Learning to Love the European Union

By Hockenos, Paul | Foreign Policy in Focus, May 14, 2009 | Go to article overview

Learning to Love the European Union


Hockenos, Paul, Foreign Policy in Focus


Most Europeans today can travel from Athens to Helsinki without a visa or changing currency, thanks to membership in the European Union (EU). In the current throes of the global economic crisis, the Euro zone is an enviable shelter to weather the storm. But 50 years after its creation, the EU can appear as hapless as Agamemnon waiting for a wind to blow his fleet to Troy. With campaigning now in full swing for the European Parliament elections in June--the largest supranational democratic endeavor ever--the EU is stalled, desperately in need of a few breaks to bring it back on course.

Why is it that the European Union finds itself stranded today, with so many of its visionary projects indefinitely on hold? After all, in various incarnations since 1957 the Union has guided the reconciliation of postwar Europe, and tutored both former right-wing and communist dictatorships to democracy. Economically, it's brought unprecedented prosperity to the most remote and underdeveloped corners of its 27 member countries, in all nearly 500 million people--the world's largest single market. Countries on Europe's edges are queued up to relinquish sovereignty and conform to its globally unrivalled consumer standards, climate change targets, and anti-discrimination laws. This "soft power" of attraction has proven dramatically more effective in changing regimes than military might. So alluring is its model that countries in Africa, South America, and Asia all hope to duplicate it.

Yet today the EU is in a quandary. It has nearly doubled its size since 2003, and aspires to be a political and global geopolitical actor commensurate with its economic prowess. In order for it to act effectively--and expand further, for example, into the Balkans and Turkey--it must reconfigure its institutions and rules. This was the purpose of the constitutional treaty and its scaled-back successor, the Lisbon Treaty, both of which required ratification by all (now 27) member states. Where ratification took place in national parliaments, both treaties sailed through. But--a damning indictment--where the decisions were in the hands of the people, they were stopped cold.

Popular Sovereignty

In knock-down, drag-out national referenda, the citizens of France, the Netherlands, and Ireland expressed their legitimate frustration with the EU's "democracy deficit" and non-transparency, voting down the historic treaties that would, paradoxically, have made the regional structure more democratic and transparent. These defeats neither signaled the EU's disintegration nor the resurgence of ethnic nationalism, as is so often heralded most vocally and with premature schadenfreude in the United States. But they certainly dealt a setback to the European project and the alliance of left liberals, social democrats, greens, and citizen action groups that have expended tremendous energy to make the treaties the basis of a more progressive European Union.

Ignominiously, part of the blame for these defeats lies at the feet of Europe's more radical leftwing factions--like Germany's Left Party, the Greek communists, Attac, and Sinn Fein--that tapped into a highly disingenuous populism to help kill the treaties. In doing so, their "no" campaigns converged with those of right-wing nationalists and Euro-skeptical free-marketeers, who oppose the EU for all the wrong reasons. In the end, the leftist anti-Europe campaigners served foremost the interests of the nationalists by handing them their most spectacular victories ever over the European Union. Though imperfect, the treaties would have given left-of-center coalitions in the European Parliament and in the national states the best means ever to fight for a socially just, ecological, post-national Europe.

Since the vote in Ireland a year ago, the reform treaty has been amended and will be put to the Irish voters again in the fall after the European Parliament elections in June. Polls now show the Irish backing the treaty.

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