There are essentially two basic critiques of the EU’s institutions; one is the classic, Monnet/Schuman house ideology view that its problems are simply because there isn’t enough of it. If it was more like the US federal government, it would work better; and, as we designed it to get more like that, it must be somebody’s fault. The British are usually the somebody, but Italy, Spain, Germany, and the new members are all candidates.
The other one is the classic Eurosceptic or libertarian (genus: north american) view, that all its problems are down to the fact that it exists, because it’s a bureaucratic monster operating a planned economy. (I didn’t say these had to be based on facts.) Usually, the evil monsters are either the French government or the EU itself, presumably meaning the Commission.
These myths meet the standard framework for understanding the EU’s politics at an odd angle. Power in the EU institutions is usually described by the tension between a supranational force, the Commission as the EU high priesthood and executive branch, and an intergovernmental force, embodied more by the European Council – the regular summit meeting – than the Councils of Ministers, the much more regular final legislative bodies. It nearly matches the two myths, in that the Commission and friends always skew to the first myth, following their interests, and the supporters of the second like to blame Brussels (i.e. the Commission) because it’s there.
But the standard model is getting old. For a start, where does the democratic power of the European Parliament fit in? You can’t just blow it off; ask Denis Olivennes and Nicolas Sarkozy what happened to their clever idea. It’s not supranational, it has national caucuses and its constituencies don’t often cross borders. But it answers to no national government, and very good that is too – remember the Kaczynskis’ attempt to unelect Bronislaw Geremek? And so much of its work puts it in the role of a loyal opposition to the supranational power, and for that matter to the national governments as well.
Them. At least the academics did spot the rise of the intergovernmental power; ever since the first European Council was called by Giscard in 1975, the intergovernmental power has got stronger. It used to be that the Commission proposed and the ministers signed off; now, much of the time, the Council takes a strategic lead, the Commission drafts suitable legislation, Parliament amends it, the ministers make a final decision, and then the Commission administers the finished job. Traditionally, it was seen as bad and anti-European that the intergovernmental wing of the union got involved; surely, if all those egos got going, nothing would happen…and something must happen, for Monnet prophesied it!
It was further thought that intergovernmentalism meant inaction. This was shared by both the myths – the true believers insist that we need an “economic government” (whatever one of those is), “reinforced cooperation”, anything so long as the Commission gets to be more like the US Federal Government, while the eurosceptics insist that only national governments acting alone can get anything done, or alternatively that government in general can achieve nothing and therefore it shouldn’t be encouraged.
Now, the Tartars have finally arrived out of the steppes; the crisis is upon us. Of course, the myth fans all find it equally supportive to their own myth. That economic government is trotted out again. This glibertarian nonsense gets another outing. But let us consider the system’s performance. To begin with it looked poor; as the third wave of the bank crisis arrived, everyone still thought bank failures could be handled as individual cases. The UK seized, and immediately resold, Bradford & Bingley; Belgium did likewise with Dexia, and then Fortis, with the Benelux states. The crisis kept up; it looked like no-one had any grip; but then, the mighty federal bureaucracy of the US Treasury Department was if anything even more lost.
In the event, the British announcement of last week pulled in one idea from Ireland (guaranteeing wholesale lending) and another from Sweden (equity recapitalisation), and probably owed quite a bit to the VoxEu paper; but it was the first serious suggestion to apply across the board and offer a comprehensive solution. Once it was out there, it took only one European Council and one Eurogroup meeting over the weekend to get consensus on the plan and press the trigger.
There’s a real sense in which the value of the EU is simply in getting into the habit of cooperation, and getting over the coordination/trust problems. Beyond that, it strikes me that the “laboratory” argument for federalism applies very well here.