Like it or not, we are in it together

July 16, 2004

What has the EU done for us? Andrew Gamble counts the benefits.

An imbroglio, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , is a state of confused entanglement. It seems an apt term for the European Union. After another bout of wrangling, the European constitution has been agreed, but the future of the union is far from certain because the constitution cannot come into force until several member states, including Britain, have held referenda to approve it. Whether the peoples of Europe will vote for the treaty that the political class has devised is far from clear. This is why some commentators, and not just Eurosceptic ones, have begun speculating that 2004 may be the high-water mark of the union. The acceptance of the constitution by member states may presage the fragmentation of the union rather than its consolidation.

With or without this constitution, however, Europe will continue to shape all our lives. Even if a future British Government proceeded to tear up all the European treaties, it could not tear up the consequences of 50 years of European integration. We are all, in this sense, subject to Europeanisation, the process by which European policies, and practices originating in EU initiatives and decisions, have been increasingly adopted by the member states of the union, as well as by non-members, such as Norway. Little by little, grudgingly or willingly, the domestic politics of each member state has been and is being transformed.

"Europeanisation", like "globalisation", is fast becoming a catch-all term.

It has already generated a large literature, and there is little agreement on how to define it. But it is clearly not a one-way street. Member states increasingly adopt European policies and practices, but they interpret them and apply them in different ways, according to their own cultures and institutions. At the same time, they seek, wherever possible, to have their own policies and practices accepted by European institutions and adopted as the European standard, since this requires much less domestic adjustment.

Critics of the EU argue that Europeanisation is pushing the states and peoples of Europe towards a single destination, a new superstate, a country called Europe that will in time supplant the nation-states that compose it.

This notion is deeply implausible. Europe is a highly contested space and there are numerous ideas of Europe and the direction in which it should develop. Ambitions for a centralised superstate are only one of many conceptions of Europe. There is Network Europe, Social Europe, the Europe of Regions, Federal Europe, Multi-speed Europe, Citizens' Europe, the Europe of Nation-States and many more. All have their advocates. The idea that Europeanisation can have only one outcome is ridiculous.

Europe is, in any case, much more than a set of institutions and agencies in Brussels. It is also a culture, a society and a public sphere, involving discourses and identities that long predate the existence of the EU.

Europeanisation, in the broad sense of the transfer of ideas and policies between communities that have some basic shared assumptions and values, is centuries old. The novel feature of contemporary Europeanisation is the agency of the European institutions themselves in promoting certain types of policy adjustment and institutional change.

How has Europeanisation affected the most reluctant member of the union - Britain? For the past 400 years, the English and then the British have defined themselves against Europe rather than as part of it. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once declared that only bad things had come out of Europe in her lifetime. From the Spanish Armada through Napoleon to Hitler, the British have tended to treat Europe as a problem, sometimes a threat. In the past 50 years, however, with the end of empire, Britain has been steadily drawn into the process of European integration.

Engaging with Europe has affected life in Britain in many ways - from metrication of the currency and weights and measures, to the Common Agricultural Policy. But the most substantial Europeanisation has come in two areas: the constitution and regulation. British courts have acknowledged the superior jurisdiction of the European Court in matters covered by the European treaties and as a result of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. These changes have helped transform the constitutional basis of the British state, challenging the unlimited sovereignty of Crown-in-Parliament.

Similarly, the single-market project of the 1980s, enthusiastically endorsed by Thatcher as a means of making Europe a free trade area, boosted the development of the British state as a regulatory state in the 1980s and 1990s. Many features of the EU constitution, which the Conservatives now oppose, including qualified majority voting, stem from the Single Market Act. It greatly expanded the competence of the European Commission and the need for a much more extensive regulatory regime to make the single market a reality. The process of economic and monetary union has also had a profound effect on British economic policy, even though Britain secured an opt-out and held back from full participation. It paved the way to independence for the Bank of England, and to the adoption of common fiscal rules. The advantages of greater coordination and convergence at the European level are plain to policy-makers. After 30 years in the union, more than 50 per cent of British trade is with other EU countries. The need for unrestricted access to the European market, and the capacity of the British Government and business lobbies to shape the rules of the single market has become a powerful British interest. As a consequence, it is no surprise that some 80 per cent of the rules governing the European economy originate from Brussels.

Many opponents of the new European constitution believe it will intensify a certain kind of Europeanisation. But this constitution is not a founding document for a new state. It is at best a constitutional treaty between nation-states that combines in one document all the previous treaties, protocols and agreements that litter the development of the union. It does not significantly expand the competences of the union or the powers of the European institutions. It simply codifies them and lays down ways to make their exercise simpler in a union of 25 states. With all the powers that are reserved to the nation-states, and with the large number of members that must give their assent for any joint action in matters such as taxation and foreign policy, the chances of this union becoming a strong centralised state are remote. The most telling statistic is that it still spends only 1 per cent of Europe's gross domestic product. The British Government spends 42 per cent of Britain's GDP. There is no likelihood of the EU acquiring new powers to raise taxes.

The row over the European constitution in Britain and elsewhere seems bizarre in light of these facts. There is much to criticise in the EU constitution, but the notion that it is a stepping stone to a superstate is not among them. Rather, the constitutional treaty is a guarantee that not much will change in the foreseeable future. It locks in veto power of the nation-states. The problem with the constitution is less that it gives vast new powers to the EU than that it reminds the European peoples how many powers the EU has acquired in its 50 years of existence, most of them with little direct popular endorsement. This Europe has been constructed by the political class, which was popular when it was associated with prosperity, but has become less popular as the economic performance of Europe has declined. Britain has the opposite problem. Europe was relatively popular when the performance of the British economy was weak but has become more unpopular since performance has improved.

Despite this, the case for accepting the European constitutional treaty is strong. The EU is a unique political association - much less than a state, but much more than a free trade area and it has pioneered new forms of collective action between nations that promote security and prosperity and in doing so enhance their independence and capacity for self-government.

But it has to achieve greater legitimacy; the citizens of the union have to see that it makes a positive difference to their lives, for example by allowing people to move freely and work freely. One day there may be a real constitution for Europe that will start like any proper constitution with "We, the Peoples of Europe". In the meantime, we have to make the best of what we have. We should criticise it, but not reject it.

Andrew Gamble is professor of politics at Sheffield University. "Britain in Europe and Europe in Britain: The 'Europeanisation' of British Politics?"

is sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Universities Association for Contemporary European Studies. It will take place on July 16 at Sheffield Town Hall.

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