Europe needs to return to the fundamentals of democracy
The original idea of European integration was driven by the desire to bring stability and prosperity to a continent that had experienced nothing but turmoil for centuries. Paradoxically, in recent years nothing in Europe has done more to create instability, economic distress and political chaos than the EU.
Just look around. Paris is burning. The bloc’s second-largest economy — the UK — is trying to leave. Youth unemployment in Greece is a whopping 43 percent and hardly better in Italy and Spain. Some Southern European economies are still smaller than they were during the 2008 economic crisis. Extreme political parties are winning at the ballot box across Europe.
For many of the EU’s elites, a federalized “United States of Europe” is the ultimate goal. And, to the Eurofederalists in Brussels, no amount of economic pain or political suffering will stand in the way of this goal. This is why treaty after treaty has brought more power to the center in Brussels and away from the national capitals.
Making the situation worse is that the terrible economic and social conditions in many places across Europe, many of which are a consequence of EU policies, planted the seed for extreme political parties on the left and the right to grow. In turn, this has created an opportunity for countries like Russia to divide societies further by funding and supporting these extreme political movements.
The European project started with noble goals and ideas in the post-Second World War era. In 1952, the European Coal and Steel Community — the predecessor to the modern-day EU — was created by six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium. The thinking at the time was that, since coal and steel are needed for military power, shared control of these resources would reduce the threat of war.
Power must be able to flow back to EU member states, not just away from them.
However, an organization that started narrowly focused on the coal and steel industry in the 1950s has now morphed into a supranational organization touching almost every aspect of life in every EU member country. Over the years, power has been incrementally shifted to Brussels, away from the individual states. Consequently, it has been moved further away from those who are affected most. The key decision-making bodies in the EU are largely unelected, and largely unaccountable to the national governments.
The EU is run by an unelected supranational commission. EU commissioners are not accountable to the member states, cannot be recalled by the member states, and break all allegiances to the member states once appointed. There is also the Council of the European Union, formed with the various ministers from the EU’s member states. Most of its decisions are made not by national ministers or leaders, however, but by unelected permanent representatives.
Then there is the European Parliament. It is the only directly elected decision-making body in the EU, but it is also arguably the weakest. Although successive treaties have given the European Parliament marginally more power, it still lacks some of the basic legislative powers that are found in national parliaments. It does not even have its own right of initiative to propose legislation; it has to formally request the commission to do so on its behalf.
In the last European Parliamentary election in 2014, roughly a third of those elected represented political parties that want to either leave or drastically reform the EU. When elections take place next May, expect this number to increase. Every country that joins the EU has to ask itself if the benefits it receives from membership outweigh the loss in national sovereignty to Brussels. For smaller countries like Malta or Portugal, the tradeoff is probably worth it. However, it is no wonder that a majority of Brits voted to leave the EU.
The UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Even so, because of the transfer of sovereignty over the years, the UK cannot control immigration from within the EU or sign its own free trade deals (while non-EU Iceland, with a population of 330,000, has a trade agreement with China), and regularly had its Parliament and courts superseded as the supreme law of the land. Hardly an acceptable situation for one of the world’s leading powers.
At a time in history when the forces of globalization, social media and the Internet are empowering the individual, the institutions of the EU are trying to centralize more power than ever before. This goes against the natural state of affairs of modern and liberal democracies in the 21st century. Power must be able to flow back to member states, not just away from them.
Europe needs to return to the fundamental basics of democracy. Instead of increasing policy competencies in opaque institutions in Brussels, power should be returned to the member states and to the people. The intrusive and excessive EU regulations need to be curtailed. Economic policies of growth need to be pursued.
As the people living in the EU become more disenchanted, and the elite in Brussels become more aloof, there is no other alternative going forward. If the EU does not wake up and change, more members will leave like the UK and more civil unrest will take place like in France.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey