When I am asked to describe the European Union, I often say that it is a bit like a mirage. We all know how a mirage works. From far away, the image is clear and strong. As you get closer, it starts to wobble and shimmer until eventually it disappears.
The EU is like that. Seen from national capitals, be they London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava or Madrid, it looks clear and distinct. It has its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks. But as you get closer to Brussels, this image begins to wobble. Finally, when you are really up close, it disappears altogether.
What is left are our own national leaders – German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and so on – taking decisions between themselves in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working-group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions, but it is closely policed by member states.
Traditional EU institutions, like the European Commission, have lost much of their power in recent decades, with a leading role played by the European Council, which is made up of heads of state and government. Even an institution like the European Central Bank, with its shiny new headquarters in Frankfurt, is far weaker than many think. Its new powers were foisted on to it by national governments keen to distance themselves from the responsibility of solving the Eurozone’s economic and financial crisis.
Looking at the EU as a whole, we cannot say that it stands above its member states, dominating them and issuing orders that national governments must comply with. In fact, the EU is these member states. But why doesn’t it look that way?
A European Union of member states
The reason is that the states at the centre of ‘ever-closer union’ are not the traditional nation states of the kind described by AJP Taylor in The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918, his work on 19th-century balance-of-power politics. Instead, they are member states: states whose power and legitimacy are entirely bundled up with their membership of transnational communities of rule such as the EU.
Rather than deriving their power internally, from their own subjects, governments of member states derive their power from sources externally, in particular from relations forged with other governments and international organisations. The most extreme case of this was Italy a few years ago. In 2011, when Silvio Berlusconi was ousted from power, he was replaced by Mario Monti. Monti’s authority derived from the support he received from outside powers: global markets, other EU leaders, the European Central Bank. When he tried to win over the support of Italians themselves, he failed miserably, with his Civic Choice party gaining only 8.3 per cent of the popular vote in the 2013 elections.
Many other examples exist of governments relying on external sources of support. In late 2015, Portugal’s president argued in a televised speech that being against the EU’s austerity policies and being an opponent of NATO was ‘unconstitutional’. He argued that the very existence of Portugal as a constitutional state depended on membership of these organisations and adherence to their rules. This is rather like the SNP’s vision of Scotland, whose independence was to be guaranteed and made official by Scotland joining the EU. Membership of such organisations has become a constitutive element of statehood.
Hollowing out democracy in Europe
Far from being a positive development, this shift from nation states to member states is the result of a hollowing out of national democracy. The response of governments to the political and economic crisis of the 1970s was to dismantle the many links between states and societies that made up the post-1945 ‘mixed economy’. This elite strategy of withdrawal from society evolved over time into a distinctive and new type of state.
In member states, national legislatures tend to be weak and are often overwhelmed by powerful executives. Negotiations between governments in international settings have become the dominant mode of policymaking, replacing deliberation within national parliaments. Rather than being expressions of the same political community, executives and legislatures are often at odds with one another. European governments regularly oppose the granting of more powers to their own national parliaments in EU policymaking, out of fear that it would weaken their own grip on the EU’s policy process.
Rather than following the logic of representation, which was broadly the case with nation states, state-society relations in member states are characterised by the logic of antagonism. As Peter Mair observed in his book on contemporary Western democracy, Ruling the Void, the political class has retreated into the state and the citizens have retreated into the private sphere. Between the two is a gap, a ‘void’, and neither side understands the other. A striking example of this was the Irish government’s response to the Irish people’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Asked to explain the result to the Brussels press corps, the Irish foreign minister Michael Martin was visibly baffled – and embarrassed – by the result.
Making sense of the UK referendum
How does the idea of the EU as a union of member states help us understand the UK’s EU referendum?
One of the most striking aspects of the current campaign has been the use of the borrowed credibility of foreign leaders and non-partisan organisations, by the Remain side in particular. A key point in the campaign was US president Barack Obama’s endorsement of Remain, which was feted by the prime minister, David Cameron, and the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, as proof of the rightfulness of their position. Osborne in particular has relied on the views of the Bank of England, the IMF and the OECD, who have all endorsed his Remain position.
In fact, much of the campaign has been fought over who is giving their backing to Remain or Leave, rather than the issue of the EU and the UK’s role within it. Who you are standing next to has become as important as the arguments themselves. As one poster by DiEM25, the self-declared ‘pro-democracy movement’ founded by ex-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, put it: ‘If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?’ This is the kind of slur one might expect in a school debate, but it is ubiquitous in the current campaign. Crucially, it tells us that authority in arguments is won not by what you say but by who you can point to as supporting you. Such is the understanding of authority and legitimacy in a Europe of member states.