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Myth Five: creating a European superstate

Posted by Richard Friday, February 11, 2005

Here we go again, with the fifth myth from the FCO, up on the website since yesterday. This one is: "The constitution creates a European superstate".

As always, this is the "straw dog" technique at work. Many Eurosceptics argue that the end-point of the "project" is intended to be a superstate, but no one I know has ever expressed the view that the constitution actually achieves that objective. For those who see the end point in these terms, it is merely another step along the way, and not the last one by any means.

The closest we get to it recently is Michael Ancram, during the second reading debate of the European Union Bill, who argues, not without justice, that the constitution – via the Bill – "leads us through that gateway towards a country called Europe".

I would not argue that Ancram’s view is not reasonable. We have a political organisation that has its external border, its own government(s), a civil service, a parliament, a supreme court, its own policies, and many trappings of a country, including the flag, anthem and even passport.

However, many readers will recall the piece we posted by Mark Leonard, Centre for European Reform, with the passage from him that we quoted:

Europe's power is easy to miss. Like an 'invisible hand', it operates through the shell of traditional political structures. The British House of Commons, British law courts, and British civil servants are still here, but they have all become agents of the European Union implementing European law. This is no accident. By creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over countries without necessarily becoming a target for hostility.
That passage becomes highly relevant here, for two reasons. Firstly, as Leonard points out, the EU "operates through the shell of traditional political structures" and, secondly, it can "take over countries".

There is another factor to consider - one with which most experts will agree - and that is simply that the EU, as an organisation, is unique. There is nothing else like it in the world, and there is nothing which even comes close to it.

Taking the Leonard thesis, with which we completely agree, there is a scenario which wholly transcends the "superstate" argument. Since the EU "operates through the shell of traditional political structures", we could accept that there is no intention that the EU should become a country or a state, much less a superstate.

Instead, it could be argued that it is interested in taking over the reins of power, dominating the governments of its member states but leaving the shells of their political strictures – and all the trappings of statehood – in place. In effect, its ambitions are to become a "super government", not a superstate.

"Brussels" becomes the central government, relegating the national governments to the equivalent status of the county council. You could say that the EU is taking the "r" out of "country".

However, the FCO does not even attempt to address these issues and, even in its own terms, makes a very poor fist of arguing its case.

It starts by declaring that, "the EU is an international organisation" - a self-evident and somewhat irrelevant fact - and then dives in by stating that:

The first article of the Treaty (Article I-1) defines the European Union "on which member states confer competences to attain objectives they have in common". The EU has no powers of its own, only those which the UK and the other members have agreed to share.
From there, it asserts:

The limits of EU authority are set out clearly for the first time. The Treaty sets out where the EU can act. Powers not conferred on the EU remain for the nations to exercise.
Now, in what is classic FCO "weasel-wordery", vocabulary is vitally important here. If we re-write the first part of the passage in parenthesis, using clearer words, we get: "...to which the member states give powers". The meaning is unchanged – all we have done is substitute direct synonyms to make it clearer.

Next, look at the first part of the following sentence: "The EU has no powers of its own…". Clearly, if the first assertion is true, that the member states give powers to the EU, that second part-sentence cannot be true.

Move forward now, to: "Powers not conferred on the EU remain for nations to exercise", and turn it round. It becomes: "Powers conferred on (i.e., given to) the EU, do not remain for the nation to exercise."

Putting all this together, the thrust of what the FCO is saying is: The EU has no powers until member states give them to it but, once they are given to the EU, the nations can no longer use them. This is, in effect, the thrust of Article I-12 (2):

When the constitution confers on (gives to) the Union a competence (power) in a specific area shared with the member states, the Union and member states may legislate and adopt legally binding acts in that area. The member states shall exercise their competence (power) to the extent that the Union has not yet exercised, or has decided to cease exercising, its competence (power).
Thus, the only case the FCO is making is that member states give the EU power and, when the EU uses them, they can no longer use them. It does not even begin to address its own "myth".

Having thus failed, the FCO moves on to claim that: "Nation states set the agenda". But that simply is not true. Within its areas of competence (power), as we know, the commission has sole right of proposal and, as we also know, at the beginning of its term, it sets its work programme. That is the agenda, and the nation states have no control over it.

All the FCO does, however, is state that the treaty:

...creates the new post of President of the European Council (the decision-making body of national Governments). The full-time President would replace the current rotating system of six-monthly Presidencies. This will make the council more coherent and more effective. Britain was a strong supporter of this idea. It will mean national governments working in the council will be better able to set Europe's long term agenda and ensure it is delivered.
Sorry – again this is simply not true. The European Council can set a political direction in areas outside the competence of the commission but in the areas of commission competence, it can only reacts to the commission. It cannot tell the commission what to do.

The FCO now lamely makes three points. Firstly, it claims that: "National Parliaments have a direct say for the first time":

The Treaty gives national parliaments new rights to scrutinise proposals for legislation, to ensure that the EU acts only where it will add value. If a third of national parliaments reject to a proposal, it is sent back to the European Commission for review.
David Heathcoat Amory answers that one rather effectively.

Its second point is: "The Queen will remain the Head of State", which is true - but so what? The EU operates through the shell of traditional political structures and the Queen could be – and is being – steadily robbed of powers. But even if her role ended up as purely ceremonial, she could still be nominally the head of state.

Finally, the FCO argues: "We keep national vetoes over key areas". These, it claims, are over the most important areas – tax, social security, foreign policy, defence and the UK's contribution to the EU budget. There, unanimous agreement is still required. Over asylum and immigration, it concludes, "we remain out, only exercising our right to opt-in when it is in Britain's interest."

The absolutes do not apply. In all those areas, the "competences" of the nation states are being eroded, and the vetoes, with each treaty, are gradually being whittled away. But even this point does not address the substantive issue – what is the end-point, the final destination of the project? On this, the FCO is silent.