You are here

What is the EU?

The goals and ultimate destiny of the European Union have been variously explained. The uncertainty is not altogether accidental, since the plan of the EU Founding Fathers was to bring about European unity by indirection. The strategy is a good one; it is hard to criticize what has no accepted description. Those who favor the EU can cooperate without making their long-term goals explicit, while opponents are told that their objections are mistaken because the EU is really something else.

It is therefore important to say what the EU is and so make it something that can be discussed and understood. It is clear that it is not a collection of solutions to particular practical problems, but rather an all-embracing attempt to construct ever greater unity in spite of all obstacles. It may rhetorically assert the principle of subsidiarity — making decisions locally when possible — but its entire history denies that principle. It aims at centralization and uniformity for their own sake.

The Euro demonstrates the point. There are no problems for which it is the solution, and any practical benefits it offers bear no proportion to the effort it demands. Currencies are not normally of decisive importance in economic life. Exchange rates can be hedged, and computers and modern communications make conversion instant and almost effortless. As long as a currency is freely convertible, it is basically a method for keeping accounts; as such, it does not determine what people and businesses can do, and its effect on productivity and trade is marginal.

Maintaining different currencies does make differing national responses to economic and social issues easier. If East Ruritania has high taxes and West Ruritania low taxes costs of production will differ. East Ruritania will nonetheless be able to sell its goods abroad if it has its own currency, because the currency will decline in value and so reduce the cost of goods to foreign buyers. By obstructing such adjustments, creation of the Euro will make national variations more difficult and so require central control over policies with significant economic effect. That is, in fact, its purpose.

The stated commitment of the EU to ever deeper union must be taken seriously, as must the natural consequence of that commitment: a centralized supranational state. The EU is not yet a state, but to achieve its goals it must become one. To reject European statehood is to reject the EU.

It is intended that the EU make the basic decisions that determine the conditions of life for the people of Europe. Its members no longer control their borders, and most no longer control their currencies. The single market and common currency imply a common economic, tax and social policy. In a modern state responsibility for the economy implies control over education. There are plans for direct EU taxation. There is even an EU flag and EU citizenship. Further, the EU intends to give Europe a unified and forceful voice in the world. It is organizing common military and police forces, and attempting to establish a common foreign policy. Foreign and military affairs require unity of decision, and involve issues that can be as serious as physical survival. Whatever level of government is responsible for them has the pre-eminent call on the lives, property and loyalty of the people. To assign such things to the EU is of necessity to make it a state, and correspondingly to reduce its members to units in a federal system or provinces.

Whether the EU as a project deserves support thus depends on whether the creation of a European superstate is likely to benefit the people and civilization of Europe. That depends not on expectations but on the natural tendencies of the situation. Intentions and stated plans are not decisive, however honestly meant. Things have a logic that neither cleverness nor good intentions can change.

To the extent the EU is to have a unified policy, decisions must be made at the center. Rationality and continuity require the decisions to be made by some stable group of policymakers. EU expansion will reduce the influence of any particular state and so make policymaking truly multinational. Since the policymakers will represent no particular nationality they must develop their own view of things to guide their decisions. That view will inevitably be based (in their own minds) on their position as the uniquely qualified custodians and defenders of the public interest of Europe.

It follows that if the EU is successful its policymakers will have attitudes, interests and loyalties quite different from those of the people they rule. To justify their own authority they will look on the latter as parochial and unable to see things in their true proportions. The EU, therefore, may care about “democratic legitimacy” but not about democracy. It will view popular attitudes as something to manage but not to take seriously. The EU unwillingness to take results of referenda seriously when they go the wrong way is enough to demonstrate that what the people think may create temporary difficulties, but no-one in a responsible position intends to let it affect anything substantive.

A European superstate can not be democratic in any but the most formal sense. To choose the EU is necessarily to reject democracy. Democracy requires government to be answerable to the people, and for that there must be a people capable of common deliberation and decision. Since the people of Europe as a whole are not capable of that, certainly not with respect to ordinary political matters, there can be no Europe-wide democracy. No matter how institutions are arranged, the EU, if successful, will subject each European people to a government that is unlikely to speak its language, does not share its religion or culture, does not care about its history, is indifferent to its heroes and great men, would rather do away with its particular ways of doing things, and treats it as something to be managed and subordinated to its own plans and understandings.

If established as intended, the EU will thus have the characteristics of an empire, a state of continental size inhabited by a mixture of peoples and ruled by a small elite with whom those peoples have little in common. Time will only accentuate its imperial character. The American experience demonstrates that in an extensive federation constitutional limitations guarding local autonomy can have little enduring effect. Such limitations must be interpreted, and the issues they raise are very important, which means that they will be decided by EU governing elites at the highest level. The European Court of Justice has explicitly described its role as enabling “the Community interests enshrined in the Treaty to prevail over the inertia and resistance of Member States.” It is idle to suppose that such a body will protect national or local self-rule.

Throughout Europe elites steadfastly support the EU in the face of practical difficulties and popular skepticism that resists all propaganda. Why, in the absence of practical compulsion and in the face of popular resistance, are they so uniformly and firmly committed to it?

The EU is not based on the desires or interests of the peoples of Europe. Economic and other cooperation among European nations is no doubt often beneficial. The EU goes far beyond specific needs and benefits, however, to aim at comprehensive political union. The need for such a thing is wholly unclear. While political division may make war more likely, the EU could hardly exist if nationalism were still a fighting creed among its members. The recent violence in Eastern Europe has resulted not from a settled system of nation-states but from the failure of the Soviet empire and of Yugoslavia, both multinational arrangements. Beyond that, the EU is revolutionary, and revolution is no way to guarantee peace and security. The greatest political catastrophes of living memory, Communism and Nazism, resulted less from anything the EU opposes than from an impulse it shares: to establish comprehensive unity on simple principles, and to eliminate the importance of the diversity of peoples, traditions and political forms that has made Europe what it is.

It is the outlook and interests of European elites that motivates the EU. The EU has the same appeal as other imperialisms. It gives those who take the lead in it a larger field of play, one arranged more in accordance with their way of doing things. It is a union not of peoples but of governing classes to whom it gives greater influence at home at the cost of less autonomy abroad. They find the exchange worthwhile, because it strengthens their hand in dealing with their own people, and they would rather answer to each other than to their own countrymen. The communists used to say that the workers of the world would unite because they had no country. They were wrong: workers are attached to their own land and people, and they mind their own business. It is their rulers who have no country and have united.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to interpret the EU as simply a matter of elite self-interest. For those who support it its necessity is absolute and objections simply ignorant or misguided. Such views are quite sincere. Proponents of the EU cannot imagine a legitimate alternative, because independent national societies are radically at odds with the way they understand the world.

Western ruling elites identify with an ideal of economic and bureaucratic rationality and comprehensive social management far more than with local and national societies, which seem to them constricting and irrelevant. They understand all things by reference to the social system upon which they depend for their position. That system, which came to maturity in Western Europe after the Second World War, combines fairly free markets with extensive social programs. Its basic principle is comprehensive social administration for the sake of security and prosperity. It has no settled name, although phrases like “welfare capitalism” and “social market” are sometimes used to describe it.

That system has been successful on its own terms, at least so far. Whatever objections there may be against postwar European life it has been materially prosperous and secure. Material success is not enough for for the success of a system, however. There must be ideals as well. For a system to become so dominant it must rest on widely accepted assumptions about man, the world and the good life. It may fall far short of the ideals those assumptions suggest, but people must feel that it is inspired by them. The current European public order rests its moral legitimacy on specific principles: individualism, hedonism, egalitarianism and technocracy. What individuals want defines what is good, one man’s wants are as good as another’s, and the proclaimed goal of politics and morality is to turn society into a technologically rational system for giving people what they want, securely, sustainably, and as equally as practical.

To perfect such a system is the ideal that inspires the EU. The EU therefore stands for weakening and abolition of all institutions that can not be explained as rational arrangements for maximum equal individual satisfaction. It accepts as authorities only the market — the principle of voluntary contract and exchange — and government bureaucracy that establishes conditions that facilitate the market’s functioning, meets needs the market does not serve adequately, and ensures fairness and security. Other institutions, such as family, religion, ethnic culture, and the habits, attitudes and attachments that support them, must be deprived of authority. Until recently these latter institutions embodied loyalties and aspirations that were the basis of social order. Now, however, they must be deprived of public standing to make room for a wholly human and rational order of things. They can be permitted as sentimental attachments, but only if everyone is guaranteed the right to ignore them.

The moral capstone of the new order is therefore a conception of human rights that emphasizes the abolition of social distinctions such as ethnicity and sex that correspond to social institutions such as nation and family that are independent of market and bureaucracy. The conception is applied quite broadly: any appeal to national cohesion is considered xenophobia, any attachment to particular culture bigotry, any favor for habits and attitudes that support the family sexist, homophobic and intolerant. “Human rights” mean that our only serious and settled connection to others is universal abstract human solidarity. When our own resources fail us we have a right to demand support only from the bureaucratic order that is the natural institutional expression of that solidarity. Other institutions we might depend on, such as family and nation, are neither rational nor equal, and are therefore fundamentally illegitimate. Human rights demands that their importance in social life be minimized. Such institutions, as it happens, are also the ones most difficult to integrate with a system of rational central control based on economics. The effect of “human rights” as now understood is thus to make the reign of money and bureaucracy a command of universal morality.

The EU is thus supported not only by self-interest but by ideals thought to be noble and authoritative. Its goal is to create a Europe without particularities such as nationality, religion and sex that are difficult to manage administratively, and from the point of view of its guiding philosophy are irrational, oppressive and dangerous. That new Europe will abolish what Europe has been. Diversity has been the essence of Europe, but the EU abolishes all diversity that matters. By making ever greater unity the goal it judges that there is nothing of value in difference, that Europe as a particular historic civilization made up of specific peoples with their own histories and ways is dispensable, that what is good in it can be reduced to abstract principles that could be applied anywhere. Rather than peoples joined to their rulers by common understandings and old habits and loyalties Europe is to become an aggregate of individuals ruled by markets, transnational bureaucracies, and those who know better. Instead of Danes, Irishmen and Greeks there is to be New European Man — productive, manageable, interchangeable and content with his lot. The function of nation states is to be that of churches in communist countries, a controlled way of accommodating tendencies that the authorities have not yet succeeded in eradicating.

When supporters call the EU “Europe” they mean it sincerely. The EU embodies what they believe to be the essence of European civilization and indeed of civilization as such, an essence that in their view is approaching realization for the first time anywhere. Further, it has potentially universal implications and so offers hope of indefinitely increasing the influence of the ideals that inspire it and the elites that run it. To oppose the EU or set limits on its broadening and deepening is to oppose the safety and welfare — and even the salvation — of Europe and the world.

So what will this brave new world be like? The postwar European order has been successful, but indefinite extension of its principles may not lead to indefinitely greater success. The problem is that government is organized force and not easily tamed. Those who attempt to create political unity that goes beyond the social and cultural unity that already exists cannot rely on the ties of common history, understanding and habit that make cooperation easy and government humane. Instead, they must fall back on the cruder methods of force or on an ideology that silences opposition and justifies placing power in the hands of some small group.

The natural consequence is to make public life cruder, more aggressive, and more tyrannical. History is full of examples: the unification of China in 221 B.C. created the first totalitarian state. Growth of the Roman empire led to anarchy and civil war followed by disappearance of free institutions. In Spain unification meant expulsion of the Jews and the Spanish Inquisition. In France centralization led first to royal tyranny and then to extremes of revolutionary violence. German unification brought a coarsening of political life at home and aggressiveness abroad, while post-risorgiamento Italy resorted to fascism as a remedy for continuing disunity.

There is no reason to expect better from European unification. It is to be achieved through the weakening or destruction of human connections other than money, contract, bureaucracy, and political correctness. Such principles cannot lead to a tolerable political society. The former Soviet Union suggests the consequences of attempts to establish an all-embracing multinational system that reduces everything to ideology, bureaucracy and economics. The system eventually breaks down through irrationality, corruption and inability to inspire loyalty. The result is primitivism and lawlessness, since the all-pervading administrative state has destroyed the habits, attitudes and local cultural connections that once allowed self-rule in accordance with law. Ethnicity and the pursuit of private profit turn savage because the attempt to abolish things so fundamental to human nature has succeeded only in abolishing restraints arising from their settled recognition as legitimate components of social life.

Something similar must be feared for Europe. The more successful the EU is initially, the less will be left when it falls apart and the worse the ultimate outcome. Such fears may seem exaggerated. When men are comfortable trouble seems far away. Further, concerns that the EU will degrade European civilization by breaking down national differences and the like have become impossible to talk about among respectable people. The reasons are somewhat contradictory: the desire to maintain differences is said to be racist, while everyone is so confident they will remain basic to European life that raising the issue seems alarmist and even paranoid. For many it is inconceivable that the French will not remain French, the Danish Danish, or that the differences will lose their hold on life in France and Denmark.

The difficulty of imagining a Europe not ordered by its historic nationalities and cultures does not, however, show that such a thing is impossible: it only shows how little will be left of Europe if and when it comes about. The history of the last century should teach us that the most surprising things are possible when an elite with an ideology demands them regardless of cost or consequence. Why should European elites let cultural particularities and the like remain a legitimate factor in European life instead of trying to weaken or if possible abolish them as obstacles to rational management? Government now demands that distinctions of sex become irrelevant to all serious aspects of life in society. Why not distinctions of nationality and culture? Opposition to discrimination, after all, is an absolutely fundamental principle of the EU. Since that principle requires that each culture have equal standing in every social institution, identifiably Danish business enterprises must in the end share the fate of identifiably male enterprises. Rational management and opposition to discrimination require that Danish culture be deprived of any serious function or significance, and Denmark become a purely geographical expression. The same, of course, is true of all the cultures and nations of Europe.

Such a conclusion may seem far-fetched today, but it will soon become quite practical. Economic unity and rational management will require far greater labor mobility within the EU, and mobility will require that Poles and Spaniards, to the extent possible, be made interchangeable. Constructing that interchangeability will become a fundamental policy of governments that judge everything by universal economic standards. Further, the Europeans are not reproducing themselves, and will have to rely increasingly on third world immigrants to maintain production. How much can national culture or local variations amount to when each of the European states has large and increasing numbers of foreign residents who must be given full equality, and in any event all aspects of social life are increasingly and by policy denationalized?

The resolution of these issues is naturally up to the Europeans, and I am an American. Still, America is by origin a European country, and it still depends in many ways on Europe. The devastation of European culture that seems the inevitable consequence of the success of the EU would be a catastrophe for America. Distance gives perspective. Tom Paine, an Englishman, convinced Americans of their need for independence, and Tocqueville, a French nobleman, composed what is still the best analysis of American democracy. It may be that thoughts from abroad on the movement toward European unity may add something helpful to the discussion. It is in that hope that I put my comments forward.

The preceding essay appeared as “Hvad er EU?”in the October 2001 issue of the Danish periodical Frihedsbrevet.

Share/Save