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Is Europe working?

Posted by Helen Thursday, September 09, 2004

Puzzled by the number of articles I read in American publications about Peter Mandelson’s free-trade, free-market credentials and how he was going to help reform the European Union in that direction, I asked a number of my contacts in Washington where that story came from.

Most of them are still trying to work out who Peter Mandelson is exactly but one did reply. His explanation was that nobody in the States actually knew anything about him and they took their cue from the Financial Times, who first floated the idea of the new free-trade oriented, reform friendly Commission. The FT may well be responsible for the other interesting notion, particularly dear to American free-marketeers: that the new member states will somehow overcome the basic integrationist, protectionist, centralizing ideology of the EU, inject new life into its economy and take it down the road one would like it to go.

This is a very convenient idea. The new Commission has been taken over by free-traders; the new member states will reform the European Union and revitalize its economy as well as set back the integrationist tendencies; there is nothing really wrong with the EU that cannot be cured by a new Commission. So, why don’t you all stop moaning about the nasty things that are about to be set right and vote for the Constitution?

There is a serious misunderstanding here of the basis of the EU. Although, as we have pointed out in a previous blog, the accession of the new states has had and will have certain unpredictable results, most of those are likely to be in foreign policy and geopolitical attitudes. It remains questionable whether the economic and social basics will change.

The main problem is the assumption that somehow the EU is a free trade, liberal economic alliance, whose aim it is to create a free market, but somehow it has gone wrong somewhere. This is not a peculiarly American view. A number of commentators on this side of the Atlantic share it. Many of them are the people I have in the past described as perestroika europhiles. Others are supposedly eurosceptic but keep talking about the need to reform the EU. Their great cry is “Europe is not working.”

Well, I have news for all these people: Europe is working. It is working precisely as it was intended to work, give or take a few minor hitches. The overall aim is to create a political system, dear to the hearts of all fonctionnaires of whatever nationality, that is managerial, rather than political. Instead of legislation we have multiannual plans and annual Commission work programmes, put together by the civil servants of that organization, not the Commissioners.

Instead of democratic accountability we have scrutiny that has no power at all. Instead of open decisions by elected politicians after open(ish) debates, we have networks of lobbying organizations that do deals behind closed doors and decisions taken without any need to account for them to anyone.

The aim as far as social and economic policies are concerned is to turn the EU into one vast corporation that is run on corporate lines where elections, elected representatives and democracy become optional extras. They will go on existing but will have no more importance than the frills that allegedly covered the legs of pianos in Victorian drawing rooms.