On reading the deluge of comments on the outcome of the “Brexit” referendum, you may notice that there is (at least) one diagnosis of the fateful event on which “pro-Europeans” and “anti-Europeans” agree: Europe is too distant from the people, and the slave of technocratic bureaucracies. Too bad that this is an entirely wrong diagnosis, and the fact that the pro-European front subscribes to it makes the gravity of the situation evident: the anti-Europeans now dictate the political agenda in the European countries.
In fact, matters are exactly the reverse: it is the Europe of peoples that is destroying itself, as it has always been in remote and recent history. Historians have described the two great wars of the twentieth century as the ‘European civil wars’. Wars engendered in contexts of scant or no democracy, but also wars waged by peoples against each other. The totalitarian regimes that led Europe into the abyss of World War II were produced by movements of people brimming with fears, resentments and hostilities created by the previous war and the economic crisis of the 1930s. Those regimes, in fact, enjoyed their consensus climax on the eve of the war despite their suppression of freedom. Some political movements leading the anti-Europeans of today are direct descendants of those movements of people and of those regimes, and they make no bones about it.
As the modern United States of America was built on the ashes of its civil war, so it was envisaged to construct a post-war new Europe. It is claimed that the EU project has always been carried forward by an enlightened elite; it has never became a true demos, an idea of the people, a shared destiny. This may be so, but could it be otherwise, given the deep-rootedness of the historical factors concerned? Whatever the case may be, for fifty years the European project has progressed, expanded and deepened, gaining popular support in diverse and complex forms – the inexhaustible subject matter of political science studies – including, let us not forget, broad and lasting electoral support for political parties and leaders that have kept themselves in the European mainstream.
Severe problems only began with the new century, and they are well known: globalization, the worldwide post-Cold War disorder, the crisis of the European social market model, growing inequalities, impoverishment of the middle class, the ‘double whammy’ of the great economic-financial crisis followed by the security-immigration emergency. These phenomena have jammed the main generator of de facto consensus in the European project: its ‘dividend’ of economic and social progress, which has assuaged ancient diversities and hostilities between peoples and governments, and instead made tangible the affinities, commonalities, and pleasures of the most economically, culturally, and civilly advanced continent on the planet.
It is claimed that the crisis of the European ideal, and now its dramatic retrenchement, are due to the inability of governments and institutions to find a political response to these problems. Quite the contrary, the EU crisis stems from the very evident errors in the response given by leading political forces. Consider, for example, how the economic and financial crisis has been handled. As documented in detail by Sergio Fabbrini in his excellent Which European Union? (Cambridge University Press, pp. 49-63), ten new institutes of remarkable political momentum and institutional complexity were created in just three years, between 2010 and 2013, intended to reshape the member countries’ economic policy framewrok and instruments (p. 61). It certainly cannot be said that the EU has sat on its hands, leaving its citizens at the mercy of the storm. But it can be said that this intense regulatory activity has been the incubator of the ongoing crisis of the EU. And not just because it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify one of these measures that has been effective in governing the crisis and alleviating its economic and social costs on a European scale. Who decided these measures? Always and only the European Council. Raise your hand if you know what the European Council is. Have you ever heard it named in the anti-European propaganda? I quote from the EC’s official website:
“The members of the European Council are the heads of state or government of the 28 EU member states, the European Council President and the President of the European Commission. The European Council defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities. It is not one of the EU’s legislating institutions, so it does not negotiate or adopt EU laws. Instead it sets the EU’s policy agenda, traditionally by adopting ‘conclusions’ during European Council meetings which identify issues of concern and actions to take. The European Council mostly takes its decisions by consensus. However, in certain specific cases outlined in the EU treaties, it decides by unanimity or by qualified majority”.
Yes, you read correctly: the European Council “is not one of the EU’s legislating institutions, so it does not negotiate or adopt EU laws”. So how was it possible to create ten ‘laws’ of such importance? Because they were not ordinary ‘legislative acts’, which pertain as a rule to the European Parliament; instead, they were directly enacted by intergovernmental agreements or international treaties (such as the infamous Fiscal Compact). In this way, the insitutional balance of powers and competences enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty was altered in a substantial way in favour of unchartered intergovernmental mechanisms (Fabbrini, p. 63).
These being the facts, the anti-Europe propaganda hides them because what we see are the results of the governance of the EU being already gradually brought under the direct control of the nation states and their heads of government, sitting in the European Council as fully legitimate interpreters of the will of each people and its national interests. The irresistible dominance of the ‘intergovernmental method’ is directly proportional to the growing political pressure exerted in each country by pro-people, pro-nation, anti-Europe parties and movements. As Jean-Claude Juncker said when he was Prime Minister of Luxembourg: “We well know what we must do for Europe, but we do not know if we will be re-elected if we do it”. The Brussels technocratic bureaucracy, arrogant and obtuse though it may be, has little or nothing do with it: it has become – and to some important political leaders it must be – merely the executor of political choices resulting from inter-governmental power relations. It is like being angry with the traffic policeman for applying the highway code rather than with those who wrote it.
The dis-integration of the Europe of peoples advances before our eyes. The Brexit bombshell has made us forget that the increasingly strong aversion of a large part of the German public opinion to the monetary policy of the ‘Italian’ Mario Draghi had placed quite another time-bomb under one of the pillars of the Monetary Union: the petition lodged with the Supreme Court of Germany to rule the “unconventional operations” of the European Central Bank incompatible with German law. The petition was filed on behalf of the German people by a group of authoritative figures. It was rejected a few days before Brexit. Had it been upheld, other than Brexit! Do you think instead, like the vast majority of independent scholars, that the European fiscal and banking policies are wrong? Well, these will be impossible to change until there is a German political leader willing to risk the votes of his/her constituency of pensioners and customers and lobbyists of ailing banks. Or an Italian one with the electoral courage to set public spending in order and get taxes paid in exchange for the necessary EU sharing of economic and financial risks. There will be no common European defence, nor a common defence of borders, until the French people elect a president with that mandate, and with the strategic capacity to implement it. As for a rational, fair, and effective EU management of refugees, ask the peoples of Eastern Europe what they think.
When the ‘leavers’ of Great Britain – whose prime ministers have always been unsurpassed masters of the intergovernmental method – and the continental anti-Europeans criticise and despise Europe as distant from the peoples, they are mendacious and hypocritical. But in a sense they are honest in wanting to set the matter definitively by restoring national sovereignty (which is a tragic illusion, but that’s another story). But what do pro-Europeans have to say and propose? We preach that ‘more Europe’ is required, not less; but what, and how? Do we have a better and viable idea than the intergovernmental method?