Ben-Ami: The EU debate still needs resolution

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Those who think the stabilisation of the markets means that difficult questions about the European Union have been solved are naïve.

On the contrary, some of the most fundamental debates about the EU remain unresolved. Understanding the nature of European institutions means divining the forces driving integration.

One of Europe’s most astute political commentators argued earlier this month that Germany is pushing for an important shift within the EU. Ulrike Guérot, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is promoting a transnational rather than supranational Europe. Guérot means by this that Merkel wants EU countries to work more closely together rather than shifting all key decision making to the pan-European level.

“A huge transnational cooperation net seems to be the new formula, with national legitimacy trumping European legitimacy. Politics is national again, so the mantra runs, but it needs to be better coordinated. ‘Everybody is responsible for his/her own’ is the subtext of this message.”

In practice this will, in her view, mean German dominance. “The power centre clearly being in Berlin”, she says. It will involve a more nationally oriented set-up rather than a truly pan-European one.

James Heartfield, a British writer, takes a different view. In a path-breaking new book, The European Union and the End of Politics (Zero Books), he argues that the EU is what he calls “a process without a subject”. By this he means that there is no positive force driving Europe towards integration. Instead the EU has come about almost by default. It exists to supplement the declining authority of nation states.

In other words the process of European integration in its current guise has emerged as a result of the exhaustion of national politics. The anxiety of national elites about exercising power means they often hand it over to technocrats in Brussels.

For Heartfield it is a mistake to identify, as Guérot does, a return to some form of national politics. According to him: “In the ad hoc way that the EU works, sometimes it is the Commission that leads, sometimes the President, or a ‘Troika’, or in this case Angela Merkel taking on the job. But at its heart this is still a new way of working, not a return to national politics, but a self-conscious distancing from national interest.”

This debate, which deserves a wide public airing, has profound implications for the way in which the EU is understood. For Guérot a new form of national politics has emerged with Germany playing a leading role. Heartfield, in contrast, argues that the EU should be seen as a technocratic institution that has emerged as a result of the exhaustion of national politics.

It seems to me that Heartfield is on the mark. The EU should be seen as a new way of working rather than a modified form of the old national politics. Whether this is a welcome development is an entirely different matter.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer on economics and finance. His personal website can be found at www.danielbenami.com