What is happening to Europe’s soul?

This article was first published in the Times of Malta

It’s the same old story. If you drop a frog in hot water, it immediately struggles to jump out. But place it in water that is slowly heated and it is boiled alive.

The EU faces many practical challenges with which it will continue to struggle. But these challenges pale into relative insignificance compared to what is happening to the Union’s soul – its slow transmogrification from a union among equals based on collaboration willingly given, into a union of coercion – a concept that will face a difficult future.

How did this happen?

The concept of a more collaborative Europe emerged from the devastation of WWII. It was then clear that there was much mutual advantage in creating a Europe of collaboration; an attempt to banish forever the prospect of war on the continent. In creating the original Communities, the founders had to find a tricky balance. The desire for collaboration was strong but enmities and resentments were still raw. To navigate these tricky waters, the central structures created were purely technocratic. It was clear that any attempt to fuse politics would be doomed to failure.

Over time, collaboration grew and countries prospered as they recovered from the devastation of war. Europe would be created as a club of equals where every country had an equal say and central structures were there to serve the needs and oil the wheels of ever-increasing collaboration between sovereign nation states.

The major change can probably be traced to the Jacques Delors era – which may well be remembered in history as the era when hubris and over-reach laid the seeds for major change in the basic culture of the European project. Flush with success and wishing to accelerate integration, the concept of ever-closer union came into being. The Brussels technocracy was given ever-more power and eventually came to see itself as akin to a government of Europe. The mindset changed from a Brussels bureaucracy there to serve the member states to an executive branch tasked with moving the European project forward. A parliament was set up.The concept of a more collaborative Europe emerged from the devastation of World War II.

Two major decisions then changed the nature of the project forever. Frustrated by slow progress and the difficulty in achieving consensus among an ever-growing membership, qualified majority voting replaced the need for unanimity in many areas. The consensus culture and the unifying idea of everyone having an equal voice were both ditched in the interests of practicality and expediency.
The next major act that changed things forever was the introduction of the single currency. A premature and highly imperfect structure, the externalities associated with a shared currency nevertheless made it inevitable that central interference in individual countries’ affairs would grow.

All these things took many years to complete. But they changed forever the nature of Europe. Slowly but surely, the idea of a union of equals willingly collaborating was undermined. Instead there has been a growing feeling of coercion. As Sir Paul Collier puts it, “The EU is no longer unambiguously a mutually supportive club: it has increasingly become powerful countries telling other countries what to do.”

And we heard a few days ago that this may be set to become worse. The recently announced Franco-German initiative for greater joint planning, including establishing common positions before EU summits, may be spun as the restarting of Europe’s dormant motor. But it will be seen by others as yet another attempt to take charge of the whole European agenda and bend others to the Franco-German will. It is no wonder that others have been trying to ensure that they can also speak with strong voices – through the informal new Hanseatic League or the Visigrad group or whatever other groupings will eventually arise. A future of multiple groupings all fighting for their own interests against other groupings is not hard to imagine.

And it is hard to fathom why the Commission should pick this moment to put forward a proposal to introduce qualified majority voting on taxation matters. The proposal has little chance of success and could fuel resentment in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections in May.

In this 21st century, we have rediscovered the necessity of the cohesive nation state as a political unit with popular legitimacy. The trend is to devolve even further – through federalisation, devolution deals, city mayors. Localism is the order of the day. The 20th century transnational structures – from the IMF to the World Bank to the WTO – are fraying. Europe should have been an exception; a shining example of how willingly given close collaboration between nation states could work to everyone’s ultimate benefit. That promise is now under threat. The number of countries in the EU who want ever-closer integration and more supra-national authority has shrunk almost to the point of non-existence. And, if the feeling of a Europe of coercion and asymmetric power continues to grow, I fear for the future of the whole project.

The frustration engendered by trying to find consensus among all member states is understandable. As is the desire by some to shortcut that process in the interest of expediency and practicality. But it may end up being a Faustian bargain – giving up one’s soul for short term gain.


  1. Alexandra Wolff says

    Thanks for your opinion.

    I think it would merit the information process if we distinguished between the EU Council (ie the head of government or state of each member state); and the Council of the EU (ie the ministers of specific dossiers, e.g. agriculture).

    It is true the that the Council of the EU nowadays takes more decisions by qualified majority than it used to. My understanding is that this was decided in order to ensure workability. It is an honourable but less realistic ambition to require that 28 member states have the same opinion on everything that comes their way.

    It is also worth noting that the respective changes of the EU treaties required unanimity. I.e. these changes were not pushed through by single member states.

    Lastly, qualified majority voting (which does not apply in sensitive matters, where unanimity is required) still requires that 55% (72% if the act has not been proposed by the Commission) of the member states (ie usually 16), which must represent at least 65% of the
    EU’s population (currently approximately 328.6 million of a total 505.5 million) vote in favour of the legislative act etc.

    To limit the possibility of larger states joining together to stop proposals, a blocking coalition must include at least four member states representing at least 35% of the EU’s overall population.

    As a result of the above principles, I cannot see how the current voting process favours larger member states over smaller ones. Rather, this systems seems to ensure that decision-making represents the citizens (one vote for each citizen).

    As to the EU Council, I would be interested to understand what you propose as an alternative to national governments deciding on overall direction and political priorities.

    Who should it be instead?

    In literally all democratic states it is the governments that set out the overall direction and priorities.

    The EU is unique in that it sits between mere co-operation between national states and being a state itself. As a result, it does not have its own government. It is also worth noting that the EU Council usually works on the basis of consensus. I agree with you that this could be a matter of concern.

    However, I would disagree that the EU is overall not democratic.

    Its parliament is directly elected by us EU citizens and has nowadays almost universal legislative powers and important powers of appointing and controlling the other EU institutions.

    With the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaty, there has been a shift from inter-governmental decision-making to the people of the EU having more power and control.

    Not only as someone who feels European and lives in three “member states”, I personally welcome this shift. Brexit shows quite clearly that we as the people should have the ultimate control of what direction we want to take at least in some important cases, e.g. when there is deadlock between those we elected to take political decisions for us.

    It is not the EU’s fault that we EU citizens do not exercise our rights of direct democracy to the extent that the EU treaties enable us to.

    • Joe Zammit Lucia says

      Dear Alexandra

      Thanks for this helpful commentary.

      I agree with you that the EU lies somewhere in between cooperation between nation states and being a state itself. It is this half-way house that is difficult to manage. It seems to me that the impetus towards the ‘superstate’ has somewhat lost its appeal among the populations of Member States which means that we are now stuck in this limbo.

      Yes, the EU has a parliament. But that. in itself, does not make it ‘democratic’ except in symbolic terms. Functioning democracy does not only depend on the existence of institutions but on citizen engagement with those institutions and their belief in their legitimacy. Low engagement is shown by the low turnout in European elections and, in my experience, very few people are actually engaged in the workings of the European parliament or feel that it makes a difference to their interests.

      Further, when a parliament’s make-up is determined by 500 million people, it’s hard to feel that the individual voter’s say has any meaningful impact. Which is why we are seeing that the trend is towards more de-centralistion, more local government, more calls for autonomy or even independence for specific regions, etc. In this, the EU is going against the public mood.

      And it’s pointless blaming citizens for this lack of engagement. The onus is on the institutions to gain engagement and thereby legitimacy. If they are unable to do so it is the institutions’ failure not the voters’. That, in my view is a fundamental principle of democracy. So, yes, it is the EU’s ‘fault’ (though I would not quite use that word) that it has not managed to stimulate the citizen engagement necessary to gain legitimacy. Democratic legitimacy is something that is earned not imposed by bureaucratic demand.

      You are right that, in the case of Brexit (and others) the voters have the ultimate say. But they only have the ultimate say at national level. Voters can only meaningfully influence EU decision making through their own national governments rather than directly. This further increases the importance in voters’ minds of national governments as opposed to EU institutions that are seen as remote and, for most people, pretty opaque.

      I fully understand the tension between having to seek consensus and the ability to move things forward in the absence of such consensus. In this the EU has made a choice – one that may have seemed sensible at the time. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the long term consequences of such choices as circumstances and public feelings and public opinion shifts (as it always does).

      As one of very, very few highly informed people, you point out the balance that was trying to be achieved in the qualified majority voting system. But the vast majority of people have no inkling of these details. What they see is their local politicians claiming that every unpopular decision was ‘forced’ on them by Brussels. This may be disingenuous but it is what it is – and it is what drives public opinion.

      So I guess my overall suggestion is that the technical details of the structures matter very little. What matters is the overall feeling and impression that is created among citizens. That is driven by a confluence of various forces. The fundamental question is whether the EU is perceived by most people to be a democratic, consensus-driven, collaborative structure – or not. My view is that it used to be but is perceived as being less so now.

      Like you, I span three member states and have lived in three others. But that only makes me weird. I am one of a very small sliver of the population. I too feel ‘European’ in a cultural sense but I do not feel any strong allegiance to EU structures. In fact, I am always highly irritated when people reduce the meaning of ‘European’ to the EU.

  2. Stephen Gwynne says

    Interesting comments thanks. For me it is all about who is driving the EU agenda. As a result of using a Treaty based governance model, there is little to no chance that the European citizenry can elect alternative economic models, can elect greater subsidiarity rights or elect alternatives to majority voting. In fact the European citizenry have minimal say, even through the European Parliament, to determine the course of the EU. The only choice the European citizenry have is to either acquiesce, not vote at all or be in the rare position of actually agreeing with the EU Treaties. Obviously for those that largely agree with the EU Treaties and the incorporated policies then the EU agenda is acceptable. For those that disagree with the policies within the EU Treaties then there is no recourse. Therefore the fact of the matter is that the European citizenry do not vote in their MEPs on the basis of policy choices but on whether their MEP represents their interests within the constraints of EU Treaties which usually amounts to a fair share of regional development funds. This is not democracy but a circumvented way of working together to achieve the goals of an undemocratic Treaty based agenda.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says


      We only need to hear what Juncker said “There can be no democratic choice against the EU treaties” or Schauble “Elections don’t change anything” to understand that the EU, supposedly a bastion of democratic principles, is leaving democracy behind.

      Technocratic attempts at justification only make things worse.

  3. Alexandra Wolff says

    Dear Joe

    First and foremost: sorry to have missed your name, it wasn’t mentioned in the initial opinion piece. Thanks for your substantive comments. Much appreciated.

    I understand that in your view the EU is undemocratic because EU citizens do not engage in the democratic decision process, which is evidenced by the low turnout rates in the European Parliament elections.

    People say that the EU has too much power, but when the chance is given to them to direct this power into a certain direction, they don’t use this power. That doesn’t make quite a lot of sense to me.

    I also question that the EU citizens’ democratic rights are meaningless because they cannot change the EU treaties: in which country do nationals have the right to change their constitution?
    Can UK nationals change the UK constitution? No.

    No other jurisdiction in the world has more democratic participating mechanisms for its citizens than the EU. From direct election to the EP, to European Citizens Initiatives, to complaints to the EU ombudsman…

    You also say that when a parliament’s make-up is determined by 500 million people, it’s hard to feel that the individual voter’s say has any meaningful impact.

    However, what then is the right number of people at which democracy is still sustainable? While I fully agree with you that democratic decision-making should start at local level (which is the reason why MEPs have been directly elected for 40 years), I cannot see that there should be a cut-off number above which it’s not feasible anymore to allow for e.g. representative elections. What e.g. if the UK grew to a 100, 200, 300 million people? These is just one of the questions that is crossing my mind here.

    It’s important in this context to make the distinction between EU citizenship and nationality of a member state, as these are very different concepts. EU citizenship is additional to nationality, and does not replace it. It’s a political concept that allows people from different nationalities to create a bond, e.g. by officially sharing certain values and principles – and by being able to jointly participate in democratic decision-making.

    It is true that much more could be done at EU-level to make the concept appealing to the people concerned.

    However, the member states’ governments, the national media and business seem to play a much more decisive role in forming public opinion than the EU institutions do.

    How else to explain that the EU’s approval rate varies very widely across the EU member states, and does not seem to correlate with what single member states ‘pay in’ and ‘get out’ (if such things can be measured at all, which, in my mind, they cannot)?

    By the way, the EU’s overall approval rate in 2018 has been the highest in 35 years. Just yesterday, the Volkskrant published an article according to which nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of Dutch people want to stay in the EU – up from 64 per cent in 2016.

    If democracy is to be taken seriously, then it should be every person’s right and responsibility to educate her/himself; and to participate in political life. In this context, it’s important to point out that education remains a competence of the EU member states, with the EU only having the right to support education.

    That support seems to work quite well: Both Erasmus and Erasmus+ have had a surrounding success, although they haven’t been around for that long.

    May I respectfully disagree with your view that “Voters can only meaningfully influence EU decision making through their own national governments rather than directly.”

    Numerous grass root developments in and outside Europe show that direct decision making is possible and sometimes the only sensible way forward. Brexit is a good example, as it seems that the national government has lost sight of what its people want in 2019, and also refuses to enquire further.

    As you say, public opinion has always been and still is hugely influenced by what we are being told by others.

    The big advantage of our time, however, is that we can easily find out who is of our opinion – and who is not.

    Looking at the bigger picture in Europe and elsewhere in the world, it is becoming clear that the people who are actually closest to each other (e.g. because they share a common world view) are not necessarily the people who are geographically the closest.

    Many societies are currently cut in half, with one half craving openness and inclusivity, whereas the other half seems to want to retract.

    For many, the European Union is a vehicle to inclusivity and openness. I agree with you that one can look at it from different angles and argue that it is currently restrictive at least in some way(s), e.g. by excluding European countries that voted against EU citizenship. However, it seems a good start and in any event currently the only model available.

    For me, this recent BBC3 article said it all:

    “In a nutshell, the UK is currently divided into the under-45s who, broadly, are in favour of staying in the EU, and the over 45s, who largely want out but it’s just lazy to say “young people are all remainers because they want to be able to go to uni in the European Union” which is one of the most common arguments we hear.

    At the end of last year, a group of MPs from different political parties and with different views on Brexit (known as the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for a Better Brexit for Young People) commissioned a report from the London School of Economics. In it, they tried to figure out what the best possible outcome for younger generations would be.

    They found that one of young people’s main concerns was that Britain will become less tolerant and more racist after Brexit.

    Stephen Kinnock MP, 48, is the chair of the APPG. He tells BBC Three that their research suggests that what young people really want above all else is to “preserve the strongest possible economic, scientific and cultural links between the UK and the EU”…”


    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thank you Alexandra

      Much of what you say is quite right.

      I would say a couple of things in response.

      I think that smaller units of democracy are always more resonant with people than larger ones. It’s not a question of trying to find the maximum number that will work. Rather it’s a question of trying to work towards the smallest viable units of democratic accountability within a larger whole. That is why countries like Germany, Switzerland, Canada, the US, etc have a federal structure and are obsessive about protecting state rights from ever-greater encroachment by rights taken from them by the national government.

      The EU would be the same if it really followed its own treaty-enshrined principle of subsidiarity. The trouble is that, as the US founding fathers explicitly stated, once you create a central unit of government, the temptation is continually to centralize. Which is why, through their constitutional Amendments, they built in protections for state rights and even fought a civil war over it. One can always find reasons why it is better to handle this and the next thing and then the next thing centrally. The challenge is to resist that one way flow – which the EU has not been good at doing so far – though things are changing.

      I am always suspicious of people saying things like ‘what young people want’ – another formulation of ‘the will of the people’. People are endlessly varied and want many different things. No single formulation reflects ‘the will of the people’ or ‘what young people want’. Different people want different things. The challenge is to find the balance. Not all young people who voted voted Remain. Many voted Leave – and for many different reasons. It’s not just about immigration as many would have us believe.

      But this discussion simply reflects the fundamental question as to the direction of the EU: a superstate or a confederation of sovereign nation states (the De Gaulle view)? That question has never been explicitly resolved and there are opposing camps pushing in different directions. I am a strong supporter of the latter. The EU has been moving towards the former – in my view too far too fast and without popular support for it. It’s the dream of a certain group of people who are pushing it onto everyone. What we are seeing is now a degree of backlash – which was inevitable. Eventually some kind of balance will emerge and evolve.

      You are right that support for the EU in polling surveys remains high. I am not surprised by that at all. But, as the EP elections approach, people’s biggest fear is the rise of Eurosceptic parties, how many seats they will win, and what the impact will be. Nothing is black and white and there are many seemingly contradictory and illogical developments. And even the same people often want opposing things. Which simply reflect our humanity – we are not logically consistent beings. Although we are all capable of selectively quoting ‘data’ that support our own beliefs and presenting only those as ‘the facts’ while, in today’s parlance, everything that opposes our beliefs is classified as fake news. We all have some shades of Trump in that respect.

      The problem that we have at the moment is that nobody on either side is willing to concede that there is some legitimacy in the views expressed by the other side. Either the EU is the devil or it’s heaven. The reality is that the EU is an ambitious project that is necessarily messy and highly imperfect. One can take the view that imperfect though it is, it’s a good thing to be part of. Or one can say that the imperfections are too great for some to put up with. I don’t think that either of those views is unreasonable. Yet each continues to demonise the other.

      Time to recognize that each side has some legitimacy for their views if we are to get beyond the current Brexit mess – and also if we are to build an EU that caters for an even more widely varied population.

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