The European Union – a powerful force for good or a self-serving bureaucratic oligarchy? Whatever your view, the EU is certainly a catalyst for argument and debate on the running of a continental-wide jurisdiction.
On one level even the greatest skeptic would have to admit that the EU has broken one of the most dangerous cycles in the politics of Europe, in that its members have not been at war for over 60 years. However one could point out that military campaigns and appalling atrocities have occurred on its borders.
The collapse of the old Communist-era Yugoslavia revealed a nation that had hidden, but not healed, its riven differences of ethnicity and religion. In fact, one could easily argue that it was the power of the United States, and not the dithering indecisiveness of the EU, that finally addressed the painful fractures of the former Yugoslav republics, which of course still exist to this day.
Additionally, in terms of economic development, the EU, in all its various incarnations since World War II, has been a spectacular success. Western Europe has grown to become one of the wealthiest subcontinents in the world, and more recently those eastern nations released from crumbling Soviet hegemony have also seen a huge leap in their economic developments.
However, the apparent success of this “club” has not always been universally recognized nor appreciated; in fact, in many cases, there has even been a backlash against it.
The astonishing diversity of cultures and attitudes across what is really quite a small proportion of the world’s landmass isn’t something to be taken lightly and must be considered one of the European continent’s greatest attributes. This differentiation can be seen right back to the multi-cultural Holy Roman Empire, and perhaps here lie some of the most commonly identified fault lines to the success of this venture.
That Empire was at face value a great success if you regard it as the historical extension of the Roman and subsequent Byzantine empires, only coming to a rather ignominious end when Francis II abdicated his title in the face of the Napoleonic Wars in 1806. This was not a single homogenous body, but rather a loose confederacy over the centuries, which adjusted its shape and power in the face of both religious and political developments as well as social and nationalist attitudes.
The EU does not wish to be compared to the old Empire, but to some of its members and constituents, there are some worryingly close comparisons that need to be addressed.
The great strength of the EU is as a free trading block, and that is frankly the common denominator amongst all members. Following that, the opportunity to share costs and bind together for greater strength should also be a key benefit. After all, as the largest economic block in the world, you are going to get a better trading deal than, for example, a certain external economic island off the northwest coast of the continent negotiating on its own. Equally, the buying power and coordination of such a group in the face of, say, a global pandemic should also be most effective.
This, however, has not necessarily been the case. In an interesting comparison, at its most effective, the Roman Empire was run from Rome by probably less than 100 people, with powers being decentralized to the provinces to ensure greater local acceptance and adjustment to their requirements and issues that were specific.
Compare this now with the bureaucracy of the EU and all the central bodies that emanate from the European Commission and Parliament. Many would say that they have essentially created a nation-state of countless bureaucrats that primarily run their operations in a way that only they see fit.
Such mutterings of dissatisfaction have not been uncommon, and were most loudly made by the UK’s Brexiters, but before them came the Visegrad group of four Eastern European nations (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) that made up the core of the EU’s “new” members. Their formation came about from the informal phraseology of “we have not swapped decades of rule from Moscow for an alternative governance from Brussels”.
The issue was not unfamiliar to those thinking about the historical context. A pan-European policy, be it political or economic, is most unlikely to succeed unless it takes account of local attitudes, issues and emotions.
Equally the benefit of the strength of the membership was hardly seen as a success during the handling of the pandemic across the continent, which served only to separate policies and attitudes rather than using this great strength for speedy and effective managing of the vaccines.
The EU has had some great successes, but it must also learn from its many failures and weaknesses. Europe is a continent of fantastically varying flags and cultures, and if the EU wants to operate as a superstructure, it must take account of these and use such variations as a strength and not as an excuse for non-conformity.
Economically, therefore, in this hopefully post-pandemic world, the European Union has to encourage greater regional investment and financial development and to take account of the huge differences in financial management and effectiveness. For example, Greece is never going to be a hub of tax efficiency, industry and financial control in the same way that Germany could not contemplate the more “laissez-faire” attitude of some of the less developed nations. Lecturing about the weaknesses of one against the other does little to foster harmony, but rather a resentment.
The opportunity is here for the EU to realize that its bureaucratic core needs reformation and aim to be appreciated by its members as a vital and valuable asset – not just tolerated or even despised as a legion of faceless apparatchiks, as it is today.