Elections without much debate about the EU
On March 15 general elections will be held in The Netherlands. Surprisingly, the future of the European Union is only a minor subject – only competition from Eastern European labourers and transport firms gets attention. Immigration, care for the elderly, old age pensions and unemployment are among the favourite national subjects.
The outside world is more dangerous than before. The future of the EU after Brexit is very uncertain and should be debated. Some member states have strange interpretations of the rule of law. Conflicts about refugees tear the EU apart. Some political parties take the populist stance of leaving the EU, or at least leaving the Euro zone. Since the Dutch Ukraine Referendum in 2016, support for the EU still carries the majority, but opponents raise their voices more effectively than supporters.
A middle road is lacking
Visions of the future of the EU are hard to find. Extreme and simplistic ideas are leaving the EU or letting the EU explode, and on the other hand a forced march towards a European Federation. A middle road of some substance is absent. Loose ideas have come up, such as pleas for a stronger role of the member states. That is a dead end because the member states already have great weight and are strongly divided over many issues. Others propose “a more social Europe” which undoubtedly will generate conflicts with those member that have strong welfare states.
The EU could crumble
It would be a shame when the EU would crumble before our eyes. The Netherlands, big in self-consciousness but small in size, needs cooperation with many other countries. We could leave the EU, but we cannot separate ourselves from Belgium and the Rhine, or from Google, Shell and Microsoft.
The present EU is not working well. The easiest way is muddling through[i] but citizens demand a clear perspective. Leaving the EU is a kamikaze act with unknown effects. A federal state is unthinkable for the time being, because not many countries have that ambition. In any case, cultural, economic and political differences between European nations are far too big to bridge in a federation.
Outline of a middle of the road solution
We need a smaller but stronger European Union. This means:
Core members and associate members
The EU will consist of a core of like-minded states with mature democracies and healthy economies. (I think of The Netherlands, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. The United Kingdom naturally belongs to this group but prefers to play outside any league.) Cooperation in the single market is central; further subjects for strong cooperation are agreed upon by these core members.
Beside the core there are associate members with whom the single market is shared. Trade is a natural subject to agree on with many other countries. Other subjects are more difficult, like education, crime, worker’s rights and finance and require like-minded people. That is also a reason for me not wanting the EU to expand further, including countries that are culturally and politically very far from us.
A restricted list of subjects of close cooperation and an alternative for the Euro
Close cooperation in the EU needs a list of subjects of which the necessity of cooperation can be made explicit to the public. Subjects outside of the list are not in the EU’s remit. To my mind this concerns security[ii], transport, energy, climate change, migration and higher education and research.
Is the Euro also on the list? The single market has brought us far more advantages than the Euro. The common currency has become a divisive element. Major members like France and Italy lag behind in reforming their economies. The debts in the European Central Bank are dazzling. Budget cuts have hit citizens of many countries very hard, The Netherlands included, while the commercial banks were saved at public expense.[iii] Before returning to national currencies a more restricted Euro, e.g. only for the core members, should be considered.
Stronger through more supranational policy implementation
The EU is a very complex organisation that produces an enormous amount of policies. It is the largest free trade bloc in the world, which gives the Union much weight (e.g. in WTO). However, most policy implementation is in the hands of the member states. (That is why, contrary to popular belief, EU’s bureaucracy is small.) A weakness of the EU lies in the many disagreements among its members, which are endemic, but also in policy implementation. “Dieselgate” made it clear that member states with a strong car industry don’t favour strong emission standards and prefer national not independent controls on industry. Health is not the most important EU concern. When we consider immigration, the large influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa made it clear that a strong Coast Guard is necessary. All member state that border on a sea have one. But the European Coast Guard (Frontex) is only beginning to develop some force and depends on the benevolence of the member states. A fully fledged Frontex is necessary, with sufficient direct funding and a strong mandate. Similar supranational institutions are needed for other subjects that ask for concerted action, like international crime.
Smaller: Core members and associate members; restricted list of subjects
Stronger: Policy implementation by supranational organisations with direct funding and a strong mandate.
It can be done.
[i] Rabobank has published a useful report, De toekomst van Europa, February 9, 2017. It presents four scenario’s: Muddling Through, Disintegration, Closer Union, and Two Tempi.
[ii] For the time being, NATO is the most important carrier of security cooperation, on condition that Europe lives up to its promises (spending 2% of national income on defence).
[iii] Budget cuts in the Euro countries have been translated by many citizens into resistance to the EU as such. Governments didn’t explain that the Euro zone is run by member states and not by “unelected” Brussels bureaucrats. The Netherlands was at the forefront of the harsh budget cuts policy. See Simon Otjes, “How the eurozone crisis reshaped the national economic policy space: The Netherlands 2006-2012”, in Acta Politica, vol. 51 no. 3, 2016, p. 273-297.