On balance, is the EU a success or a failure?
by Roland Stalder, Jean-Jacques Subrenat, Daniel Marthaler *
28 May 2017
The Treaty of Rome was signed sixty years ago. Results can only be assessed by comparing them with the initial targets. And whatever the outcome, the responsibility of the EU as a result of what it did or failed to do must be separated from the effects of broader, sometimes global forces.
The EU has come under fire from the media on a number of counts including, among other things: Member States being deprived of their national sovereignty, the increased cost of living since the introduction of the Euro, a worsening security situation due to the massive inflow of refugees, rising crime rates... Part of public opinion seems to overlook the fact that no decision is made in Brussels without the assent of the EU Member States (by unanimous or majority decision, depending on the subject) and tends to forget that no EU directive is applicable in any Member country without being transcribed into that country's domestic law.
That being said, criticism is nevertheless justified in a number of instances. Over the decades, EU institutions have piled up an unbelievable amount of regulations covering vast areas of public policy, and it's hard to say whether this accumulation was due to administrative routine or to complacency on the part of national representatives staying too long in Brussels. The principle of subsidiarity1, according to which a matter must first be dealt with at the level closest to the citizen and user, has not always been enforced. Many member countries want national regulations to apply to a larger number of products (e.g. snuff or "snus" in Sweden), and to some traditional food (e.g. fermented products).
The media often focus on what they see as a lack of consideration for « the will of the people ». In the case of France, the referendum held in 2005 rejected the draft EU Constitutional Treaty. The referendum in the Netherlands produced the same result. It is a fact that by adopting the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, Member States accepted a number of articles which had been rejected in the 2005 draft2. Just as a reminder, a national referendum can only be organized by the government of that country, and the EU as such plays absolutely no part in the process. So it is unjustified and unfair to blame the EU for a national referendum, whatever the outcome may be.
Many governments have used the rallying cry « it's Brussels' fault » to try and explain national failures such as weakened competitiviy, declining industry, rising unemployment, decreased purchasing power, social disruption, malaise and violence. In the case of the United Kingdom, propaganda of this type has long been peddled by the Murdoch media group whose founder holds passports from Australia and the USA, but not from the UK. The same arguments are extensively used in France by « Front national » and « France insoumise », in Austria by the « Österreichische Volkspartei », and in Great Britain by UKIP and some Conservatives, to mention but a few.
And then, along came a US President who encouraged EU Member States to « follow the example of Brexit »! Jokingly, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared that henceforth he would promote the secession of Ohio and Texas. Juncker is quite right: in the face of such gross interference from the other side of the Atlantic, humor is the best policy.
Criticism is quite justified in other areas as well, for instance regarding the insufficiently coordinated policy and implementation of migration in the EU. Some member countries proclaimed their willingness to take in migrants and refugees, but failed to check that the transit countries (say Bulgaria in or Turkey outside the EU) could bear the social strain and indeed had adequate infrastructure to withstand such massive flows. Such a poorly coordinated policy and the lack of means to tackle the problem have placed a disproportionate burden on some countries (Italy, Greece, Balkan countries, Turkey) in terms of intake capacity, social tension and budget expenditure. In addition, the lack of adequate and coordinated controls on the borders of the EU has heightened the risk of potential terrorists entering the Member States.
The humanitarian crises in Lampedusa, Rhodes, Calais and elsewhere have underlined the need for a thorough review of the Schengen Accords, not by putting in question the principles upon which they rest, but by making the whole system more efficient and sustainable in the long run. This cannot be acheived without a clearly defined joint migration policy and the means to fully carry out its tasks.
There have been many recommendations regarding the future of the EU, ranging from fairly simple corrective measures (e.g. simplifying rules in agriculture) to much more comprehensive reform (revision of the Treaties, new allocation of responsibilities between Member States and EU institutions). But for such an ambitious reform to succeed, Member States must stop blaming EU institutions for the results of national policies, or for joint policy being poorly implemented at a country level. One thing is now quite clear: there is no way the European project can be acheived against public opinion.
In this day and age, success or failure are often assessed in numbers. So here are a few numbers: the EU accounts for about 7% of world population, around 22% of global PIB or 17% in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. In world trade, the EU accounts for 15% of all products and 16% of all services (2014 figures3). Established in 1999, the Euro monetary system and common currency is now the second denomination for transactions throughout the world, behind the US Dollar and ahead of the Chinese Yuan. And since October 2006, Euro banknotes and coins represent the largest currency in circulation in the world.
Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, the EU can also be judged without numbers. The fact that there has been no armed conflict among member countries is an important result, even though this may seem quite normal to the younger generations. But we need to remain vigilant: shortly after the UK Prime Minister sent a divorce letter to the EU, tension flared up between London and Madrid, with the UK Secretary for Defence warning Spain that tampering with the status of Gibraltar would lead to military retaliation4.
Over the past few decades, many regional cooperation or coordination projects across the world have specifically taken the European Union as their model: Mercosur in Latin America5, Caricom in the Caribbean6, African Union in Africa7, ASEAN in South-East Asiat8, and even the Eurasian Union steered by Russia9. As Jeremy Rifkin pointed out in 2004 in « The European Dream10», a number of emerging or newly independent States found inspiration in the EU to chart their own efforts, for legislative, social, economic and monetary modernisation. According to Rifkin, the European model had a wider influence that the United States as a model for innovative public policies.
We live in an era when countries and regions cannot exist in isolation. The success of the EU and its Members States depends, to a large degree, on their intereaction with the rest of the world: this will be discussed in Letter 4.
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* The personal opinions of the authors do not purport to reflect the positions of institutions or bodies to which they may be linked. R. Stalder, a Swiss national, is an engineer who has held executive positions in industry. J.-J. Subrenat, a French national, is a retired diplomat. D. Marthaler, a Swiss national, is a communications consultant. Subrenat wrote the French version, while Stalder drafted and Marthaler reviewed the German version. The English version was drafted by Subrenat and reviewed by Carole Sunderland. Each assumes responsibility for his linguistic version.
1Principe de subsidiarité, voir : http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ftu/pdf/fr/FTU_1.2.2.pdf
2Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who chaired the committee on the Constitutional Treaty, later declared : « Ils sont partis du texte du traité constitutionnel, dont ils ont fait éclater les éléments, un par un, en les renvoyant, par voie d'amendements aux deux traités existants de Rome (1957) et de Maastricht (1992). (...) La conclusion vient d'elle-même à l'esprit. Dans le traité de Lisbonne, rédigé exclusivement à partir du projet de traité constitutionnel, les outils sont exactement les mêmes. Seul l'ordre a été changé dans la boîte à outils. La boîte, elle-même, a été redécorée, en utilisant un modèle ancien, qui comporte trois casiers dans lesquels il faut fouiller pour trouver ce que l'on cherche ». Voir le paragraphe « Reformulation du texte dans le Traité de Lisbonne ». See: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A9f%C3%A9rendum_fran%C3%A7ais_sur_le_trait%C3%A9_%C3%A9tablissant_une_constitution_pour_l%27Europe
3 EU economic indicators, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_European_Union
4 British concerns about Gibraltar, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-gibraltar-falklands-war-senior-conservatives-fallon-howard-a7662656.html
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