The European Orchestra

Monday, July 30, 2001

To most speakers of the English language the first sentence above must look like nonsense or, at best, a deliberately absurd illustration in a textbook of linguistic philosophy. Yet to initiates of the inner temple of what is called the "European Debate" it is both comprehensible and vitally important. You just need to insert four different senses of the word "Europe." The question then reads: Will the current European Union of 15 states (Europe, sense 1) never attain the long-dreamed-of final condition of coherent political unity (Europe, sense 2) because it is now committed to including most other states on the geographic continent of Europe (sense 3)? However, one school among the theologians of the inner temple proposes an alternative exegesis, in which the last part reads, more pessimistically, "because it is reverting to the bad old ways of competing nation-states in pre-1945 Europe" (sense 4).

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

The Growing (and Squabbling) European Family

Somewhere around 3 in the morning of Monday, December 11, 2000, inside the vast concrete slab of the Acropolis conference center in Nice, where exhausted leaders of the European Union were trying to conclude their negotiations on the outcome of the EU’s latest "intergovernmental conference," the Belgian prime minister was holding out for more votes for Romania. Why? Well, if in a future, expanded EU, Belgium’s old rival the Netherlands was going to have more "weighted votes" in the EU’s Council of Ministers than Belgium (because it has a larger population), then Romania (which has 23 million people to the Netherlands’ 16 million) should certainly have more votes than the Netherlands.

To long-standing observers of the EU, it was no surprise that the supposedly grown-up leaders of 15 of the world’s most prosperous democracies were behaving like a bunch of schoolkids squabbling over the board game Diplomacy. This was Europe (sense 1), after all. What was surprising was that they were squabbling over votes for Romania. And Lithuania. And Cyprus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia.

Weeks later, when clever diplomats finally managed to agree on what their prime ministers and foreign ministers ought to have agreed on in the early hours of December 11, we could download from the European Union web site a legal text that will be known as the Nice Treaty. Among other things, this treaty spells out exactly how many "weighted votes" in the Council of Ministers, how many commissioners in the European Commission, how many members in the European Parliament, and how many judges in the European Court of Justice each state is entitled to have in a future European Union of 27 member states.

Chaotic, undignified, and badly chaired by French president Jacques Chirac, the Nice summit was nonetheless a symbolic and psychological breakthrough in bringing the formerly communist countries of the "other Europe" into the European Union. Eleven years after the velvet revolutions of 1989, the EU seemed at last to have understood what 1989 meant. The word moving is not one that I would normally associate with EU summits, but it was moving to see the foreign minister of Poland, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski—veteran resister, survivor of both Auschwitz and Stalinist prisons—surrounded by a throng of television cameras and journalists in Nice, as his country at last prepares to take its place in the European orchestra.

The EU now has a clearly stated aim of bringing the first postcommunist candidate countries in by the time of the next elections to the European Parliament, in 2004. Of course, much can still happen to delay this. There will be a huge argument about whether Polish farmers can benefit from subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy—one of the traditional advantages of EU membership. According to the autumn 2000 Eurobarometer survey of European public opinion (see page 132), 50 percent of those asked in France and Austria were opposed to enlargement and 43 percent in Germany. (Austrians and Germans fear an influx of cheap East European labor taking their jobs, Germans think they’ll have to pick up the bill for enlargement, and the French worry about a further loss of French influence over the EU.) Still, it is a reasonable guess that by 2005 we will have an EU of at least 20 member states, and by 2010 of 25 states, with Bulgaria and Romania perhaps straggling in a little later, to make up the full Nice complement of 27 states and nearly 500 million people.

That’s not the end of it. In an extraordinarily bold move, the EU has formally accepted Turkey—66 million people, largely Islamic, and mainly in Asia—as the 28th candidate. (However, no seats or "weighted votes" were assigned to it in Nice, and no negotiations on joining the EU will begin until it has met the political preconditions for membership, including respect for human and minority rights.) Three indubitably European countries—Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland—may finally decide that being outside the club is more uncomfortable than being in. Albania, post-MilosevicSerbia, and all the other constituent parts of former Yugoslavia are now bent on joining, which brings the tally to 36—or 38 if Kosovo and Montenegro were to come in as independent states. That would make Moldova number 39.

Long Live Ruthenia!

Most countries in Europe want to be in the EU for several reasons. They believe its single market, with its vast demand for goods and services, will bring them major long-term economic benefits, as it has to the current members. Looking at the experience of countries that joined the EU in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Ireland, Portugal, and Greece, they may hope for some direct subsidies from the EU budget—that is, effectively, from richer European states. Beyond this, however, is a deep desire to be recognized as fully belonging to the European family. Whereas for hard military security they look to membership in the other main trans-European organization, NATO, they also believe that membership in this community of shared European law and institutionalized solidarity will enhance their own security—against Russia, their neighbors, and perhaps even against themselves.

Someday, if all goes well, perhaps 15 or 20 years from now, the European Union may have to consider applications from the post-Soviet triangle of Ukraine, Belarus, and—most difficult of all—Russia. This would make a putative union of between 40 and 42 states and double the current EU population of 375 million. Many in Western Europe would like to say "never" to these last three. In a recent conversation I had in Brussels with one European commissioner, he referred to the Polish-Ukrainian border as the union’s "final frontier." But Europe’s eastern question will not go away, especially after Poland has become an EU member. Even a final no from today’s EU could never, in fact, be final. And then, of course, there will be Ruthenia—having achieved independence from Ukraine—as number 43. Other putative candidates might include an independent Scotland, the Basque country, Catalonia, and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

I believe that the question "Could Ruthenia be the 43d member of the European Union?" fantastical though it sounds, is one that Europeans need to address. If you’ve accepted 27, why not 35 or 43? But it is hardly a practical question for the next decade, and what is already resolved in solemn treaty is fantastic enough. The historian Jacques Le Goff once observed that Europe has had a name for 25 centuries but is still in the design stage. Now, for the first time ever in European history, most states on the European continent are freely committed to designing, by consent, a nonhegemonic order for most of Europe.

The one small remaining problem is How? How do we achieve something that Europe has never managed before, or any comparable concatenation of states on any other continent? How on earth can this thing work with 27 member states when it barely works with 15? For at issue is not just enlargement. It is also the declining efficiency and fragile legitimacy of the present EU. "We can’t go on like this!" exclaimed the British prime minister, Tony Blair, at dawn on the fifth day of a summit that was meant to last just two and a half days. "They are sick! sick! sick!" a very senior EU official told me in Brussels, characterizing the EU’s three main political institutions: Commission, Council, and Parliament.

The Quest for Legitimacy

As for the legitimacy of the EU, that has been a growing concern ever since the treaty agreed on at the Maastricht summit in 1991—the one that resolved on a single European currency—was rejected in a referendum in Denmark, nearly voted down in the British Parliament, and accepted by a majority of just 51.05 percent in a referendum in France, the country that more than any other regards Europe as its own. The average turnout in elections to the European Parliament has sunk from more than 60 percent in 1979 to less than 50 percent in 1999—and that figure was only achieved because voting is compulsory in four member states. In Britain, fewer people voted in the European elections than did in the voyeuristic TV spectacle Big Brother (for which viewers had to choose a contestant to be dropped). The Eurobarometer survey of public opinion (see page 132) suggests that just 48 percent of the Germans and the French currently think EU membership is "a good thing" for their country. Populist critics decry the EU as a remote, unaccountable enterprise of technocratic elites—"Brussels Eurocrats"—constantly interfering in everyday life, telling people what size of apples they may eat, how large road signs must be, and that bananas must be straight. In the inner temple of officials and experts, the nervous talk is of insufficient "transparency" and a "democratic deficit."

To long-standing observers of the European Union, it was no surprise that the supposedly grown-up leaders of 15 of the world’s most prosperous democracies spent the summit at Nice behaving like a bunch of schoolkids squabbling over a board game. This was Europe, after all.

In response to this triple challenge—enlargement, efficiency, and legitimacy—European politicians such as Joschka Fischer (the German foreign minister), Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and the Finnish and Belgian prime ministers were already, before Nice, canvassing their ideas for the future of the EU. Now, in a declaration appended to the Nice Treaty, EU leaders have formally called for "a deeper and wider debate about the future of the European Union" involving "all those reflecting public opinion, namely, political, economic and university circles, representatives of civil society, etc." This process is to culminate in another intergovernmental conference in 2004, leading to yet another treaty.

Although the word constitution is not mentioned in that declaration, most of those involved accept that this is a constitutional debate. There is a serious proposal to convoke, under EU auspices, something like a European version of the Philadelphia convention of 1787. In all previous rounds of EU soul-searching, European integration was assumed to be an open-ended progress toward the "ever closer union" evoked but not defined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It was a journey to an unknown destination. Now many—though not all—European leaders feel the time has come to try to describe the destination, to give shape to what the French call the finalité européenne. In short, Europe is summoned to its Philadelphia.

The Ramshackle Castle on the Hill

Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright reportedly once said that to understand the European Union you have to be either a genius or French. Yet even a French genius—a commodity with which European institutions have traditionally been well supplied—has difficulty explaining the EU today.

The Nice summit was a symbolic and psychological breakthrough to bringing the formerly communist countries of the "other Europe" into the European Union. More than a decade after the velvet revolutions of 1989, the EU seemed at last to have understood what 1989 meant.

Applicant countries are faced with some 80,000 pages—the exact length depends on the language—of the so-called acquis communautaire, described by the British EU specialist Timothy Bainbridge as "the whole range of principles, policies, laws, practices, obligations and objectives that have been agreed or that have developed within the European Union" and including 50 years’ worth of treaties, with all their subsequent revisions, renumberings, and legal and bureaucratic elaborations. EU documents are peppered with acronyms and shorthand terms, often referring to the agreeable diplomatic watering hole where a particular deal was struck: "Gymnich meetings" and "Petersberg tasks" (after castles in Germany), "Villa Marlia procedure" (after a villa in Italy), and so on.

Any attempt to discern a clear division between executive, legislature, and judiciary, on the U.S. model, is doomed. For example, the three central institutions of the original European Economic Community—the European Commission, whose members are nominated by the EU governments and confirmed by the European Parliament; the Council of Ministers, which brings together political and diplomatic representatives of member states; and the directly elected European Parliament—are all essential parts of the complex process by which the EU produces European law that takes precedence over national legislation. In this sense, they are all the European legislature.

The one small remaining problem with enlarging the European Union is How? How do we achieve something that Europe has never managed before? How on earth can this thing work with 27 member states when it barely works with 15?

Equally, any attempt to characterize a single "union method" is frustrated by the fact that, since the Maastricht Treaty, the European Union (as it then became) has had two other so-called pillars, beside the "first pillar" of the old Economic Community. The second pillar, for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the third, for Justice and Home Affairs, both work by rather different methods and generally rely on more direct cooperation between national governments—"intergovernmentalism" in the jargon.

The simile of "pillars" was supposed to conjure up the image of a classical Greek temple. However, when you notice that the pillars don’t match, and when you take into account all the other major buildings and outhouses—the Economic and Monetary Union (responsible for the euro currency, formally inside the first pillar, but with its own independent European Central Bank in Frankfurt), the Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, the Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, to name but a few—the result looks more like some higgledy-piggledy hilltop castle, with additions made in the style of the time by each succeeding generation: here a medieval wall, there a baroque tower, there again, a little gothic folly. Perhaps only Europe could have produced something so complex in just 50 years.

The traditional way to engage in the "European Debate" is to propose a set of changes to the "architecture" of this rambling castle and crown the redesign with a catchy term or slogan. Thus Joschka Fischer advocates a "European Federation," Jacques Chirac says we need "not a United States of Europe but a United Europe of States," while Tony Blair’s motto is "a superpower not a superstate." There will be much more of this between now and 2004.

Between Unity and Collapse

"Peace impossible, war improbable"—thus Raymond Aron famously summed up the Cold War. Of the European Union in the early twenty-first century I would say, "unity impossible, collapse improbable."

To be sure, unity means different things in different European languages. But almost nobody is now talking about a "United States of Europe" in the way they still were 10 years ago. The growing number and diversity of member states make such agreement ever less likely. The EU’s annual budget is pegged to spending less than 1.27 percent of the EU’s total GNP until 2006, and member states seem little inclined to give it more. Some federation!

Unity normally comes about in the face of an external threat and/or with major external encouragement. Towering over the West European "founding fathers" of the European community in the 1950s, such as Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide de Gasperi, there was a larger trinity: Hitler, Stalin, and Truman. The horrific memory of World War II, the immediate Soviet threat, and very direct American encouragement: all catalyzed EU-rope’s bonding. Now the memory of war has faded. A threat from rogue states, international terrorism, or (allegedly) "the Islamic world" really does not compare with the old Soviet one. And, as we have seen in American responses to the proposed European Rapid Reaction Force, the United States is ambivalent.

"Collapse improbable" is a more risky statement. After all, every previous alliance, coalition, entente, empire, community, or monetary union of European states has collapsed sooner or later. The EU is different because of its intimate mesh of habitual cooperation and its many permanent,institutionalized mechanisms for resolving conflicts. This is no longer the Concert of Europe, meeting occasionally at a Congress of Vienna or Berlin. It is a permanent Orchestra of Europe, meeting and playing together all the time. Moreover, most previous arrangements collapsed because one European state tried to dominate the others—to be a hegemon. The EU, by contrast, is a systematically nonhegemonic order of European states. Germany is the biggest single power but it is not a hegemon.

The former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright reportedly once said that to understand the European Union you have to be either a genius or French.

Between impossible unity and improbable collapse comes the range of what is probable for the next 5 to 10 years. The EU will not achieveanything like the U.S. Constitution. Depending on the constellation in 2004, it might arrive at a quasi-constitutional document that spells out—in a fashion that does not require a Ph.D. in European studies to understand—who does what and why. The alternative is a continuation of evolutionary pragmatism, with ever more bits and pieces being added onto the ramshackle castle, at the behest of different member states or European institutions, behind a large banner of merely declaratory coherence.

The Nice Treaty spells out the terms on which smaller groups of states can formally establish "enhanced cooperation" in chosen areas, as they have in practice done for years, on everything from abolishing border controls to monetary union. A second range of possibilities therefore concerns which individual states will be involved in what EU activity. At one end of this range is an imagined pattern, still favored by some French and German writers, of "concentric circles." At the "hard core" is a circle of states, led by France and Germany, that are involved in every kind of EU activity, from a common currency to a common defense. Outer circles contain states, like Britain, Finland, or Poland, that are involved in only some. At the other extreme would be a loose, polycentric pattern of numerous different groups of states getting together in "enhanced cooperation" for many different purposes—defense, environmental cooperation, monetary union—but without any clear central circle. The former pattern risks collapse through the classic European reaction against a power or alliance striving for dominance; the latter is collapse.

The most likely outcome will fall somewhere in between. All member states, new and old, will be committed to certain core activities, mainly those of what used to be the European Economic Community: the single market, which aims to secure the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital across all member states (the EU’s "four freedoms"); competition policy, supposed to achieve a "level playing field" in this single market; trade negotiations on behalf of member states with the United States and the rest of the world; and so on. However, different circles of "enhanced cooperation" will overlap that central one. Thus, for example, Britain might be in the circle for defense but not the one for abolishing border controls. Austria or Finland might be in the latter but not the former. The most difficult question here is whether, in the long term, the single currency circle can be different from the core economic one. If it cannot, then planning needs to begin for a monetary union of more than 20 different nation-states. But how will that work?

What EUrope Is—and Isn’t

Some Europeans hope, and some Americans fear, that EU-rope will become a superpower. One view, still quite prevalent in France, is that EU-rope should be a rival superpower to the United States. Another, more widespread in Germany and Britain, is that it should be a strong partner for the United States. On paper, an enlarged EU will be even bigger and stronger. But EU-rope will not be a superpower. For the foreseeable future, it will not have the capacity to focus political will, backed by economic might and military force, for the concentrated projection of power outside its borders.

At the moment, it looks as if EU member states will have difficulty reaching even the modest target of 60,000 well-equipped, well-trained, and speedily deployable troops in the European Rapid Reaction Force. This force may eventually be used, say, to extract some Europeans from a troubled African country or in a minor role elsewhere. It is most unlikely to do more on its own. Yes, in trade and aid negotiations, the EU may be a power as important as the United States. But that does not make a superpower. When it comes to foreign policy, the answer to the question that Henry Kissinger may or may not famously have asked—"you say Europe, but can you tell me which number I should call?"—is plain. Europe is still a conference call.

EU-rope is a formidable economic community. It is, increasingly, a community of shared European law. The EU may not be good at projecting power or security, but it is itself a security community—a group of states for whom it has become unthinkable to resolve their differences by other than peaceful means. And most other states on the continent want to join it. Moreover, though very far from being a direct democracy, or likely to become so, it is a community of democracies. However imperfectly, those democracies control and hence give legitimacy to its working. Measured against the European past—and the Balkan present—that is a lot to be happy about.

If you look for a coherent, rational, transparent, democratic structure, you will be disappointed in the EU-rope of 15 states, and probably even more so in a EU-rope of 27. If, however, you think of it as a process rather than a structure, a method rather than a piece of architecture, you need not be. And you can be rather more optimistic about a EU-rope of 27, or 37, continuing somehow to work. To adapt Churchill’s famous remark about democracy: this is the worst possible Europe, apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time.

These observations do not add up to a comprehensive argument, let alone to a design for Europe. However, they do suggest an answer to the question with which I began. Europe will, indeed, never be Europe, because it is becoming Europe. But this does not mean that it must return to being Europe again.