European Union: the perils of over-reach

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jun 4 2005, 05:30am hrs
With its rich tradition of art, history and culture, Europe has always been an eternal draw to other people, a region that requires no further sales pitch. Aside from its great wine, food and fashion, it is also home to some of the most enduring ideas and notable accomplishments of mankind, including the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, Socialism and Democracy. For many developing societies, much of their modern history is inextricably linked to that of some great European power or another. In many ways and for many people around the world, Europe has become an essential piece of mental software that is always running in the background, whether you click on it or not, a trustful repository of our past activity log.

But these days, it can be a perplexing place, and not just for those of us on the outside. As repeated polls indicate, most of its citizens would find it nearly impossible to say what exactly the grand experiment of the European Union is all about, or what the difference is between a multitude of Brussels-based entities that all sound so similar (European Community, European Commission and European Council, just to name). Or even what the new EU Constitution, which was so roundly rejected in both France and The Netherlands, says and does.

There are two essential facets of the EU story, with the really interesting aspect being their apparent mutual contradiction. First, the EU has indeed been a success despite all the post-referendum gloom in Europe and quiet glee in the US. It began over 50 years ago rather modestly as a coal and steel community, and over this time has gone on to become one of the broadest economic alliance in history and perhaps the most innovative political development as well. Paperless travel, one currency (for most, anyway), and a uniform set of product and service standards, just to name a few tangible steps that have vastly improved the quality of most peoples lives.

In other words, over 25 governments that speak for over 500 million people have willingly agreed to constantly consult each other on even the smallest domestic issue, pool resources, share power and effectively dilute their individual sovereignty. It is negotiated interference, not imposed, that requires a good deal of self-confidence on the part of the member states. Try doing that in South Asia, where we cannot even agree on basic maps of border areas or what to discuss at the next summit meeting, and it will be easier to appreciate the extent of EUs success.

But then theres the other side, of a supranational organisation, consisting largely of unelected leaders nominated by their respective governments but not really accountable to anyone. This is a picture of a EU that has gradually become so mesmerized by its own halo, and so consumed by its technical success in areas such as trade and fishing, that it has lost touch with its own people and has instead mutated into a bureaucrats dream.

Just look at the language and issues that Eurocrats surround themselves with, those that leave most people either befuddled or cold: subsidies, resource allocation, harmonization, budgets and standards. These are important issues, but talking all the time about efficiency and markets is frankly very sterile. What EU now lacks is that critical heart of the matter.

In fact, EU has often been trumpeted as the ideal post-modern state and one of the most successful faces of the new order, but globalisation is not just or primarily about, well, globalisation. It is about people, the sum of their fears, their big or small aspirations, their mutual discovery and their self-image. It is also about being in control over your own lives and your own neighbourhoods, or at least feeling so. It is certainly not about top-down unionising or clubbing.

And that is the twin problem of the EU, its over-reach and its elitist style. While it was just dealing with the price of scrap, coke and coal, no one gave the concentration of bureaucratic power much scrutiny, but when, as today, the EU decides over things that affect the lives, hopes and even fears of its citizens in very fundamental ways, it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that somewhere something has gone overboard.

The EU has been an amazing success story, but not in the lofty United States of Europe kind of grand vision of the political elite. Its true success is not in Brussels but in the tens of thousands of local people-to-people projects that bring students together, allow hospitals to share critical expertise or provide a common knowledge and cost-sharing platform for municipal agencies. Its success is in creating a pan-European identity and an alternate moral force in global affairs. But it is not, and perhaps never was, in official structures or documents.

EU as a soft force, that was always the unspoken vision of its true founder, Jean Monnet. The No vote may be a blessing in disguise if it forces European leaders to revisit the original blueprints.

The writer is editor of India Focus