Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A failure to understand

No matter how often pundits, learned or otherwise, proclaim that the European Union is unique, most commentators still insist on seeing it within frames of reference with which they are familiar. Unfortunately, they end up failing completely to understand the nature of the Union and, in so doing, struggle to understand what the "project" is all about.

A case in point is Michael Gove, that supremely important Times columnist, who has gravely instructed us over many years in the ways of things political. But, while no doubt savvy in the ways of Whitehall and Westminster, even he appears to have very little idea of how the EU is constructed, and how it is run.

That much is evident from his column in today’s paper, where he pronounces on the functioning of the "European Council", describing it as "the EU's supreme decision-making body".

Gove's first mistake is to confuse the European Council with the Council of Ministers (abbreviated simply to the "Council" in the constitution), which is an altogether different institution within the EU, with different functions, powers and make-up. When he refers to the said "European Council", he actually means the "Council".

As I had cause to do when I wrote an earlier Blog (also on the European Council), I have to warn the reader that this is no mere semantic difference.

The European Council is the institution comprising the heads of states and governments, whereas the Council is the portmanteau term which describes the various sectoral groups of national ministers which meet periodically to approve legislation proposed by the Commission. The two institutions are as different as chalk and cheese.

But Gove's second, and even bigger mistake is in describing the "European Council" – by which he means the Council – as "the EU's supreme decision-making body".

That it isn't thus is self evident from the simple knowledge that the Council increasingly performs a joint function with the European parliament in approving legislation (the process known as co-decision) and is therefore on a par with the parliament. But it also stems from knowledge that the powers of the Council are limited merely to approving the Commission's legislative proposals see separate Blog.

But perhaps Gove's biggest mistake is a reflection of his own limitations – which are entirely understandable – in that he insists on seeing the EU through the filter of his own experiences, and thereby seeks to impose a neat hierarchical structure on the organisation which simply does not exist.

I am sure that, in his ordered little world, Gove sees a neat pyramidal structure, with the Commission as the bottom, as a sort of quasi-civil service, topped by his "supreme" body, the Council. But it ain't like that at all. What we have in the EU is, in all senses of the word, unique. For once the description is not overblown.

In essence, The EU is an institutionalised conflict between two ideologies and two incompatible structures, each co-existing uneasily within the same organisation, locked in a battle for survival from which only one will emerge victorious.

As to the two ideologies, the core of the EU is "supranationalism", this being the Monnet model of a technocratic, centralised government, embodied in the Commission. The other is "intergovernmentalism", supposedly free co-operation between independent, sovereign nation states, with governments coming together to resolve issues of common concern. Within the EU structure, this is currently embodied in the form of the European Council.

Rather than having a hierarchical relationship, these two bodies are in their own ways rival governments of the EU, although as the Union is currently structured, each have their own domains and fiefdoms, with only a few areas of overlap. Largely, the Commission deals with the "low politics" of technocratic micro-management – such as the administration of the Single Market – while the European Council lays claim to the "high politics" of foreign policy, security and defence.

Where the battle lines are drawn is in the areas of overlap, with the Commission continually seeking to break out of its own domain into "high politics", forever getting slapped down by the European Council, which in turn is seeking to extend its own domain at the expense of the member states.

Therein is the underlying tension which dominates the struggle for a "constitution for Europe". Above all else, it is an old-fashioned power struggle between two rival ideologies, each seeking to carve out territory at the expense of the other, and both at the expense of the nation states. As it stands, both get something out of the constitution and the net losers are the nation states.

But until Mr Gove and his fellow commentators get their heads round the basic structures of the EU, they will not even begin to understand these dynamics. We will be returning to them in future Blogs but, in the meantime, Mr Gove could perhaps benefit from reading The Great Deception.

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