CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
A key member has seceded. Others have turned authoritarian. Russia is encroaching. Its response to the pandemic has been ineffectual. Is the EU dead?
An American reader of the Cosmopolitan Globalist, whom we’ll call Henry Hill, sent us this series of propositions about the EU:
The project of a united Europe has never been objectionable to me, despite its status as an object of reflexive loathing on the American right. We’ve forgotten just what a bloody and dangerous font of violence Europe used to be—costing hundreds of thousands of American lives in the process—and so we forget that a deadening bureaucracy suffocating the Continent is a much preferable alternative to the historical precedent.
The European Union then is preferable to the bloc politics and subjugation that characterized most of European history. Churchill understood it, and the French strategists who saw the value in a superstructure tying Germany to themselves understood it.
Nevertheless the EU is dead. Consider:
- The European Union was unable to prevent or persuade against the secession of one of its largest constituent nations.
- The European Union was unable to play any meaningful role in a pandemic that ravaged several of its member states.
- The European Union was unable to prevent or preclude a Russian military mission entering one of its major member states.
- The European Union was unable to prevent, or bring consequences for, one of its member states from sliding from democratic liberality to authoritarian dictatorship.
- The European Union was unable to provide credible security guarantees to its member states as NATO went into precipitous decline.
The European Union is dead. Something will arise in its place. But this is Europe: we should be prepared for the possibility it will be something worse.
IS EU BUREAUCRACY SUFFOCATING?
Is Mr. Hill right? Let us consider his propositions in turn, but first let us examine one of his premises.
Mr. Hill is correct that the European Union has become, for inscrutable reasons, an object of reflexive loathing on the American right. Usually, phrases like “deadening bureaucracy” are involved, but it is unclear whether those who deploy such phrases have had any personal contact with this bureaucracy. I have lived in Europe some thirty-odd years; I don’t believe I’ve come into contact with this bureaucracy even once.
Europe’s national bureaucracies range from deadening to superb. To the extent there is much of an EU bureaucracy at all, it is good enough, as bureaucracies go. Generally, if you’re deadened by a European bureaucrat, it is a local one, not a European one.
National politicians tend to blame the EU bureaucracy for their own incompetence, but usually, even a cursory inspection reveals who is really at fault. It is France’s own bureaucracy, not the EU’s, that drives French entrepreneurs batty; it is not the EU, but Germany’s own bureaucracy—its Federal Disease Control and Prevention Agency, to be precise—that is now efficiently rolling out Europe’s first large-scale Covid-19 antibody testing program.
It will linger, perhaps, as something like the Holy Roman Empire in its later years, a ghostly structure that lingers for generations even as power, in reality, is exercised only by its member states—a form not unlike the Austro-Hungarian Empire Stefan Zweig describes, which in fact it has always resembled.
But Mr. Hill takes as given that a deadening bureaucracy suffocates the Continent. The charge suggests there was a Europe, prior to the EU, where bureaucracies were lean, mean, sleek and streamlined—or even a Europe with no bureaucracy at all. But why would he think this?
The greatest essay ever written about bureaucracy is “Bureaucracy,” by Max Weber, in his magnum opus, Wirtschaft Und Gesellschaft. Where did the idea of bureaucracy as as a threat to individual freedom come from? Max Weber. To whom do we owe the image of a bureaucracy that leads to a “polar night of icy darkness” trapping humanity in a soulless “iron cage?” Max Weber. The relationship between these images and that of a deadening bureaucracy is clear.
But Weber wrote this essay in 1921—in Germany, half a century before the foundation of the European Union founded. Weber was not writing a purely theoretical tract: He was inspired by the bureaucracy he experienced.
The etymology of the word “bureaucracy” is another clue about Europe’s former bureaucratic condition. The word—literally, “government by desks”—was the satirical invention of the French civil servant Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. He was appointed France’s intendant du commerce in 1751—again, well before the founding of the European Union. De Gournay was best known for his belief that government regulations stunted commerce—that they were, one might say, deadening. (He also invented the terms bureaumania, laissez-faire, and laissez-passer.)
What might have inspired him to think this way? Not the European Union.
For anyone poised to object that “deadening bureaucracy” must, surely, have been a problem confined to the Continent but unknown to Britain in its halcyon days, before the arrival of the busybodies from Brussels, I commend to you this fascinating study by Peer Vries: “Public finance in China and Britain in the long eighteenth century.”
There may be a country, somewhere in the EU, that has had a different experience, but having lived in France before and after the EU, I can say with authority that the amount of deadening bureaucracy in France has declined, not risen. If France is now less dead, bureaucratically-speaking, this is in some ways because the EU urged more rational bureaucratic standards upon it; if it is more commercially vibrant, this too may be attributed in some measure to EU regulations.
The EU’s Consumer Rights Directives, in particular, had a salutary effect. The stereotype of France as a rude and miserable country with terrible customer service was once warranted, but is now laughably outdated. The mysterious death of French rudeness is a sociologically complex phenomenon, and the reasons for it are hard to disambiguate, but the adoption of the Consumer Rights Directive played a role. Customers became entitled, by law, to return faulty or defective goods. This, along with the experience the French obtained in conducting commerce across a broad region where customer service is generally pleasant—and expected to be pleasant—transformed French commercial culture, and much for the better.
So “deadening bureaucracy” isn’t quite the right starting assumption.
Another reader of the Cosmpolitan Globalist, Xavier Lewis, works as a legal advisor to the European Union. He weighs in on this proposition thus:
There are a bunch of us beavering away in our incommodious and thoroughly depressing offices in Brussels. Mr. Hill is semi-correct that the bureaucracy is a deadening one, but he selects the wrong target. It is a bureaucracy that blunts national bureaucracies, clearing the way for folks to go about their business without let or hindrance (or at least, much less bureaucratic grief than before). Consequently, you can buy stuff from abroad without filling in endless forms, queuing in remote, dismal customs offices, and paying dues, charges, fees, taxes and duties. You can choose phone operators and call for nothing. You can cross borders, pop up to Brussels (you’re welcome to come when that’s possible again, by the way) without being searched, questioned, searched again.
That’s why, when Britain first joined the EEC back in ‘73, roughly 800,000 trucks per year carried goods the Brits needed or wanted from the Continent. I remember stories of truck drivers detained for days in Dover as their merchandise rotted and perished while the paperwork matured. Now, over four million per year cross between Calais and Dover alone, a fact of which the British minister conducting the Brexit negotiations was blissfully unaware. The Brussels bureaucracy has reigned in the national bureaucracies, so that people can do more as they please: a living experiment in Berlin’s (Isaiah, that is) negative freedom.
Now let’s move to Mr. Hill’s propositions. “The European Union,” he writes, “was unable to prevent or persuade against the secession of one of its largest constituent nations.”
The EU’s fundamental flaw is that when push comes to shove, it cannot discharge the protective functions of the state.
The UK’s vote to secede has profoundly damaged the EU, no doubt. The most extraordinary aspect of the story is that it happened in a fit of carelessness. No one wanted it to happen. The Brexit vote represented brinksmanship in negotiation gone too far.
But note that Britain has not, truly, seceded. Everyone knows that the Britain must be declared “out of the EU” so that all parties to this imbroglio may save face. And so the talks go on. But it’s unclear what will ever result from these talks, particularly now that the coronavirus has emerged from reality to slap all parties in the face.
Given the pandemic, few in Europe can quite remember why they were so adamant about the free movement of people. Everyone in the UK is too embarrassed to admit they just didn’t think much about the difference between trading with Europe for things like pharmaceuticals and trading, say, with China.
Only open supply chains to the Single Market have prevented the UK from confronting empty supermarket shelves during the pandemic. A taste of food shortages in late March reminded the UK that supply chains are no joke. No one can now, seriously, imagine that the government will just cut them at the end of the year if the EU doesn’t bend to its will.
Similarly, no one in the UK can quite remember why they objected to having so many immigrants from Europe, given the NHS is staffed by them. Columnists in Britain are now asking, in all seriousness, how Britain will solve the challenge of attracting enough immigrants to make up for the loss:
The National Health Service is buckling under the weight of rising demand as is faces a severe staffing shortage.
With recruits from the European Union beginning to leave the NHS in greater numbers, the question of how to staff our hospitals and care homes becomes more acute.
More than 40,000 nursing roles are currently unfilled amid a sector-wide crisis.
Note: That was published in The Telegraph, hardly an anti-Brexit voice.
So in practice, “Brexit” no longer means “secession,” it means, “negotiations that may well last into the 26th century toward a goal no one cares about anymore, so long as it never really happens.”
A new round of talks began yesterday. This sums up the situation:
Britain and Brussels embark on a third round of trade talks Monday with little hope for a breakthrough, amid the far more urgent challenge of dealing with the coronavirus crisis. The new negotiations will begin with a virtual head-to-head between Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and his UK counterpart, David Frost—both of whom have recovered from a bout with the virus.
The object of these negotiations, though no one can say it, is to negotiate forever, because it is well understood that if Britain were truly to secede, the costs would be intolerable. The last thing anyone actually needs or wants during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression are high tariffs and customs barriers between the UK and EU.
Nonetheless, Britain may manage to secede for the very same reason it voted for Brexit—through carelessness. It would be traditional, after all, for Europe to sleepwalk right off a cliff because no one had the good sense to stand down.
Ultimately, if everyone is sensible, what will emerge is a Britain that is, in reality, mostly in the EU, but insistent that it is not. The EU will accede to a few of the UK’s original negotiating demands, which it should have done in the first place. The UK will agree to most of the EU’s demands, while losing all of its influence over EU policy. All of this could have been negotiated without Brexit, and should have been, because this has been an entirely needless drain and an embarrassment to all parties—as well as a long-running torture to EU citizens who live in the UK and vice-versa.
But in the end, the UK will not really “secede.” It will just proudly call itself “out of the EU” while maintaining a renegotiated but roughly similar relationship to it.
Many citizens of the UK and the EU, however, will be mutually hostile and estranged. This weakens the West, which is an unfortunate outcome.
Mr. Hill says, “The European Union was unable to play any meaningful role in a pandemic that ravaged several of its member states.”
The EU failed to cover itself in glory, it is true. But it has done more than people realize. It shoveled 3.8 billion euros toward the Western Balkans, for example, and it accelerated 5.2 billion euros in loans from the European Investment bank. It spent three billion euros, from its own budget, on the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for medical equipment and the Emergency Support Instrument, which finances and coordinates the cross-border transport of medical equipment.
The EU has certainly done a great deal more than China—not just for Europe but for its neighborhood. The extent to which China, which was responsible for the pandemic, managed to position itself as Europe’s savior is not proof that China is a more effective actor, only that it is more adroit in publicizing itself.
But in the real world, “adroit at publicizing oneself” matters more, to most citizens, than reality, and the initial, panicked response—in which EU countries both hoarded supplies and stole each others’—won’t soon be forgotten. Nor will the debacle over coronabonds, revealing not only a “lack of European solidarity,” as the phrase goes, but an extraordinary lack of economic foresight among the northern countries. Their economies are export-based, to whom do they imagine they’ll export their goods if Spain and Italy collapse?
This this was when Germany should have the foresight that led American planners to arrive upon the Marshall Plan (and for the same reasons). But Merkel is stuck. If she does the sensible thing, she runs the risk of riling up Germany’s far-right. The problem here is not the EU, however. It is the outbreak of right-wing populism that has put national leaders in a vice.
THE REDS IN ROME
The European Union, Mr. Hill observes, “was unable to prevent or preclude a Russian military mission entering one of its major member states.” Again, this is true. But who expected this? The EU is not a defense treaty. NATO is a defense treaty. This was not an EU failure: It was a NATO failure.
This, in turn, is a function of the United States’ retreat. Power 101: When the United States abruptly leaves—anything or anyplace—a vacuum remains. Had the United States been visible in Europe during the pandemic, doing what we used to do as Europe’s regnant hegemon, Russia would not have filled the void.
It was never reasonable to expect Europe to be anything but the junior partner to a global superpower. Europe will never be capable of acting as a united superpower in its own right: It is too thoroughly blackmailed by its own history.
In a larger sense, Mr. Hill is correct to observe that Russia is putting growing and ever-more overt pressure on Europe; it has consolidated its position as Europe’s energy overlord. Absent the kind of risk-taking and visionary policy for which Angela Merkel is not known, Europe will henceforth be locked into a subordinate relationship with a Russia that uses energy as its tool of choice for blackmail, and a Turkey that uses desperate human beings.
As Europe continues to fragment, Russia and China will expand their influence. The United States must choose whether it wishes, as it has since the Second World War, to work with Europe as a useful, indeed an essential junior partner, or to hand its fragments to China and Russia.
Should the latter happen, it would not be because the EU has failed, but because NATO has failed.
“The European Union was unable to prevent, or bring consequences for, one of its member states from sliding from democratic liberality to authoritarian dictatorship,” writes Mr. Hill. About this, we are in agreement.
Some day, I would like to explore the archives and try to figure out precisely why Europe failed at this, the most obvious and imperative of tasks. But I suspect the answer lies less in any specific moral failing and more in the ungainly structure of the EU, which was poorly designed from the outset because it had to be. No country would have accepted the project if it had been clear from the beginning that it involved a massive compromise of sovereignty, so enforcement mechanisms with teeth were never built into the thing.
THE FUTURE OF THE EU
So is the EU in a healthy condition? No. Mr. Hill is right to be uneasy. But not precisely for the reasons he suggests.
The dissolution of the EU has been predicted time and again; every time—so far—it has managed to hang together. But with each crisis, the stresses accumulate. The pandemic has created a new set of stresses altogether.
So Mr. Hill is right, I think, to say that the disintegration of European institutions is not unthinkable. Free movement, he notes, has already come to an end.
What’s more, though he does not note this specifically, Europe has failed, despite all the warnings, to formulate a cogent plan to admit migrants and refugees in some rational way, leaving it open to blackmail by Turkey, which before the pandemic was endeavoring to shake down the EU with threats to to flood it with millions of refugees. Another migrant crisis, combined with pressure on the euro might prove fatal.
That said, in the countries that really matter, commitment to the EU remains solid. French and German citizens alike have been horrified by the achievements of right-populists in power in other countries, the United States especially. I suspect these movements have, in both countries, been discredited sufficiently that while I would not say it’s impossible, I would say it’s unlikely that they will come to power. Right-populism has literally been killed off in Italy: The elderly of Lombardy were the heart the Northern League; those who survived seem unimpressed with populism in action:
As local families have seen elderly relatives dying alone in overflowing hospitals or nursing homes, the League-led regional government, which runs the health system, has faced increasing criticism from its own supporters.
“For us seeing the hospitals full and the ambulances that didn’t arrive was unthinkable,” said Ivan Dallagrassa, who runs a building company in Gorno near Bergamo and lost an uncle and probably an aunt to Covid-19. “At the last elections I voted for the League because I liked Salvini but I wouldn’t do it again.”
The EU’s fundamental flaw is that when push comes to shove, it cannot discharge the protective functions of the state. The European Union does not reflect the will of a single nation-state, or the will of an empire, based on the ability of a central political entity to dominate its periphery, or some form of established European national identity with deep historic roots. Even the Austro-Hungarian Empire had in Austrian power—diminished as it was after 1866—a stable and powerful center. All of European history—all of world history—argues against a federation with no force to back it up and no way to impose its will upon member states. The EU is, in effect, an empty empire. The only national identities up for grabs are the old national identities of the chief nation states of Europe.
The pandemic will accelerate the removal of fig leaves and make evident the principle that real power lies, as it always has, with Europe’s states. The process is already well in motion. Macron has been giving stirring speeches about repatriating French production lines and never again allowing France to be dependent upon other countries for medical equipment.
Germany has performed well precisely because it never expatriated those lines in the first place. The story of this is more complicated than people realize, as I’ve written elsewhere. France is preparing, too, for a reversion to dirigisme, and I suspect this will be more popular than it should be. Particularly with the UK out, the EU will somehow rewrite the rules to permit France to do as it will.
Europe’s nation-states never abandoned their sovereignty in the way many Americans have imagined. After the terrorist attacks of 2015, for example, France sent a polite note to the European Court of Human Rights explaining, regretfully, that it would be unable to uphold its treaty commitments. It faced no repercussions for it.
I do not believe the EU will collapse in some spectacular fashion. It will linger, perhaps, as something like the Holy Roman Empire in its later years, a ghostly structure that lingers for generations even as power, in reality, is exercised only by its member states—a form not unlike the Austro-Hungarian Empire Stefan Zweig describes, which in fact it has always resembled. It may continue to serve useful functions; it may persist as something like the UN, in so far as the UN may be used, by more powerful states, to provide legitimate cover for its actions (as, for example, in the Korean War).
At this point, it would be worth a shot to try fundamentally rebuilding it. A politician who was radically honest about the EU’s failings, but had a better idea to offer than “shambolic right populism” or “shambolic left populism” might be able to exploit this crisis to transform the architecture of the EU and make it a more effective entity. Macron has hinted that this is his ambition, but has gone about it in a way that’s alarmed rather than inspired too much of Europe, particularly in his opening to Russia. What’s more, he doesn’t have the domestic capital to sustain this kind of foreign policy vision.
The EU is stricken, but it is not dead. It will continue to exist in some form.
AND IF IT SHOULD COLLAPSE?
Mr. Hill is right to say, “This is Europe: we should be prepared for the possibility it will be something worse,” if only for the reason that this is a rule that applies to every human experience. But what kind of “worse?”
The Europe of today is different, demographically, than any Europe of the past. This is true of the whole developed world, China included, but I am less concerned about “what comes next” than I might be if Europe’s population were larger and younger.
Europe’s problems will not be the same as before. The EU has already fulfilled its destiny, in some sense: France and Germany have experienced several generations of peace, prosperity, cooperation, and economic integration, allowing forgetfulness mercifully to blanket the Continent. If these days I said to a French student, “Pensons-y toujours, n’en parlons jamais!” it is fully possible he’d have no idea what I was talking about.
It’s hard to imagine the recrudescence of the acute Franco-German animosity that characterized the period from the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War to the end of the Second World War. The Furor Teutonicus has been tamed—permanently, I think. One never knows for sure, and certainly, given Germany’s last performance, one can’t blithely say, “What could go wrong?” But in my great hierarchy of global geopolitical worries, I can honestly say that I lose no sleep imagining that France will be invaded by Germany.
What does concern me is that without a healthy, united, and economically vibrant Europe, allied to the United States, liberal democracy has no future. Again, it is a simple matter of addition. The free world either hangs together or it hangs separately.
Europe is in trouble, but the trouble lies with the US, not the EU. The United States is retreating from its role as the guarantor of Europe’s security—the role that made Europe’s export-led growth model possible.
The United States could, in principle, play a significant role in shaping Europe’s future. It should. It is very much be in its interest to do so. The Trump Administration is incapable of this and won’t. But a Hypothetically Competent Administration—hereinafter an HCA—would grasp that preserving the Transatlantic Alliance and promoting Europe’s cohesion, economic recovery, stability, and friendliness to the United States must be among its highest priorities. An HCA would, moreover, understand why the European Union has fallen upon hard times. Having the right diagnosis is essential if you’re to form the right policy response.
Mr. Hill says as much: “The European Union was unable to provide credible security guarantees to its member states as NATO went into precipitous decline,” he notes. But this should come as no surprise at all. None of this—not NATO, not the EU, not a peaceful Europe that has ceased to export its violence to the rest of the world and even contributed much of use to it—can work without American power and hegemony. That’s always been the case and it always will be the case. We designed it this way. We designed it this way because we learned, at incalculable cost, that this was the reality of the world.
When Americans declare prematurely that Europe is a failure, it reveals a historical sensibility only possible among citizens of a very young nation. Out of four blood-soaked millenia, only the past three-quarters of a century have seen a tolerably peaceful Europe.
This is the best it has been, very likely the best it will be, and it is very good indeed compared to what we might call Europe’s natural state—a point Mr. Hill implicitly concedes when he observes that we’ve “forgotten just what a bloody and dangerous font of violence Europe used to be.”
A sensible US foreign policy would not prematurely write off the EU, but work in close partnership with European states to strengthen it. We should not greatly exaggerate reports of the EU’s demise.
Claire Berlinski is the co-found and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.