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Will there ever be a United States of Europe?

This article is kindly reprinted from THE WEEK, 20 August, 2000.

Is a federal Europe either possible or desirable? A new and highly acclaimed book - Democracy in Europe by the American academic Larry Siedentop - claims to have the answers. What does it say?

Is Siedentop pro or anti federalism?

He's tremendously in favour. "Federalism," he argues, "is the right goal for Europe." Far from increasing state centralisation, it could provide a counterweight to the centralising ambitions of national government by giving constitutional guarantees to regional and local governments, so fostering diversity and individual freedom. There's just one problem. "Europe," he declares in the final sentence of the book, "is not yet ready for federalism."

 

Why not?

The model Siedentop has in mind is American federalism. This grew out of very different conditions than those prevailing in Europe. In their common subjugation to the crown, the 13 American colonies were united in the perceived need for political union. They also shared many moral beliefs, a political class dominated by lawyers, and, most importantly, a common language. But when federalism tries to combine different languages - as in Canada and Belgium - the results are not reassuring. Moreover, Europe is proceeding in precisely the opposite direction to America. Its policy-makers are obsessed with uniformity, not diversity.

 

And whose fault is that?

In Siedentop's view, it is the fault of France's political elite -specifically, the upper echelons of the French civil service known as the "Enarchs". The reunification of Germany created a " grand peur" among this elite and a determination to bind the enlarged Germany into closer union so as to give the French influence over German policy. It is the Enarchs who have been the brains behind the Maastricht Treaty and the euro. And it is their model of government which is being adopted by Europe.

 

What kind of model is that?

The French state, as developed under Napoleon and amended by de Gaulle, is one in which the bureaucrats have enormous power, the legislature is largely neutered and there is little room for public debate or formal checks and balances. Compare, for example, the ease with which the Enarchs pushed through France's conversion to nuclear energy in the Seventies with the endless consultations and almost comical delays associated with the British rail link to the Channel tunnel. But the cost of such untramelled power is that the French often ignore the law and engage in direct, sometimes violent action, during which the police tend to stand aside. "Periodic violence", argues Siedentop, is recognised as "a precondition of the survival of the state".

 

Why is this the model adopted by the EU?

From the outset, says Siedentop, the structures of Europe were designed to facilitate economic co-operation not democratic accountability - on the assumption that once economic progress was achieved, institutional reform would follow. In practice, the need for democratic accountability has been ignored and the de facto accumulation of power in Brussels has allowed the French model to win the argument by default. Hence in Brussels, as in Paris, policy-making centres on bureaucratic in-fighting, with a premium put on special access and money.

 

What model could have been adopted?

Europe would do better, says Siedentop, to follow the German model of federalism, which was inspired by the Americans. Germany's postwar constitution creates ^ different spheres of authority, with checks I and balances limiting encroachments by the i federal government and with a powerful constitutional court. But the Germans have not been keen to push their model, partly because memories of Nazism inhibit them from taking the lead, and partly because the very dispersed nature of authority in their system precludes the emergence of a compact political class capable of taking the lead.

 

And what about the British?

Britain may have invented representative government and established a strong culture of consent but, in Siedentop's view, it is not the place to give a lead on Europe because it is suffering a constitutional crisis of its own. Britain has traditionally sought unity not in written principles but in an "aristocratic consensus" based on manners, precedent and custom - all of which set "informal" limits on the growth of executive power. That consensus, argues Siedentop, was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher, under whose leadership Britain became one of the most centralised nations on earth. As a result, faith in British political traditions has been severely weakened.

 

So are there no lessons to be learnt form Britain?

If the British tradition has anything to teach, says Siedentop, it is that habits and attitudes, rather than rules and diktats, are the bedrock of law. That is why laws emanating from Brussels, however unpopular, are habitually implemented in Britain, whereas in France, Spain, Italy and Greece they are ignored or circumvented. The danger Siedentop sees in European federalism is that it is being led by a political class which prizes outcomes over conciliation, coherence over consent, ends over means. European elites are thus in danger of creating a profound institutional crisis: a crisis of democracy.

 

How have the commentators reacted to this analysis?

A variety of critics - from former Tory cabinet ministers Nigel Lawson and Malcom Rifkind through to former head of the Foreign Office Sir John Coles and Blair guru Will Hutton - have all agreed that Siedentop has put his finger on the crucial issues facing Europe. But all have reservations. Lawson, for example, argues that Siedentop fails to realise how profoundly a culture of consent depends on a deep sense of nationhood. But then again, as Lawson says, "at least he's asking the right questions".



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