to the Council represents a step backwards in the integration process. It is a “brake” and a weakening of the Union’s capacity to deal with the exceptional violent nature of the crisis affecting it today, as well as those to come. In the European Union, democracy, filtered through a thicket of mediations, rules, conditions and “technical” steps, remains a highly remote reality.
However, the power of governments representing a small minority of the European population to block measures and interventions designed to affect the lives of a large part of the Union’s citizens cannot be passed off as “democracy.” And, as long as the European architecture is based on the will of governments, this is a problem that cannot even be approached.
This architecture, as Angela Merkel herself recently mentioned, is no longer up to the times. The necessity for us to begin to work on it, to modify the treaties, to rewrite rules and abandon ill-intentioned and obsolete dogmas is one that the crisis has dramatically highlighted—but at the same time set aside, in the urgency of the moment.
Nevertheless, faced with the game of Risk that we have witnessed in recent days, one question must be asked: should we all remain in this Europe of the “Next Generation” at all costs? The UK, despite its many advantages and modest obligations, has left in order to take its own, uncertain, path. Perhaps, in order to retain what they consider non-negotiable privileges, others might be inspired by the example of London. The principle that maximum enlargement coincided with the Union’s greatest strength was probably a naive creed. But it could even more accurately be described as the ignoble utopia of a protected market that left politics and the needs of society out in the cold.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.