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The Disunited States of Europe: The Politics of Power and Privilege, Part 2

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FOR SIX DAYS, during December 6-12, 2000, the 15 member-nations of the European Union (EU) met in Nice, France, for a conference that was meant to set the direction and structure for the organization well into the 21st century.

On the EU’s agenda were:

(a) plans for expanding the European Union to include many of the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe;

(b) the revision of those policy areas over which members of the EU would no longer have veto power;

(c) the distribution of votes that the existing EU and new members would have in the Council of Ministers; and

(d) acceptance of the proposal for the Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Overshadowing the conference was the release of a confidential paper jointly prepared by the German and Italian governments and addressed to the government of France suggesting that even before the Treaty of Nice was signed, these three countries should be planning the next steps toward greater European integration.

A number of EU member governments were extremely irritated. It was particularly irritating for the British Labor government because of the appearance of a “hidden” agenda moving the continent towards a United States of Europe, since this played into the hands of the British Conservative Party opposition which had been warning that more was afoot than merely greater collaborative efforts between independent nations.

This began a series of embarrassments for the French government, which was hosting the conference, and for the French president, Jacques Chirac, who was chairing the general meetings. Many of the EU members felt that the French had arranged the agenda for the sessions in a heavy-handed way meant to serve various French national interests. The result was that the content of many of the sessions had to be hastily modified, but rarely to the liking of anyone.

The Nice conference

On the first issue — expanding the membership of the European Union he fifteen current members agreed that beginning in 2003, the door would be opened to certain Eastern European countries that had succeeded in meeting a variety of legal and domestic policy standards to qualify for admission into the EU club. First up for admission are Estonia, Hungary, and Slovenia, followed by Poland and the Czech Republic, with Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Malta most likely joining next. Cyprus and Turkey wish to be considered for eventual membership.Over a wide range of issues, the EU nations have followed a rule of unanimity — any one of the fifteen could veto a policy or law proposed for the Union as a whole if it has been viewed inconsistent with that nation’s essential interests.

Areas in which decisions will be made on the basis of what is called “Qualified Majority Voting” are:

  • external border controls; visa rules; foreign trade in services and financial bail-outs;
  • anti-discrimination measures concerning race, gender, religion or sexual orientation; rules and procedures of the European Court of Justice;
  • control over the EU budget; regional subsidies; and
  • certain aspects of transport and industrial policy.

But each EU member, invariably, had some one or more issues over which it was unwilling to give up its veto power.

France resisted losing its separate power over controlling cultural influences, so the French government will retain its control over the number of American movies that may be shown in French theaters and over how many American songs may be heard on French radio during any given hour of broadcasting.

The United Kingdom prevented losing its veto power over taxing issues within the EU, and Germany held on to its authority over its domestic immigration policies.

Nonetheless, approximately 90 percent of EU legislation will now be submitted to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). And what exactly is QMV? It is closely tied to the issue of how power will be distributed among the EU member countries as the organization over the next decade expands in number from the present fifteen to possibly up to twenty-seven.

The larger countries, both in terms of population and economic importance are unwilling to accept a strict majority voting system, since a coalition of the “smaller-sized” and “medium-sized” countries could overwhelm the interests of some larger EU members.

The smaller and medium-sized countries did not want any voting system that would give the heavyweight members undo power to constantly and consistently make them “second-class” decision-makers merely following the lead of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

So, a new system of vote distribution was set up. The EU members are each given a number of votes in the Council of Ministers (the lawmaking body of the EU) based (loosely) on population size relative to the number of people in the entire EU community. Germany, France, the U.K., and Italy will each have 29 votes in the Council of Ministers after the EU’s membership enlargement, out of a total of 342 votes.

Even if these four countries were to vote together against the remaining members of the EU, their combined vote would only represent about 34 percent in the Council. To prevent these “big four” of the Union from being dominated by the rest of the membership, a “demographic bar” — the QMV — has been established that stipulates that any group of nations representing 38 percent of the EU’s total population can block all EU laws.

The larger countries are, therefore, given a near veto power. Indeed, any three of these “big four” along with a small number of medium-size countries can prevent the passing of any legislation voted on in the Council of Ministers. This voting procedure led the Portuguese government to refer to it as a “two-tier” system of governing with a “directory” of the big nations ruling at the top.

Finally, the EU nations meeting at Nice voted to accept the Fundamental Rights of the European Union (See Fundamental Rights of the European Union: Individual Rights or Welfare-State Privileges? in Freedom Daily, Jan.-Feb. 2001). But it was only “proclaimed,” it was not formally incorporated into the Treaty of Nice. Its legal status as possibly the law of the land through the EU will be determined in 2004, when another treaty-making conference of EU members is to be held.

The 2004 conference will deliberate over a draft for an EU constitution that is to establish the “final” balance of power between Brussels (the EU administrative headquarters), Europe’s national capitals, and the regions of Europe. The momentum for what clearly may lead to a United States of Europe was reinforced in January 2001, when the German government stated very candidly to the French authorities that it expected Paris’s support for further European integration in the form of a European constitution.

The French want deeper integration, but only if it serves the purpose of maintaining French control over essential domestic issues and acts as a “check” on growing German political and economic influence in Central and Eastern Europe.

The United Kingdom — whether it be the ruling Labor Party or the opposition Conservatives — is reluctant to see a dramatic loss of British sovereignty either in political, economic, or monetary matters.

Indeed, there is a small but vocal minority among the British conservatives who are advocating that the U.K. abandon Europe and instead join the United States by making the North American Free Trade Agreement the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.

They argue that Great Britain has more in common with the United States in terms of language, legal tradition, and a greater respect for market-oriented policies than many, if not most, of the countries on the European continent.

Behind all of these institutional battles and decisions concerning which laws and policies may be passed with less than complete unanimity and with what type of voting gimmickry rules and laws may be passed with different combinations of majorities of the EU members, there ultimately exists the more fundamental issues that neither the governments or most of the people in Europe wish to face. These issues concern the role of government in European society and the limits on government power.

Under the present dynamics of political development in Europe, two tendencies are likely to continue over the next decade. On the one hand, European integration will proceed, both in terms of reduced national restrictions on the investment of capital, the employment of labor, and the allocation of resources across the political boundaries of the member countries and the nations of Eastern Europe that will be admitted into the EU in the future.

If this happens smoothly and successfully, it will be a dramatic change from Europe’s 20th century World Wars and campaigns of economic nationalism against one another.

But on the other hand, political and economic integration will shift power and control from the capitals of the member states to the EU administrators and bureaucrats in Brussels. This will follow inevitably from the logic of the interventionist and welfare statist ideology that dominates throughout the continent of Europe.

No major political party anywhere in Europe advocates the classical-liberal ideal of free men, free markets, and free trade. Every government in power and every significant opposition political party from one end of Europe to the other is dedicated to the regulated economy and the redistribution of wealth.

Conflicts of vision in the future

Intervention and redistribution necessarily requires a political authority with the mandate and power to do the regulating and redistributing. These powers will be either in the hands of the respective nation-states or in the hands of those who control the European levers of control in Brussels. Or the respective nation-states, in spite of giving up degrees of national sovereignty, will attempt to manipulate the direction and form of Brussels-dictated commands through the voting processes that are now being implemented.

But what has become clear from the history of the growth of the interventionist-welfare state in the 20th century is that power tends to become concentrated and centralized. There will be calls for more autonomous authority by those assigned the duties and responsibilities to promulgate and enforce the European Union’s laws and regulations.

Appeals will be made over the years for making the European Parliament a “real” representative and lawmaking body that speaks for all Europeans and their interests. The case will be made for giving this Parliament not only lawmaking power but taxing authority as well, for how else can it be free from the control of the “selfish and narrow interests” of particular member states, so there can be introduced and implemented Europeanwide policies?

Either Europe will become a centralized political entity or it will be a shell in which the member states resist the loss of their respective national power. But either way, what will be guiding those who make these decisions will be the ideology of interventionism and redistributivism. Because governments need power when their role in society extends beyond the limited, though essential, responsibilities of protecting the life, liberty, and property of their respective citizens.

To perform these freedom-preserving functions does not require intergovernmental organizations or new layers of political authority through the establishment of a Europeanwide bureaucracy or legislative body.

When governments merely protect liberty and do not encroach upon it, other nations are neither a threat nor barrier to each other’s economic prosperity and political liberty.

It is precisely because governments do more than guard freedom that disputes, arguments, and conflicts arise among the citizens within countries and between the governments among the various countries. In the interventionist state and the regulated economy, private matters of personal life and market exchange become “affairs of state” and an asserted “national interest.”

Either the national governments prevail and retain their monopoly power to determine the course of social and economic events within their respective boundaries on a map, or they are superceded by a higher international authority that is given the power to impose interventionist solutions on the member states.

Either way, Europe does not, unfortunately, seem headed towards any future reflecting the philosophy of individual freedom or the ideology of peaceful association through the processes of the free market.

What unites the people of Europe is the politics of power and privilege. And that very uniformity of ideological belief results in their conflict over who shall determine the division of the political plunder.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).