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David Herdson says the Migrant crisis has laid bare the EU’s big delusion

September 26th, 2015

Ultimately, the Union must unite or perish

Ever closer union: three words that have caused interminable difficulty for those who wanted – those who want – a European Common Market. Three words that are now superfluous, though not for the reasons that the Marketeers would like.

The reason they’re superfluous is that the other initiatives the EU has undertaken contain an internal dynamic that supersedes any treaty rhetoric. Nowhere has that been more clearly demonstrated that with the migrant crisis afflicting southern and central Europe. A Common Market needs free movement of people, goods, services and money, and it has them. It does not need to do without internal borders altogether yet 22 of the 28 member states have done just that. All others but Ireland and the UK are obliged to do likewise.

This is gesture politics of a delusory nature; all very well in normal times but utterly inadequate in times of real need, and dangerous for that very fact. What it means in reality is that Germany’s borders are patrolled by Greece, France’s by Hungary, or Austria’s by Estonia. And under the current scale of illegal immigration, Greece is incapable of securing its borders – which is why other countries down the line have scrambled to control theirs (to be fair to Hungary, none of Serbia, Croatia or Romania are yet in Schengen – Serbia isn’t even in the EU).

Europe has wanted it both ways: to play at Union by giving up what are essential national powers without handing that power up to anyone. It has simply been lost. If a single country had a particular crisis at one border post or port or coastline, the government would deploy additional resource there in an attempt to sort it out. The EU, by contrast, cannot: there is no Union border force, no government to direct it and no money set aside to fund it. Nor, at present, is there the will to create them.

And Schengen is a microcosm of the EU’s topsy-turvy nature. Many of the powers it does hold are trivial and could easily be retained by the members; they have been handed over precisely because they are trivial. By contrast, many of the powers it needs to be able to fulfil and manage grand projects like Schengen and the Euro have been retained because to do otherwise would be to create in the EU the functions of a state despite the fact that a single currency and a borderless region are themselves features of a state.

How has it managed even so far? In the absence of a meaningful central executive, it’s the European Council – the heads of government and state – who have assumed the role. But 28 people acting collectively cannot provide leadership. In reality, it is, as it has to be, to the heads of the biggest that the rest look. Whether or not Germany and France wanted that leadership (and they do), it would be thrust on them all the same.

Which is why Merkel has come in for so much criticism over the migrant crisis and why the delusion at the heart of the EU has been exposed: her impulsive action acted not only against her own country’s interest but committed so many other member states to act against theirs too, without the opportunity to prevent it. In essence, she committed the cardinal European sin of exposing a breach of consensus; a consensus without which the EU doesn’t work.

Is there an alternative? Only if those powers-by-default are centralised at a European level. But to do so means recognising a further transfer of power to the EU. Further, a meaningful power to determine and enforce policy cannot come without the power to direct manpower and hence without a border force constituted at a European level – and that would increase the demand for the political accountability of whoever is leading that role.

To Americans, all of this might sound familiar, if ancient history. And so it is. Europe has created its own version of the Continental Convention, a body whose divisions and lack of direct powers led it to failure within a few short years of practical independence. The EU has built a more complex structure but that same power-hole lies at the centre: a lack of means to carry out the ends it is expected to achieve.

Yet if twenty-first century Europe has the advantage over eighteenth century America in institutions, in lags far behind in another way. Federalists have been on the back foot for a decade, since the rejection of the European Constitution. Some advances might be made by stealth or necessity but the fire has gone out of the belief: the public have been left behind. Not only is there no-one of the brilliance of Alexander Hamilton or James Madison to make the case, there is no-one at all to make the case.

To some extent that is entirely understandable. As well as being emotionally wedded to nation states old, new or yet to be (re-)born, citizens are cynical that the answer to every problem seems to be more power to a centre when that centre’s past demands for more have been met with today’s failures. That cynicism is to an extent misguided: the failures stem from taking on unnecessary projects without the tools for the jobs, though the stealth in the design of such projects can’t be ignored. Even so, the failure must be dealt with all the same. Some 8000 migrants are still arriving in Europe per day from Africa or Turkey: a quarter of a million per month.

But what is to be done? No doubt the leaders hope that they can muddle on through as before and perhaps for now they’re right. But the spanner that David Cameron has thrown in the EU works in the form of his hoped-for renegotiation has the potential to give the lie to ever closer union not only in theory but in brutal fact should Britain choose to leave, as is entirely possible both if the EU cannot get its act together and if it can only do so through still further unification. In fact, that treaty change he seeks ought to be an opportunity for all sides to push for necessary changes, not only for countries sceptical about union but also those needing to fill the power vacuum that the migrant crisis is exposing. On whether someone – Cameron, Merkel, Tusk, Juncker or whoever – is ready to come forward with a comprehensive and workable arrangement may well hang the future of Britain’s membership. Indeed, on that may well hang the future of the whole project.

David Herdson