Is the European Union pursuing a version of Trotsky's doctrine of "permanent revolution"? The unlikely suggestion that it is was made in an article in The Economist on 3 February.
There is good cause, however, to question whether the EU is being too ambitious in its revolutionary zeal. It's likely that the Union is going to attempt "three vast and radical tasks all at once," namely: launching the single currency on 1 January 2002; accepting new members in a major new EU enlargement; and debating a proposed constitution which would decide once and for all the power structure of the EU, its member states and their regions.
"Each of these tasks," suggested the article, "is big enough on its own; setting about all at once, when each has implications for the other, is a bit like trying to ride a monocycle on a tightrope while doing a spot of juggling at the same time—a hard act, but not impossible."
If anything, this underestimates the problem. To expect to pull off any one of these grand projects without a hitch is unfeasibly optimistic. So for Trotsky, read Lewis Carroll. A more appropriate parallel for the over-ambitious EU would be that of Alice's White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who boasts of being able to do six impossible things before breakfast. In attempting to simultaneously achieve even three impossible things, the EU is pushing its luck.
The euro is now a given. Granted, euroland countries still need to work hard and avoid many pitfalls for the currency to merely be established successfully (longer-term behaviour is another matter entirely). And in reprimanding Ireland for its modestly inflationary boom, the European Commission (encouraged by the European Central Bank) has raised the spectre of smaller countries getting pushed around in future monetary decisions—in the long term, a probable source of serious tension.
The issuing of notes and coins next year will be a major undertaking, but the main point about the euro is that it will, indeed, happen despite opinion poll evidence that Germans and others regret the loss of their old currencies. At the present moment, The Economist notes, officials in Brussels are "oddly relaxed" and "many of them seem to be treating it as yesterday's issue."
After the Nice summit, the EU enlargement has also now built up a good head of steam, and it seems probable that up to six new member states will accede to the Union in 2004 or 2005, with at least the same number again queuing up to join sooner or (in some cases) later. Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, is making the cause a priority.
However, the Belgian presidency that takes over for six months on 1 July 2001 seems likely to prefer the campaign for a formal EU constitution. Strong support will come from Germany, which has recently been setting the pace in this latter debate. Germany's natural sympathy for federalism derives from its own historic success with the structure, plus the fact that "the most powerful member of a federation is not often outvoted or outclassed," as Martin Woollacott wrote recently in The Guardian.
Yet charging into this constitutional debate right now is dangerous. It seems likely to expose deep divisions, both between and inside states, stoking the fears of the majorities or substantial minorities in every nation that are nervous about more integration. Thus, it could easily threaten the success of the other two major changes.
"It might be deemed sensible to try to achieve an informal unity of policy before trying to impose unity institutionally," wrote Woollacott in the same article. The constitutional project does seem foolhardy when the constituent parties have such varying conceptions of what that constitution should be. The advent of the euro has certainly laid bare the emergence of a de facto two-speed Europe, though it is debatable whether the B-stream will wish that situation to be set in stone, as it could occur if the status quo is constitutionally enshrined. Some governments even lack enthusiasm for the very principle of having a formal written constitution.
Instead, the EU should follow the line favoured by Sweden and concentrate on enlargement. In this cause Sweden is backed by Britain, which declared itself the "champion of enlargement" last year. France's real enthusiasm for enlargement has long been in question, but, irrespective of that, she is certainly not comfortable with Germany's current pursuit of a federal EU constitution.
The old alliance wobbling
Indeed, Franco-German tensions are higher than they have been in a long time, and President Chirac's meeting with Chancellor Schröder over dinner in Strasbourg on 31 January was the clearest sign yet that both sides acknowledge there are differences that require addressing. Unlike the White Queen, it appears that they did not solve the "impossible things" they were there to discuss, but they put the nosebag on anyway. At least Helmut Kohl would have approved of that.
The shifting balance of power between France and Germany takes place in part as a reaction to the changing realities of Central Europe. A report from the December 2000 inter-governmental summit claimed: "The sense in Nice is that the old Europe—where France and Germany held equal sway—is shifting. A wider Europe is unfolding, one stretching from Barcelona to Bucharest, where English is the common language and German power is more assertive."
By championing enlargement, the Labour government in London has seized the initiative in this changing environment. This is both a principled position—believing it to be a historic duty to reunite Europe—and very much in Britain's interests too. Firstly, enlargement deflects attention away from thornier questions that are much harder for a British premier to discuss, such as the euro.
In addition, building alliances with the candidate countries, as signified by prime minister Tony Blair's very deliberate choice of Warsaw as the venue for his big European speech last year, continues Britain's strategy of individual issue-based alliances with Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Sweden. These have helped increase the UK's influence, irrespective of the other major powers' inclinations.
In the same light, Britain no doubt sees future EU members to be good long-term investments. (Note that in the post-enlargement Council of Ministers Britain will be able to form a blocking minority in alliance with Poland plus as few as three other CEE members). In this light, Britain is likely to continue to push hard for enlargement, and the tide is currently moving in that direction.
The Union's success
Is enlargement, then, just another issue on which states divide according to their own selfish interest? I would argue not.
From the historical viewpoint, the EU's most successful role over the past 44 years has been in promoting peace and prosperity for its member states. Founded in the wake of the Second World War and developing under the cloud of the Cold War, the EU has fulfilled its primary aims of avoiding war between its members and promoting mutual prosperity( which were to be achieved through managing and reintegrating the previously unstable power of Germany). The successful reinvention of the latter into the modern, liberal, democratic Federal Republic has been perhaps the great post-1945 success story.
Herein lies the appeal of the EU to the candidate states in Central and Eastern Europe, and to those former Yugoslav republics also now keen to join the queue. Not only is the EU equated with riches, but there is also a belief that underneath the sheltering umbrella of a union, loose or tight, of diverse nation states, the fears and prejudices of virulent nationalism will not find fertile ground in which to take root (though a quick glance at the worst excesses of the British tabloids might disabuse you of this notion.)
Whether EU membership is sufficient to promise everlasting peace is, of course, debatable. Terrorism, or low-level civil war, has been a commonplace in the Northern Irish and Basque regions. The EU's efforts at resolving the Yugoslav wars of succession failed hopelessly.
But, at the very least, if nations with open societies are in the habit of addressing their grievances with each other through diplomatic and bureaucratic institutions, peace will be given the best chance.
Enlargement as a shot in the arm
Recent European parliamentary elections, opinion polls and referendums in EU member states—especially the Danish "No" vote on the euro—demonstrate the Union's current crisis of legitimacy. The problem exists not only in the more sceptical states such as the euro-refusenik Britain, Denmark and Sweden. All over the Union there is hostility or apathy towards European institutions, politicians and officials; election turnouts are low and falling; the euro may be inevitable, but it is also unloved.
Right now, the countries showing the strongest popular support for the EU are to be found in Central and Eastern Europe among the accession candidates. From their viewpoint, the benefits are clearer, and the enthusiasm for membership shown by their politicians (a commonplace throughout most existing member states, too) is matched by comfortable majority support from their populations (which is not necessarily the case in current members).
However, opinion polls show this popular backing has been declining in the accession candidates. Existing EU countries have dragged their heels over enlargement, shown their parsimony over agricultural subsidies, expressed their fears of migrant population inflows and generally seemed to erect ever more obstacles to entry. As this has gone on, the more transparent have become their selfish motives and the less glamorous has Fortress Europe appeared to its suitors. A real danger exists that the precious commodity of popular support in applicant countries will be wasted away.
In the longer term, enlargement offers the chance not only to stabilise and revitalise the new member states—helping spread that peace and prosperity throughout Europe and beyond—but also to provide a re-energising shot in the arm for the Union as a whole. It would be criminal to let this chance slip. So, let's not become obsessed with constitutions: two impossible things are quite enough for the time being.
Oliver Craske, 9 February 2001
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- "Permanent Revolution for Europe's Union?" The Economist, 3 February 2001, pp 43-44
- Anatole Kaletsky, "Reprimand Shows Folly of Pulling Tail of Celtic Tiger," The Times, 6 February 2001
- "Permanent Revolution...," p 43
- Martin Woollacott, "Germany's Strength Shows Up the Union's Weakness," The Guardian, 2 February 2001
- See, for example, "Europe 2010," Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's speech of 13 November 2000 at the Social Market Foundation, London
- Lionel Barber, "Late Nights in Nice," Financial Times, 9 December 2000