Europe on the Brink: Democratic Values and the Single Currency

Europe on the Brink: Democratic Values and the Single Currency

Mini Teaser: The EU is not democratic. Neither the EC, nor the Council of Ministers, nor the European Central Bank is democratically accountable; and they cannot be made so, because Europe is not a nation.

by Author(s): Michael Portillo

The process of European political integration is moving at speed,
cheered on by the United States. Europe, the argument goes, has been
the place where the wars start, wars into which America is ultimately
dragged, and European political union will put an end to such
conflicts. And as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, things
will be a good deal easier once there is a common European foreign
and security policy, providing, as it were, the State Department with
a single number to call in Europe.

Those assumptions need to be questioned. The single currency, due to
commence next year, is a leap in the dark. Never has a group of
sovereign nations attempted such a pooling before. Never have
democracies been willing to invest so much power over the lives of
their citizens in a body--in this case the European Central
Bank--which is not democratically accountable. The tussle is on
between the German bankers, who want to ensure that the currency will
hold its value as reliably as their beloved Mark has done, and the
rest, who fear for the impact of such austerity on their rates of

We do not yet know whether the euro will be soft and inflationary, or
hard and recessionary. In either event, chaos and recrimination in
Europe are not in the U.S. interest. As I shall argue in this essay,
those who believe that political union is the key to avoiding
conflict have got it wrong. Rather, future danger lies precisely in
forcing nation-states into an artificial political union that will
transfer policy-making from the individual states, which are
democratic, to the European Union, which in itself is not. The
traditional danger in Europe has come from extremist nationalism.
Political union seems likely to rekindle it, as national interests
are ignored by policymakers who are both remote and irremovable.

There is more to a common European foreign policy than an easier life
for State Department switchboard operators. At the time of writing,
the United Kingdom is once again giving its willing support to the
United States in its policy toward Iraq. Time and again, the United
States and Britain have made common cause in the defense of liberty.
There are few if any other nations who support America so dependably,
and Britain's diplomatic backing is, I believe, an important asset
for Washington.

If political union extends to the creation of a common European
foreign and security policy, arrived at by qualified majority voting
amongst the member states, the United States will stand to lose that
backing. As recent history demonstrates, it is inconceivable that a
common European policy would normally back America, or be generally
robust. Indeed, the motivation of some of those now striving to
create political union in Europe is to establish a new bloc with a
distinctive policy outlook that will be at best un-American, and
quite possibly anti-American.

I suggest that it is time for Americans to take a more careful look
at what is happening in Europe and, before cheering political union
to the finishing line, to re-assess very carefully where their
country's real interests lie.

I intend to discuss the issue of the European single currency not as
it is often talked of in Britain, as though it were merely an
economic device which can be measured simply in terms of material
costs and benefits. I wish to examine it rather in the terms
regularly used by Britain's European partners. They see it frankly as
a project reshaping the way our continent is governed, to create a
political union that can free Europe from the fear of conflict
between its nations.

On the face of it, this may strike many as an excellent idea. In the
last two centuries the peoples of Europe have paid a terrible price
in wars. The Napoleonic Wars ravaged Europe for the best part of two
decades. In World War I, fifteen million were killed, mainly
soldiers. In World War II, the toll was at least forty-one million,
of whom most were civilians. There is no higher or more important
objective for politicians in Europe than to work for policies that
may better guarantee the security of our continent and avoid a
repetition of the dreadful slaughter of our modern history.

We can distinguish two causes at the root of these past European
conflicts. The first was Franco-German rivalry. Prussia and Austria
invaded France in 1793 and 1813. France occupied Prussian and
Austrian territory between 1805 and 1813. Prussia dealt the French
army a swift defeat in 1870, and went on to besiege the French
capital, causing many Parisians to die of starvation. Germany invaded
France in the opening stages of both world wars. Understandably
therefore, since the Second World War much effort has been devoted to
creating political institutions, and other links, to bind the former
adversaries together.

A second cause of past conflict was the so-called Eastern Question in
its various forms. There was the clash, both ideological and
territorial, between the empires of Christendom and the Islamic
empire of the Ottomans. The assassination in Sarajevo of an Austrian
archduke, and Austria's revenge for it on Serbia, provided the spark
for the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. But Germany's suspicion
and fear of Russia, another part of the wider Eastern Question, were
a more fundamental cause of that war. The mutual aggression between
totalitarian regimes in Germany and Russia supplied the bitterest and
most costly conflict of the Second World War. In contrast to what has
been done in the Franco-German case, comparatively little effort has
been devoted to bringing Russia fully into the family of Western
nations, or to building bridges between Christendom and Islam in
Europe, a matter I shall return to later. First, let us look at how
efforts to resolve the rivalry between France and Germany have been
taken forward.

The Idea of a United Europe

The ideal of creating a united Europe, even a United States of
Europe, arose as part of the humanist-pacifist tradition long before
the wars of the twentieth century, but until the end of the Second
World War it was largely confined to academics and dreamers.
Thereafter, it was taken up by statesmen like Altiero Spinelli and
Jean Monnet.

These two men embodied two distinct approaches to European unity, and
the distinction is important even today. Spinelli was a federalist,
believing that local, regional, national, and European authorities
should complement each other. Monnet was a functionalist, believing
that, one by one, critical functions, and therefore ultimately
sovereignty itself, should be transferred from the national to the
European level. In the official European Community literature of the
1990s it is argued that "today the two approaches have been merged."
Perhaps so. The Maastricht Treaty owes much to a functionalist
approach, with its proposals that Europe should acquire its own
defense and foreign policies and its own currency. But federalists
will be happy with that, it is said, since the result is nonetheless
federation--that is, the creation of a new political entity with the
critical characteristic of a federation in that its laws are binding
on the member states.

Those who support the creation of a European federation sometimes
argue that federalism is generally misunderstood in Britain. They
tell us that in continental Europe it is about decentralization, and
that federal constitutions in a number of European states emphasize
the devolution of powers to states or regions. But the federalism
that is being unfolded at the European level is not like that. The
process of integration now being pursued from one intergovernmental
conference to the next is highly centralizing and owes much to the
Monnet-functionalist approach.

While Spinelli, Monnet, and others were advancing European unity by
whatever means they could, which in their day meant mostly devising
institutions governing economic and trading relations in Europe,
Britain held aloof from that process, while committing itself
directly to European security. Clearly it is a myth that Britain has
never cared about Europe. The British Empire lost nearly a million
combatantsin the First World War. In the Second World War, hundreds
of thousands of British people died at home, or fighting in and
around Europe, because of a commitment to the freedom of the

Following that war, at a time when the nature of the Soviet empire
was becoming clear, the British foreign secretary at the time, Ernest
Bevin, committed Britain to a Western Union, an alliance of European
and non-European states dedicated to providing their peoples with
security. In 1954 attempts to create a European Defense Community
were scuppered by France. But again a British foreign secretary, in
this case Anthony Eden, made an historic commitment on behalf of his
country to maintain land and air forces in Europe for the following
forty years, thus providing an unmistakable guarantee of Britain's
willingness to fulfill its obligations if the security of our allies
were ever violated. It was a remarkable undertaking for an island
nation to make, especially given its traditional policy of
maintaining a small army and avoiding continental military

Essay Types: Essay