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More Union in the EU Doubtful

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Posted on Apr 30, 2013
Shutterstock photo of EU flags.

By William Pfaff

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has consistently said that the answer to Europe’s problems is more political integration, and this is a view held elsewhere among those trying to find a way out of the conundrum that the economic crisis has presented to the European Union.

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, told the Financial Times last weekend that he harbors hope for this elusive “more union” in the more aggressive role the parliament has recently assumed in the Union’s affairs, as in recently voting a legal limit on European bankers’ bonuses and in scrutinizing the EU budget, which it has threatened to reject.

There will be pan-European parties and party alliances running candidates in next year’s parliamentary elections. These elections in the past have seemed rather pallid affairs with declining participation. They attract relatively little attention in the major countries (at least), and voting usually is overwhelmingly influenced, indirectly if not directly, by local rather than pan-European issues and personalities. The parliament’s work also tends to be ignored, except on big issues crossing national lines (like the bonus ban), because there is no popularly read pan-European press, and while everyone has an opinion about “Europe,” relatively few quite know what goes on in Brussels.

The European Commission’s presidency, currently held by Jose Manuel Barroso, will also be up for election next year as a new term begins, and Martin Schulz is widely thought a candidate. He believes that the elections to renew parliament and president may provide an opportunity to rescue the EU, currently endangered by conflict over economic issues and remedies, with a split between the German-led hard-line debt-expunging northern states and the beleaguered French, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and other “southerners.” France actually is in-between, and potentially the pivotal actor in the present crisis, but currently has a split Socialist party, and an until now indecisive president, who has squandered his political resources on a gay marriage and adoption law that deeply divides the country.

The domination of economic policy by northern EU states led by Germany, imposing austerity on the rest, has recently been weakened because of the increasingly formidable intellectual challenge to its supposedly objective analyses and remedies, as well as because the policies simply are not working. Austerity is killing Europe because of what it is doing to the lives of voters, and politically the southern bloc is closing in on a point of generalized political upheaval.

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The “More Europe” remedy favored by Chancellor Merkel seems plausible enough as a slogan, but so did the single currency. I do not myself fully understand what is meant by closer political “unity” (or integration, which obviously is what we are talking about). The monetary union is in deep trouble because of the different budget constraints and needs of the member countries, their respective debts, productivity and GDP positions, reflecting their different industrial export and import performances.

Is the EU prepared to impose common social and domestic government policies, today reserved to individual governments? Brussels until now has recognized that nation-scale government provides the appropriate and most efficient level of government action. Shengen, the single market, the systems of common action concerning Europe-wide trade, product regulation, farming and fishing policies and limitations, banking and safety standards all have been handled pragmatically without changing the nature of the EU.

Similar constraints would seem to exist when one turns to foreign policy, where a common EU policy has been attempted but has largely failed. France today is an interventionist state with a perceived zone of interest covering the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Maghreb, and West Africa—its former colonial zone, where it has economic interests and has drawn most of its immigration. It took part in the Yugoslav succession wars but as part of the U.N. Protection Force, and then with NATO.

Britain, also an interventionist power, carried out Margaret Thatcher’s spectacular recapture of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands from Argentina in 1982, but otherwise has mostly confined itself to accompanying the United States in successive Middle Eastern and South Asian interventions. The same is true of Denmark, and to an extent Italy and Spain: Their policies have been related to their NATO membership and their relationship with the United States.

Otherwise, for the most part, European foreign policy has been essentially a matter of political, diplomatic and financial interventions, usually in connection with U.N. decisions or programs, or those of the NGO community. I can think of no major international initiative that would be considered a positive independent European foreign policy action; and the nature of the EU itself, with its requirements governing membership consensus or majority decision on controversial matters, would seem to preclude such actions in the future.

This is in part due to NATO’s existence, which provides the military arm of the Western alliance. But NATO itself is going through reconsideration of its own raison d’etre. In the post-Cold War world, “defense” has ceased to be a European preoccupation. That may (or will) one day change, but as a consequence of actions by the great powers of Asia, America and Eurasia. It is perfectly possible that Europe may one day need to create a new instrument of common defense or a military alliance, but this is an irrelevant consideration today.

Political union may be sought as necessary to the creation of a single and exclusive central bank and a common fiscality, but is this acceptable to the public? One is left asking what closer political union can bring to the EU without a full transfer of national sovereignties to European institutions. This seems neither feasible nor wanted.


Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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