Europe - a provocation

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Guthrie, R. (2000), "Europe - a provocation", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Europe - a provocation

Robin Guthrie

Robin Guthrie is Head of Social and Economic Affairs in the Council of Europe 1992-1998.

Keywords Council of Europe, EU

Visions and opportunity

1. For centuries, visionaries, philosophers and politicians have explored the possibilities of a united Europe. The early models of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire were derived from the Roman Empire itself. By 1300 Pierre Dubois was looking towards a confederal Christian republic overseen by a Council (although he also wrote, as a Frenchman, that "It would be salutary for the whole world to submit to France, for the French make better use of the power of rational judgement than do other people". Plus µa change . . . ); the Duc de Sully produced his Grand Design in the early seventeenth century, for a confederation of states co-existing in roughly equal size and power, with redrawn frontiers and supra-national institutions; William Penn proposed in the 1690s a European Parliament with seats allocated according to GNP (including Turks and Muscovites "if [they] are taken in, which seems but fit and just"); the AbbÅ Saint-Pierre excluded Russia in his proposals in 1713 and included it in 1738; Rousseau wanted a confederal system leaving each state master in its own house - on the basis that, while men might have renounced the state of nature, states had not in their relations with each other; Bentham wanted no federal structure, but only an impartial institution to referee disputes; Saint-Simon in 1814 proposed two Authorities and one regulating Body, on the analogy of the British structure of government ("There will be no repose or happiness for Europe as long as there is no political link to attach England again to the continent from which she has been separated"); Victor Hugo passionately espoused the cause of "a great United States of Europe; Proudhon fleshed this out with a systematic study of the federal principle as it had worked or failed in different times and places.

2. Behind all these visions lay the deep desire to avoid war and preserve the peace between principalities and nations. Equally powerful in some of them was the promotion of Christianity. Some actors did better than others: Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, the Vatican, Napoleon, Hitler. Britain was never interested in the domination of Europe; the wars with France, Spain, Holland and the rest were more to do with world trade than with European hegemony.

3. Visionaries must, if anything is to happen, be opportunists too. The great opportunity arose after the second devastating war of the twentieth century. The inspiration was, as ever, the avoidance of war: the opportunity of the common interest in coal and steel, and the impossibility of war if these interests were united. Opportunities and costs

4. Opportunities have their costs. The cost in this case was to establish an economic base for European unity rather than a cultural, legal or religious foundation. (At least we can be thankful to have avoided the latter.) The ECSC (1951) was followed by the AEC (1957) and the Treaty of Rome (also 1957) to create the EEC, moving towards "ever greater union", but on economic criteria that were to prove profoundly divisive. When Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway were lining up to join the Union the Commission explained very clearly to the Parliament in Strasbourg that new applicants "must match up to our acquis" - in other words, be economically compatible. That criterion was bound to exclude most of the continent, for the foreseeable future.

5. In 1951 Europe was divided east from west, and remained so throughout the 45 years after the Second World War during which the European Communities made so much progress. In 1989 the Wall fell, Communism collapsed and Europe was once again an open field. Timothy Garton Ash has speculated about the purpose and potential of the Maastricht summit in 1992, had the political leaders of the day seized the historic opportunity they were offered. Instead of enlarging the vision of Europe, broadening the principles on which it might be based and seeking the grounds for unity across the continent, they maintained the western economic criteria (including the CAP), embarked on a process of colonisation of the former communist states, and initiated the common currency. Whether Britain joins the single currency or not is of superficial importance compared with the effect of the single currency itself upon European unity. It will be several generations before Bulgaria, for example, is in a position to join a single currency. We are digging an economic ditch between west and east as deep as was the Berlin Wall and as high as the Iron Curtain was. Sound foundations

6. In 1949 the principles which could form the foundations of unity (rather than Union) in Europe were incorporated in the Statute of the first post-war European institution, the Council of Europe: human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law. From ten members at the start the Council had progressed by 1989 to 23, including the whole of western Europe. Accession to the Council was eagerly sought after 1989 by the new democracies of eastern Europe. It required profound changes of constitution, law and administrative procedure, but as a result of the new democracies rising to these challenges, membership of the Council now stands at 41, uniting the continent from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to the Pacific. The member states meet on the basis of the principles to which they are committed, and on an equal footing regardless of economic status.

7. The Council of Europe has no more power than its member states are prepared to allow it, which is not very much. Its authority derives from the principles on which it is based, and the legal instruments it has developed, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the Court of Human Rights (which provides the only mechanism in the world for the judicial and administrative enforcement of human rights). The Council of Europe's strength lies now not so much in the political field as in the application of expertise, on the basis of principle, over time. This benefits everything that concerns the governments of its members (including political issues), save defence. Internally the Council is ill-prepared for the challenges with which it should be faced, but that could easily be corrected. Europe? What Europe?

8. What kind of Europe do people want? Support for the Union in its present form is precarious, not only in Britain. The Union is not a union, but a forum for competing national interests (in which the Union itself is a 16th player). Its meagre bureaucracy is inadequate to cope with the huge sums at its disposal. The architecture of its buildings in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg speaks not of democracy, transparency and inclusion but of power and domination. The Union has become the single most divisive factor in Europe.

9. How could this have happened? In 1950, vision and opportunity came together. In 1989 there was opportunity, but no vision. The European Union will not go away, but it needs more radical redirection than has yet been considered in political circles. Romano Prodi is reported (16 September 1999) as calling for eastern states to be granted "virtual membership", including "participation in economic and monetary union", but this sounds like more of the same. The task is more fundamental: it is essentially to shift the power of Brussels on to the principles which lie in Strasbourg. In institutional terms this is a daunting task, which will call for imagination and sacrifice in several quarters. Politically it should be easier, particularly if national leaders can offer their electorates a vision of Europe which is comprehensive, principled and effective in matters of common concern without obliterating differences between nations which people value - the kind of Europe in other words which most Europeans appear to want. It will be harder now than it would have been in 1989, but from personal experience I do know of two examples in which it was achieved: one an event (the population census in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and the other an institution (the European Pharmacopoeia). These relatively minor examples nevertheless show how the central institutions of Europe could change if we were so to choose.

10. The British have a particular role to play, derived from their scepticism, their pragmatism and their history. But debate in Britain is limited to questions of national interest in relation to the Union. My own experience is twofold: on the one hand, of letters to the press unpublished, articles rejected and letters to ministers ignored; on the other hand, of groups of people up and down the country whose response is to say with relief "Ah, that is the kind of Europe we want. Why don't we hear more of it?" So would say, according to the Maastricht poll, 49 per cent of the population of France (and probably the majority on the mainland).

11. We have to develop:

  • a vision for Europe;

  • foundations on which that vision could be based;

  • institutions capable of realizing that vision;

  • a political programme linking the present to that future.

We have also to focus on issues that call for unity, notably defence, foreign policy in certain aspects, and the environment. Deep damage has been done to west-east relations by the imposition of western economic models on subject states in eastern Europe, but it is not irreparable. The political field needs to be invaded by new and popular concepts of what Europe is and what it might become, rooted in history, based on principles and responding to people's need for identity and purpose.

12. Proposals have to be both practical and politically possible. There are two key issues which the European Union has to face, and for which it is ill-equipped. The first is human rights. You cannot successfully latch human rights on to an essentially economic project. The Council of Europe established the European Pharmacopoeia in accordance with its principles in order to protect the human individual in the matter of medicaments. The EU dealt with it not as a matter of human rights and the protection of the individual but as an economic issue: the creation of the single market in pharmaceuticals. Nothing wrong with that; and the Community eventually decided to join the Council of Europe's Pharmacopoeia and to pursue its economic objectives within that framework. Had the Council of Europe sought to attach the principles of human rights to a project set up in Brussels on economic criteria, it is hardly conceivable that it could have succeeded.

13. The European Court in Luxembourg ruled in 1996 that the European Community (that part of the Union with legal personality) has no competence to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights, on the grounds that none of the treaties confers on the institutions of the Community any general power to enact rules on human rights or to conclude international conventions in this field. At Amsterdam in 1997 the possibility was accordingly opened up that a new structure for human rights should be established in the Union by a future Treaty, separate from that of the Council of Europe. What sense will that make to the people of Europe?

14. Second among the major issues facing the Union is that of enlargement. The acquis of the Union, including particularly the Common Agricultural Policy, now divides East from West. Enlargement will be extremely hard to achieve on present terms, and can only be slow and partial. We need to seek factors of unity rather than of division. These lie in Strasbourg, with the Council of Europe, where unity has already been achieved on the basis of human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law. These are the true foundations of Europe, which we have allowed to become separated from the great project of European Union as exemplified in Brussels.

15. Our objective should be to bring these elements together. Political and economic strengths will remain where they are, which is unavoidable, but they will be exercised on the foundations of principle and within a framework that brings all the nations of Europe together on an equal footing. Much else will follow, including wholesale institutional changes in both Brussels and Strasbourg. The legal complications are formidable, but the law is ultimately the servant of politics not its master, and where vision and political will are united anything is possible.

Note: This paper was prepared for a seminar in October 1999 organised by New Europe, which has kindly agreed to its publication.

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