Problems with the EU according to Jean Quatremer

It’s an unfortunate fact of life: there are some bad people out there.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the Chairman of the German SDP and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the Chairman of the German SDP and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt

And for French journalist Jean Quatremer, the European Union is home to more than its fair share.

In his new book, The Bastards of Europe, the EU expert puts numerous high-profile Eurocrats on blast for sabotaging the EU – like current President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker ‘who spent 25 years turning his country into a tax haven’ – or for using their mandates for personal gain, like his predecessor José Manuel Durão Barosso, who is criticised for working for the Goldman Sachs, a notoriously unscrupulous bank.

In our recent interview with Mr. Quatremer, he described such ‘bastards’ as those who ‘deliberately act against the best interests of Europe and the European public.’

It is they who are responsible for the poor functioning of European institutions, he says, and the deterioration of the EU’s public image. In short, they are the baddies.

In The Bastards of Europe – which is yet to be published in English – Mr. Quatremer unpicks the ten biggest criticisms levelled at the EU and explains the mechanisms that the ‘bastards’ have been able to exploit.

Jean Quatremer, author of 'The Bastards of Europe.'
Jean Quatremer, author of ‘The Bastards of Europe.’

1 Europe was made behind closed doors

This is true, says Quatremer, but how else could the EU have been founded? “History shows that Europe was built not as the result of the peoples’ will,” he said in our interview, “but rather of a combination of internal and external circumstances, of political momentum and tactics.”

2 Europe is the new USSR

The argument that Europe is a new empire being constructed against the will of the people was popular in France around the time of the referendum on the Constitutional treaty in 2005, and has since been adopted by many European demagogical political parties.

But the EU has none of the characteristics of the USSR ‘empire.’ It was not founded by a state that forced its authority on others by military force. On the contrary, the EU is a voluntary association of sovereign states, and Brexit shows that any state can leave the Union.

There is no central European power; all decisions are made by the member states. The supreme body in the Union is the European Council, composed of heads of state or government, and the Commission only executes the European Council or the Council of Ministers’ decisions.

There are only five federal domains in the EU: monetary policy, the customs union, competition, trade, and conservation of marine biological resources. All other jurisdictions are shared, and who decides on how they are distributed? Again, the states.

Admittedly, the Commission holds the monopoly on legislative initiative, but 95% of its initiatives relate to applying the European Council’s decisions. Moreover, all propositions are prepared with groups of experts delegated by the states.

All high-ranking officials are nominated by the states, and last but not least, members of the European Parliament (EP) are selected by national parties, as elections to the EP are held within the individual countries.

“Member states are everywhere, they narrowly control whatever happens in Brussels, consent to share their sovereignty only in domains where common action is more efficient, and are free to leave whenever they want.”

European Parliament Strasbourg
European Parliament, Strasbourg

3 Europe is undemocratic

‘EU democracy’ certainly keeps citizens at arms length, says Quatremer.

In a democracy, the people must be allowed to choose both the Government and the Legislator through free and egalitarian elections (based on the one-person-one-vote principle), while any democratic government must vulnerable to to lose its power through elections.

The EU doesn’t meet these criteria.

However, as Quatremer points out, the EP has become progressively empowered. The Single European Act of 1986 granted it consultative powers, while the Maastricht Treaty provided it with the power to make joint decisions with the Council of Ministers in a limited number of domains, which have expanded over time.

Despite this breakthrough towards more democratic rules, the EP remains deprived of the legislative initiative that is formally retained by the Council of Ministers, and informally by the European Council. It doesn’t have a say on budget, and its amendment power remains limited by the Commission’s ability to request a unanimous vote from the Council on any amendment it does not agree with.

Last but not least, the Eurozone does not come under the remit of the Commission.

4 Europe despises the peoples

The referendum is an instrument of direct democracy within the jurisdiction of the member states, not that of the EU, argues Quatremer, who is critical of the referendum’s capacity to settle complex matters.

It is true that the Constitution rejected by both the French and the Dutch in 2005 was then incorporated into the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, against the apparent will of those that had been consulted. However, the EU was not responsible for that, France was.

After losing the referendum – for internal reasons that were largely disconnected from the Constitutional treaty – this was the only way the French Government felt it could worm its way out of the deadlock it had caused.

Quatremer is critical of the referendum’s capacity to settle complex matters.

5 The Commission is technocratic and disconnected

This is undeniably true, says Quatremer. Both the role and the reputation of the Commission have declined since Jacques Delors left the presidency. Reasons for that decline include the constant nomination of political heavyweights with poor technical knowledge as Presidents and Commissioners, as well as the Commission’s Kinnock reform, which forces general directors to move every four or five years, and forbids the recruitment of experienced and skilled civil servants.

The situation has not been helped by the coexistence of 23 languages, which has lead to “cultural impoverishment” through an increasing use of English – or rather ‘Globish,’ English’s degenerated avatar – as a working language. It was not until 1995, the date of the EU’s enlargement to include Sweden and Finland, argues Quatremer, that English started to prevail over French in the Commission.

The process accelerated from 2004 with the extensive enlargement that occurred that year. 95% of the texts produced by the Commission are written in English. This is an evolution fraught with dangers, states Mr Quatremer, a strong advocate of multilingualism.

Among the dangers to be feared, he argues, is the growing prevalence of English concepts in European law.

This is one of the rare occasions on which Mr. Quatremer’s analysis feels a bit thin. He doesn’t recognise that having English as a common second language promotes cross-border communication, and encourages a shared sense of community.

European ultra-liberalism is a fantasy of the French left.

6 European elites are corrupt and incompetent

Make no mistake about it, writes Quatremer, moral corruption lies first and foremost in the states that send their candidates to Brussels, as the Neelie Kroes affair demonstrated: “it is the greed of the states’ elites that damages politics.”

The real problem with the UE lies within the European Council, which seems now to be composed of leaders without zero concrete beliefs. There is “mediocrity at every level” writes Quatremer, who is nostalgic for the time when Mitterrand and Kohl, supported by President Jacques Delors, led Europe.

Former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors
Former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors

Quatremer fails to mention that today’s leaders are dealing with the consequences of what their predecessors implemented, regardless of how dedicated they were to the European project. A failing euro, unmanageable enlargement, an incoherent and costly institutional set-up, and a failing Schengen area are the problems today’s EU leaders inherited, with half of Europe drowning in debt, and international economic competition growing ever fiercer.

7 Europe over-reaches

Despite its increasingly large influence upon national Parliamentary activity – the EU accounts for between 60% and 80% of member states’ legislative production, but on average makes up 20% of national laws – EU edicts remain peripheral to the core of state sovereign power, Quatremer argues.

Education, research, labour legislation, social security, justice, defence, foreign policy and fiscal policy are still decided by the states, whereas Europe’s exclusive competencies are actually limited to the five domains mentioned above: the customs union, competition, trade, currency and the protection of marine biological resources.

8 Europe is ultra-liberal

This criticism, says Quatremer, is a fantasy of the French left.

Jean Luc Mélenchon
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left ‘Unbowed France’ movement

Europe is socio-liberal. Free and undistorted competition was imposed on Europe, more specifically on Germany and France’s coal and steel industries, in order to undermine industrial monopolies. The aim was to regulate market competition, but also competition between states, which is the exact opposite of ultra-liberalism.

Quatremer does admit that the Commission should broaden its narrow conception of which markets to scrutinise for infringements of free competition – the smaller the market, the more likely a company is to appear in a dominant position – and that its worship of free trade has proved detrimental to the emergence of European business leaders.

9 Europe doesn’t deal with real problems

This reproach is true, says Quatremer, but only because member states have decided to leave the thorniest questions to the EU, which lacks consensus between member states on most of the crucial questions of economics, social affairs, foreign policy, defence and security.

History has shown that only in crisis do states relinquish sovereignty. It was true for the creation of a European Central Bank (ECB), which was founded at a time when Germany needed France’s support for its unification process while the latter needed to prevent Germany’s supremacy. It was also true more recently when control of banks was given to the ECB, under the Banking Union, which wouldn’t have happened without the banking crisis.

There were missed opportunities, though, such as the rejection of the European Defence Community in 1954 – which France was responsible for –, or the failure of the Fouchet plan in 1960 – which was caused by Benelux – the consequences of which can still be felt today in the reluctance to build any form of common defence.

Only in crisis do states relinquish sovereignty.

10 We need a different Europe

Both political extremes in France – the National Front and the Left Front – are fascinated by the prospect of starting anew from a clean slate. This is perhaps the legacy of the French Revolution, but whatever the explanation, such extreme parties are not able to present fully consistent and realistic political platforms.

The reality is that European states would struggle to survive without the EU.

What would France’s economy become without the euro? It would return to high interest rates, inflation, and a strong dependence on foreign currency, while the French would see a drastic reduction in the value of their assets.

The French state would – in all likelihood – go bankrupt.

The EU may be home to a good few ‘bastards,’ and it may be in need of serious reform, but on balance, Quatremer argues, member states – who haven’t always acted in the EU’s best interests – have no choice but to stick with it.

They need it more than they might care to admit.

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