Making sense of the EU

I have not written much about the EU in these columns because it’s hard to know what to make of it. On one hand, it’s the most important political invention since the second world war-an experiment in voluntary union which transcends the old conflict between nation-state and empire, and serves as a model for a cooperative world order. However, its very voluntarism makes the EU politically ineffective. It is an economic giant, but a political pigmy. It is full of empty symbolism and bombastic rhetoric, overloaded with ‘processes’ which lead nowhere. It has some of the trappings of a state, and a state-like array of ‘competences’, but its main institutions are riddled with ‘opt outs’, and its members retain veto powers over its most vital functions.

The post-war European Movement had two aims: to end the recurring cycles of destructive wars on the European continent, and to create a ‘Third Force’ between USA and USSR. Only political union, it was argued, could match the continental-sized giants on either flank. The first aim was achieved, though historians argue about whether it was the EU which created peace, or the peace imposed by the Cold War which made possible the EU The second aim was never achieved. Western and Eastern Europe became parts of the American and Soviet blocs, voluntarily in one case and involuntarily in the second. The end of the Cold War gave opportunity to reunite the two halves, and in 2004 the EU became a Union of 27 states. Today it spreads like a great jelly fish over most of the Continent, but without a central nervous system.

If you ask a Frenchman what stops the EU becoming one of the ‘poles’ in a ‘multipolar’ world, he will answer in one word: Britain. The French view of Europe has always been hierarchic. Its three most powerful states –France, Britain, and Germany –should agree on a foreign and security policy and act on it. Britain, the French argue, has kept the Union weak in order to protect its ‘special relationship’ with the United States. As against the French, the British have always argued that the most important thing is to maintain the transatlantic alliance. NATO is the command centre of the alliance, and nothing should be done to weaken it. NATO is more important than the EU. The weakness in the French position is Germany. Germany, while basically Atlanticist, has tried, since the Ostpolitik of the 1970s, to balance the USA by developing a ‘special relationship’ with Russia – a historical reflex going back to Rapallo in 1922. However, post-war Germany has been too pacifist for the French goal of multipolarity, so that France’s only plausible military partner is Britain, which disagrees with the French design.

This complicated battle has been fought out over the question of the so-called Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The issue is: should the EU build its own security system or should it continue to rely on NATO? France and its allies have been pressing for the EU to create a defence capacity independent of NATO, while Britain insists that any EU military capacity should be part of NATO.

Latterly the situation has been complicated with the enlargement of the EU to include the former Soviet satellites of eastern Europe. While Russia looked to Germany and ‘old Europe’ to balance the United States, the new members see the USA as the only protector against the Russian drive to limit their new-found independence: hence the current row over the missile defence shield.

Many commentators argue that Europe must either cohere or disintegrate. More likely, it will stagger on under an increasing mound of paper unless or until a real crisis jolts it out of its rut.