Explaining EU problems – Interview with Jean Quatremer

In his latest book, The Bastards of Europe, French journalist Jean Quatremer names and shames the politicians that he believes have leeched off the European Union, and acted against the best interests of the European public.
Jean Quatremer, author of 'The Bastards of Europe.'
Jean Quatremer, author of ‘The Bastards of Europe.’

We spoke to him about what we should thank the EU for, what we should change, and who these bastards actually are.

TPE Your book is a bold attempt to explain how the European Union reached the deadlock that it seems to have been stuck in over the last two decades. In your introduction however, you say that the benefits Europe has lavished on its citizens shouldn’t be forgotten. Can you remind us of what these benefits consist of?

JQ Any essay on Europe should start with gratitude.

Let’s start with the basics: with the aid of NATO and the United States, the EU consolidated peace in wartime Europe.

And it seems most of us have forgotten – or have never been aware of – what crossing borders within Europe was once like for people, goods and services. It is now as simple to travel within Europe as it is within one’s own country.

It is no coincidence that cross-border work has exploded since controls have been removed at EU internal borders. The replacement of our old currencies with a single one led to invaluable benefits not only for those traveling within Europe, but also for all businesses exchanging goods and services.

The considerable harmonisation of technical norms and health standards, achieved at the cost of considerable work within the institutions, allows us to buy goods anywhere in Europe and use them at home. The harmonisation of rights, of consumer protection, of academic degrees and many other rules have been a blessing for all Europeans.

TPE You write that Europe could not have been build other than behind closed doors. Why?

JQ Two approaches regarding the building of Europe were in conflict at the end of the forties. The institutionalists recommended the creation of a federal state from scratch, with defined institutions and jurisdictions. Whereas the functionalists thought that integration could only be achieved from the bottom, step by step, domain by domain.

The only continental power to exercise political and diplomatic influence at this time, France, was then at the centre of the decision process. Two of the most influential political forces in France, the communists and the Gaullists, were opposed to building a federal organisation in Europe: France was still traumatised by defeat and occupation.

Adolf Hitler in Paris
Adolf Hitler in Paris

Reviving grandeur was the only way for the French to heal. France still had an empire – even though it was beginning to crumble –, mistrust towards Germany was still high, and the communists saw the European project as an instrument to combat the USSR. The employers and trade unions were also strongly against the European project.

It was politically impossible for France to call a European constituent Assembly that would have adopted a Constitution following a broad debate involving citizens. Such a venture would have been doomed to fail, and Europe would not have recovered from it. Reality had to be taken into account, and they had to act cautiously, taking it one step at a time. The second – functionalist – approach naturally prevailed.

History shows that Europe was not built as the result of the peoples’ will, but rather because of a combination of internal and external circumstances, and of political momentum and tactics.

The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was ratified in France in 1951 despite the opposition of the communists, the Gaullists and the employers, but with less enthusiasm than in any of the other five signatory states.

Between 1951-1952, projects derived from the ECSC relating to transport, agriculture and health all failed because of the opposition of the French Parliament. In 1952, France initiated a project for a European Defence Community (EDC). However, because of the easing of international tension – after the end of the Korea war, the death of Stalin and France’s defeat in Indochina – the Treaty was eventually defeated in the French National Assembly.

The Treaties of Rome might have met with the same fate in 1957 if it hadn’t been for the Soviet crackdown on the Budapest uprising and, above all, the humiliation of Suez in 1956.

Europe was not built as the result of the peoples’ will.

Without the near collapse of France’s economy in the aftermath of the socialist led policy of economic stimulation and its political consequences, the Single European Act wouldn’t have been ratified by the French in 1986. The Maastricht Treaty wouldn’t have been signed in 1992 if it weren’t for the collapse of the Soviet Union and Germany’s reunification, and both the European Stability Mechanism and the Banking Union could not have been established in 2012 and 2014 respectively without the strong pressure of financial markets.

With such internal or external circumstances, and when political will and strategy are missing, failure is guaranteed. Just look at the examples of the Treaties of Amsterdam in 1997, of Nice in 2001 or of Lisbon in 2007.

TPE You write that “Europe’s dictatorship is nowhere stronger than in France.” What do you mean by this?

JG Most European states have organised themselves to confront the lack of democracy at the EU level. In Germany for instance, a special commission of the Bundestag [the legislative assembly] follows the work of the EP and regularly receives the ministers. Even more, before every European Council meeting, the Chancellor requests an indicative mandate from the deputies, and then reports on the decisions of the Council.

There is no such organisation in France.

Since the advent of the Fifth Republic, European policy is decided upon at the Elysée Palace [the French Presidential residence] without the involvement of the Prime minister, the Foreign Affairs minister or the European Affairs minister, nor of the French Parliament or citizens, notwithstanding a couple of referenda.

All directions are determined by a small group of men working closely with the President (the General secretary, Diplomatic counsellor, and European Affairs counsellor). As a matter of fact, in France, European policy is part of the exclusive domain of the President. Such a confiscation of democracy has no equivalent in Europe, at a time when the EU institutions deal with more and more areas once regarded as pertaining to national sovereignty.

The issue is that the European Council is accountable to no one.

TPE You say that if the EU is not democratic, it is because the states don’t want it to be. What do you mean?

JQ The limitations of the institutions don’t reflect any conspiracy against democracy, but merely the will of the states to keep the Union under control. The European Council – composed of Heads of Government each duly elected in his or her country – is the instrument of such a will, and retains more legitimacy than the European Parliament or any other European body.

The issue is that it is accountable to no one, not even to the its electorate: seldom a government falls because of the policy it pursues within the European institutions. Should such a rare event occur, it wouldn’t result from a collective decision, but from a local one, according to national interests. The Council’s unaccountability wouldn’t be such an issue if the EU provided the adequate checks and balances. But there are none.

The Council of ministers, whose powers are very extensive both in the executive and legislative domains, is no more accountable than the European Council, and also works behind closed doors. The Permanent Representatives of the states also play a crucial role in the decision process. They are accountable to the states and report usually directly to the heads of state or government.

Actually, the Eurozone’s political power is opaque, unidentifiable and unaccountable. The Commission remains a technocratic body that derives its legitimacy from the sole states. Even more worryingly, the vagaries of referenda and the subsequent decisions have led to a representation imbalance, to the detriment of the bigger countries, which abandoned the second commissioner position to which they had been entitled so far.

President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, with his wife Małgorzata Sochacka
President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, with his wife Małgorzata Sochacka

TPE You’re adamant that the Commission has become technocratic and disconnected over time. Why?

JQ 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. The strength of the Commission was, thanks to its technical and legal competencies, to identify and propose common ground to the states in order to advance European integration.

Rather than a proper government, the Commission used to be a “business provider.” Following the nomination of these heavyweights to the presidency, the states started designating politicians with no technical or legal skills as Commissioners. Within an institution whose role is to produce norms, such incompetence leads the Commissioners to be subjected to the powerful General Directions of the Commission. To make matters worse, President Prodi entrusted an administrative reform to Neil Kinnock, which lead to a serious brain drain.

Until 1999, the General Directors were recruited for their technical knowledge, and stayed in their positions for a long time, which meant they were capable of making up for the possible incompetence of the Commissioners. Since the reform was implemented, these General Directors change every four or five years.

The consequence is that power has gone down a level in the organisation. The Commission suffered further damage from the administrative reform as a result of the change in recruitment criteria and the shift from French to Anglo-Saxon requirements, the result of which is an increased reliance on Anglo-Saxon external consultancy services.

Under the Kinnock reforms, the recruitment of experienced professionals was phased out, plain and simple. The enlargement from 2004 didn’t help either, as the Commission had to recruit large numbers of new civil servants of questionable competence and little dedication.

The composition of the Commissioners’ cabinets is another issue, as seconded civil servants want to win favour of their next employer, the Commission. But the major weakness lies with the European states’ indecision regarding its mission. Is it a mere secretary, a referee or a government? The Commission actually seeks technical solutions to political problems.

TPE You say that Europe’s degree of meddling depends on your perspective. What do you mean?

JQ Actually, the appreciation of the role of Europe and whether or not it encroaches into states’ remits depends on the nature of the state that makes the judgement. In centralised states like France and the UK, Europe is seen as meddling too much. It is not so much the case in federal states like Germany, Belgium, Spain or Italy, where people are used to superimposing political structures.

Another issue is that the EU seems to be everywhere while it is nowhere. Its institutions are organised similarly the model of those of a sovereign state, while the related jurisdictions are retained by the states. The result is that the institutions are bloated, and the EU fails to deliver the results it should.

TPE How would you define a bastard?

JQ Somebody who deliberately acts against the best interests of Europe and the European public.

Jean-Claude Juncker, who spent 25 years turning his country into a tax haven, is a bastard of Europe.

TPE Who are the bastards of Europe, then?

Jean-Claude Juncker, who spent 25 years turning his country into a tax haven, and his predecessor José Manuel Durão Barroso, who now works for Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s much unscrupulous banks.

Then there’s Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner for Competition who has a long history of malpractice, and close relationship with the business community that was pro-Uber, Edith Cresson, who gave out fictitious jobs, and Miguel Arias Cañete, the Commissioner who mixed private and public interest.

All fit well with the provocative title of this book. However, a lot of others hide behind these famous names – be it Commissioners, civil servants or MEPs – because of their conflict of interests, their incompetence or their absenteeism.

TPE What are your proposals to relaunch Europe?

JQ There is no alternative but to reform the existing EU. We can use an existing federal state as inspiration.

We should elect a Convention by universal suffrage. The final constitution would be put to a cross-European referendum and adopted by a supermajority. The Union would be given specific and exclusive remits: foreign policy, defence, access to the European territory, cross-border criminality, the social safety net, monetary policy, public works policy and agricultural policy. No more shared jurisdictions.

The states would be forbidden to interfere with the designated areas governed by the EU, and the European budget would be funded by both direct and indirect taxes. The European Parliament would hold the right of initiative, the election method would be more in line with the one-man-one-vote principle, and the President of the Commission would be elected by both chambers of the European Parliament, or by universal suffrage. No more European council.

This would be the United States of Europe, composed of all Eurozone members. Alongside it would be a European economic area for those not wanting to be part of the inner circle.

United States of Europe

Of course, this ideal is not the feasible, and I am well aware of that.

So let’s start by guiding the European Council back to its original guiding role, while making sure that it renounces the secrecy of its meetings. Let’s refocus the Commission on its designated role, which would mean its partial dismantlement, and a drastic reduction in the number of Commissioners, as well as the creation of independent agencies for budgetary surveillance or competition policy. Last but not least, let’s review the disproportionate distribution of members of Parliament among the states.

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