Sunday, September 19, 2004

Myth of the week

The European Union is an association of freely co-operating nation states

"Are you going to co-operate sir?", says the policeman. These days, you are lucky if you get the "sir", but the scene is as old as the hills. You survey the options and conclude that the alternative is to get roundly beaten up, with the end result being the same as if you came quietly. Meekly, you allow yourself to be led down to the cells.

No one but a pedant would argue that this is an example of "free co-operation". Yet this same pedantic myopia drives the claim that the European Union is an association of freely co-operating nation states.

To deal with this particularly glib, and pernicious myth, however, one has to address it at several levels.

In the first instance, one can agree that, in the construction of the European Union – through its various stages from the European Coal and Steel Community, the EEC and the EC - free co-operation has been involved, at least between the political elites who agreed to set up the structures.

The essential issue here, though, was the nature of the co-operation and the result. In setting up the structures, Jean Monnet and the other founding fathers were not seeking an organisation to foster co-operation. They had seen co-operation in action in the League of Nations and had seen how, in its own terms, it had failed.

Instead, they wanted structures where co-operation was not necessary - where the free choice of nation states could be over-ridden and the will of the majority imposed.

To that effect, Monnet engineered a structure in which the central component was a "High Authority" – later to be given the more neutral name of "Commission". This was a proto-European government which had the power to command nation states. To enforce its commands, Monnet also created a supreme court with the power to impose sanctions on defaulters.

In these important respects, the EU is very different from WTO and especially NATO, which it is often compared. Neither of these organisations has governmental or quasi-governmental powers, neither can make binding laws and neither has a supreme court which can impose sanctions on its members.

The irony inherent in the EU, however, is that Monnet – and his fellow travellers – needed the free co-operation of nation states to implement his structures. It remains a mystery why supposedly democratic national politicians – jealous of their own powers – so freely co-operated in handing over those powers but history suggests that, in many important respects, those politicians did not know what they were doing, or did not fully appreciate the consequences of what they were doing.

Nevertheless, the upshot is that, while politicians representing their own states "freely co-operate" in handing over powers to the EU’s government – the Commission – once those powers have been handed over, co-operation is left at the door. If member states do not comply with the laws they have co-operated in making, they can be hauled before the European Court of Justice and sanctioned.

As the point of decision as to whether to obey a law, therefore, the nation state has very little choice – even if it disagrees wholeheartedly with that law. It could refuse to co-operate with the Commission in the same way I could refuse to co-operate with a policeman who invited me to accompany him to the cells. But if it acquiesces – which it most often does - that is not free co-operation.

Of course, this is territory in which the pedant could excel. The nation state is not obliged to remain within the treaty framework which compels it to obey the Commission. But then I am not obliged to remain within the societal framework that gives a policeman power to deprive me of my liberty. I could always emigrate – as indeed the member state could leave the Union.

But the fact is that that the consequences for the nation state (or the politicians of that state) on the one hand, and the individual on the other, of stepping outside their frameworks are not acceptable. Therefore, in our own ways, we permit the established order to compel us to do things that we do not wish to do.

In this sense, co-operation is not the issue – it is in fact a red herring. The issue is “permission” and here I have some sympathy with Europhile arguments. Primacy of EU law applies because the respective governments (and parliaments) of member states permit it.

Thus, the EU and all it stands for is not something imposed on us by these “dreadful foreigners”. It is imposed on us by our own governments and politicians, who permit the treaties to apply. Voluntarily thus do they enslave their peoples – and, to an extent, voluntarily, we as a nation allow them to do so.

But that is not an association of freely co-operating nation states. It is an association of slaves.

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