50 years of Europe: success or (half) failure? What about the future, Europe as a eunuch, Europe as a power, or Greater Switzerland? by Mogens Peter Carl former General Director of the EU Commission

50 years of Europe: success or (half) failure? What about the future, Europe as a eunuch, Europe as a power, or Greater Switzerland? by Mogens Peter Carl  former General Director of the Commission

Introduction

This essay aims to fill the gap between pro- and anti-European partisan positions and technical analyses. It is written by someone who has ‘lived’ Europe, who has seen the European mechanism from the inside for many years while keeping a critical mind. My approach is neither technical nor detailed, but focuses on the essentials of what I have experienced in a concrete way, thus leaving aside the subjects where I would not contribute anything. It is neither incriminating nor exculpatory: the analysis is as factual as possible (for a ‘eurocrat’ who is convinced of the goals to be achieved but sometimes very critical of the means and results…). I feel quite qualified to do this after having spent 35 years in the Commission, in charge of the common commercial policy, the environment, with participation in decision-making in the fields of energy, industry and agriculture. The years spent outside the Commission, but always on European issues, have also opened my eyes to realities unsuspected from our Brussels ivory towers (which, by the way, are no further from reality than the 27 towers of the Member States…).

In Europe, we have invented all the -isms of the last two centuries: liberalism, nationalism, capitalism, Marxism, socialism, pacifism, militarism, communism, fascism, nazism. We survived them, thanks to our teeming inventiveness, but the last four « -isms » almost took us out of history for good. Nevertheless, we imported Judaism and Christianity, which became the foundation of our civilisation. Among our latest discoveries: legalism, globalism and ecologism. Let us hope that their excesses are not too harmful and let us be happy and proud that our ancestors also invented humanism, impressionism and futurism…! Let us also hope that our children will be as inventive and resourceful as their ancestors in overcoming the impact of our dogmatic follies. I add, dogmatically, Europeanism among our good inventions, but please read this essay anyway, even if you abhor Europeanists. As you will see, this essay is not conformist or Europeanist-correct, nor is it infected with a blissful rosy view of the results of ‘European construction’.

Beyond the economic aspect, we also have the extraordinary privilege of living on a continent where respect for human rights reigns, with the added bonus of social protection for all, especially those who need it most, with unparalleled access to healthcare for all (paralleled only in a few other countries), and a longevity that is contested only by Japan. All this is also considered a given,  a sort of human right. Alain Minc described it very well in a book with a provocative title for Eurosceptics, « Un petit coin de paradis ». However, the aim of these pages is not to make pro-European propaganda, even if it does need it, and I could write pages on its great economic successes, the growth encouraged by the disappearance of borders, the catching up of less prosperous countries in the South and East, but I will rather try to take stock of this vast edifice that the European Union has become, its strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings. Furthermore, I will refrain from addressing the classic issues of Eurosceptic and media criticism, the alleged lack of democracy, encroachment on state sovereignty, bureaucratisation etc., which are the subject of endless and sterile debates.

 

This essay will be divided into two parts: 1) an assessment of the last 50 years, in the economic field, where Europe is a giant; 2) the future, especially in foreign and defence policy, where Europe is a dwarf, a text that is currently being written. Here is the first one:

Part One: The past 50 years in review

Let’s start with a dizzying (r)evolution between 2020 and 2021, from bad to better.

The worst, the nadir of « European solidarity », was reached at the peak of the Covid in Italy in early 2020 when military convoys of coffins were seen leaving Bergamo at night, to the indifference of other Europeans. A « mechanism » created by the Commission allows a Member State to request assistance from others through this system if it cannot cope with a civil emergency on its own. This mechanism has been activated hundreds of times since its creation in 2001. Italy used it in February 2020, requesting assistance from other Member States to fill the gap in health facilities. Although the virus had only just begun to appear outside Italy, the response, or rather the lack of it, was unanimous: not a mask, not an oxygen tank, not a protective suit, nothing. A fundamental breach of what we, or some of us, call « solidarity » or « European values ».
However, let us also recall a remarkable fact: Italy, which was the first to be hit by the disaster, had shortly before sent a major shipment of medical equipment to China by cargo plane. This shows that our Italian friends, whose ancestors created the greatest works of our civilisation, also know how to show a great sense of humanitarianism. It is a pity that the other 26 countries did not follow their example. A few weeks later, there was a (verbal) fight between the « stingy » northerners and the others over whether the countries that had suffered the most from Covid should be helped economically, and over the distribution of the migrants who landed on the Italian and Greek coasts.  For me, the worst moment in the history of the EU, to make you Eurosceptic, to give the Party card back.

Eighteen months later we have reached the zenith. The Commission has managed to procure hundreds of millions of doses of Covid vaccine, distributed equitably among the Member States. At the same time, a large-scale economic aid programme was launched on the basis of joint indebtedness, involving a very high level of resource transfer, especially to the countries that had suffered the most.

This « Nadir » and this « Zenith » contain a concentration of what is and is not going well in Europe. In the first case, the lack of solidarity; in the case of vaccines, the usual exercise of Member States hesitating before giving the Commission the power to act in a new area, and then, at the first slip-up, blaming the Commission for their own failings or incompetence (remember, the slow start of their vaccination programmes, disrupted by the failure of one of the companies contracted to produce the vaccines to fulfil its contractual obligations. Their failure to manage this disruption created delays in national immunisation programmes, for which the Commission was inevitably criticised, as usual). As for the economic aid programme, in itself a very big step forward, its implementation was delayed for a year by the need for ratification by the 27 national parliaments. And so much for the Member States blaming the Commission for their own incompetence: we are used to that! It takes a thick skin to be a Eurocrat!  But how can we envisage the future with such a convoluted, baroque and surrealist decision-making system? At least baroque and surrealist art have their visual charms. On the one hand, the belated realisation that we have to act together because no Member State is big enough to face the big challenges. On the other hand, the insistence on unanimity for everything that falls outside the corset of the Treaty, a corset that is increasingly restrictive, increasingly suffocating.

This corset was easy enough to live with when the European Union was younger and especially in a different world where our competitors were the United States and Japan, both democratic market economies, and where communist and dirigiste China did not count. Now, with the emergence of China on the scene and with global political disorder, including on our doorstep (and its export to us in the form of terrorism), we live in an atmosphere of growing insecurity. This corset is now suffocating us.

I also wanted to start with this evocation of our common recent history to recall one of our greatest (potential) strengths, namely the capacity of a baroque system of governance to take great steps forward. This has always been the story of « European construction ». It is obviously ‘better than nothing’, while providing no guarantees for the future; but above all, it promises further major delays in the future.

We have reached the limits of what the Treaty allows for truly « Community » action. Often these limits have been impressively reached in substance, creating a true common economic area without borders. We continue to fill in the last boxes of the current Treaty in a hobbled way, perhaps towards an « ever closer union » but without a common vision of the purpose of this march.

However, political miracles have been accomplished, filling the boxes of the Treaty of Rome’s specifications with concrete actions. These ‘acquis’ (in EU jargon), cover much of what concerns the economy, internally:

We live on a continent where there are no longer any barriers to trade in goods and services, to the transfer of capital, and where we can work and live wherever we want and cross borders at a speed of 20 km/h. This essay will therefore say little about this achievement.
But still remember all those whose hard work made it possible! However, for those who were born more than fifty years ago, and who are familiar with our history, our constant civil wars, it is a miracle. But while these extraordinary freedoms provide a necessary foundation, they will not be enough on their own. There is no real freedom without rules, otherwise it is no longer « freedom » but rather the law of the jungle. To enable us to live well, we need rules, « accompanying music », to find the right balance between these « four freedoms » (goods, services, capital, people) and our social, personal, cultural, non-economic fulfilment, requiring other actions, also to enable us to assume our rightful role in the world.

Curiously, in the implementation of these freedoms, the distinction between internal and external opening has often been omitted, with the result that the European Union has sometimes given the impression of being a vast entity open to all winds, accused of « naivety », especially in France. Two concrete examples: public procurement, which is open to all economic actors, European and non-European, and this without reciprocity. The question is still hotly debated, several decades later, and our markets remain wide open, a good (or rather bad) demonstration of our ideological divisions… Another example: capital transfers and especially foreign investments, which were open until very recently to all, be they Chinese or American. It took the Chinese appetite for our industrial nuggets to start worrying about it.

 These « four freedoms » have been acquired, even if this is sometimes to the benefit of countries outside the Union. We do not even think about them any more and I will not return to them in the following pages except in very specific cases where their preservation is threatened.

The following is a very personal and non-exhaustive list of Community action over the past fifty years, roughly during or soon after the implementation of the ‘four freedoms’, and its shortcomings and weaknesses:

Foreign trade :

On the positive side, the common trade policy is the most recognisable of the EU’s external action successes. Common rules apply, the Commission negotiates and concludes agreements on behalf of the Union with third countries, represents it at the WTO and provides some protection against dumping and subsidies from third countries.

One can, of course, criticise the substance of this common policy which, until very recently, was based on an all-out opening up, notably by concluding free trade agreements and by very sparingly applying protection against the enormous distortions generated by the Chinese system of subsidies to its industry. Thus, the services of DG Trade in charge of these ‘trade defence’ measures have been reduced to a shadow of what was known before the victory of neo-liberalism, to a level comparable to that of the post-Brexit United Kingdom, which, despite its claims of ultra-liberalism, has found it to its liking to protect its industry.

But that would be a discussion between ideological points of view and that is not the purpose here. « The ‘common trade policy’ exists. Full stop. If we want to amend it (and I won’t hide from you that I think it is urgent to do so), we will have to do so on the basis of a revision that takes into account the fact that the world has changed profoundly in the space of twenty years and that China has become the « workshop of the world ». A vast subject, but not for this essay.

To conclude: there is one common trade policy; whether it is good or bad is not the point here.

The negative: the absence of serious controls at the external border: how can fraudulent, even criminal, imports be prevented if there are no controls other than « on paper » in our ports? Are Member States’ customs really motivated to do so or do they put the interests of their national ports and thus speed of passage first? (One can hope that the case of the huge customs fraud knowingly tolerated by British customs was an exception).

This major flaw is only a partial manifestation of a more general and serious problem: the reduction or even disappearance of the notion of common interest, exploited to the full by certain third countries. This was exemplified in the battle over solar panels when the European industry demanded protection against the import of Chinese solar panels, which were heavily subsidised by the Chinese state, expressly in order to dominate world markets. The Commission proposed protective measures, which were rejected by a large majority of Member States for a variety of quite extraordinary reasons: by some of the « small » ones under Chinese threat of retaliation when their interests are at stake before the UN Security Council; by others to get back at Germany, the main European panel producer (and whose industry was the plaintiff), because of the German government’s frequent refusal to vote in favour of protecting the industry of other Member States on other occasions (thus, refusals of solidarity to get back at other failures of solidarity); and finally, the indecision of the same German government to vote for its industry and create political problems for itself with China. The result: a minimum price system very favourable to Chinese exporters, theoretically imposed at the border, and cheerfully circumvented by the Chinese exporters who knew well how to use the « good ports » to get their solar panels through.

As a result, there is almost no European solar panel industry left; imports from China account for 90% of our installations, and this in a sector that is key to reducing our CO2 emissions and where European industry would be perfectly capable of producing what we need. A major, home-made defeat! Another « nadir » for Europe.

Have any lessons been learned from this, in Brussels or in the capitals? I don’t think so.

Conclusion: a truly common policy and in many respects a great success, but… suffering from a lack of « Community solidarity » and of real border control. For some, there is also a need to update the very principles of this policy to take into account the Chinese fact and to achieve a « strategic autonomy » that its authors would like to be « open » (which reminds me of the expression that « you cannot be half pregnant »). One should not be afraid of calling things by their name…

 

 

 

The internal market and industrial policy

 

It was from the 1980s and early 1990s that the Union really succeeded in creating an internal market, based on extensive common standardisation in the industrial and agri-food sectors. The « federal » rules are in full play, with Member States and the Parliament fully involved in the drafting of rules which are adopted by qualified majority voting. The problem identified elsewhere in this paper of a lack of « European solidarity » is hardly relevant here: everyone benefits. Any product sold in the single market must comply with these rules, and this will pose a problem for the newly ‘independent’ UK government: if it wants to be able to export its goods to Europe, they must comply with our rules, with the consequence that the laws of the ‘independent’ UK will continue to be modelled on ours, including those decried by a certain B. Johnson when he was a journalist in Brussels. Ironically, the British government used to participate in making the rules, but now, in a sublime irony, it is subject to them without having a say in the matter.

All this is an undeniable success, with the main drawback being the lack of real control of conformity with European rules, especially at the level of imports but also at the level of what should be the control by the Member States on the internal level. Thus the famous « CE » marking only represents a statement by the manufacturer that his product is in conformity. At the risk of repeating the criticism already made above, the control of conformity “leaves much to be desired », to put it diplomatically. But there are still other distortions created by the insufficient progress in harmonising the conditions of competition in the internal market (taxation, compliance with certain social standards) and the absence of a common policy towards non-European companies applying for public procurement contracts, all of which is caused by ideological conflicts and the need for unanimity in the social and fiscal fields.

And industrial policy? It has had its ups and downs, but above all its downs according to the evolution of our economies and therefore of the dominant ideologies. A common policy preceded the creation of the Union, being the very heart of the European Coal and Steel Community and later of Euratom. Then it evaporated (replaced in people’s minds by the deepening of the internal market) because European industry did not seem to need it, revelling in a vast market suddenly open without borders. For twenty years, its resurrection has been called for by those who observe our relative decline in certain industrial sectors. It took the combination of the health crisis and the arrival of a proactive Commissioner (Thierry Breton) at the Commission to put the issue back on the agenda, in several sectors where the Commission has taken the initiative, such as medicines, batteries for electric cars, rare metals, semi-conductors, etc. Will Thierry Breton succeed or will he be held back by the short-sightedness and nationalism of Member States?  In any case, in the absence of a real institutional foundation, any progress in these areas will depend on the personalities of the Commissioners and other Eurocrats in charge, the degree of threat of inaction, the ability of Member States to look beyond the next electoral contingency and the manoeuvring of third countries. It is far from being won. A good fight in prospect. My best wishes go with those in charge…

The common competition policy is without doubt the most successful common policy. It does not suffer from the weaknesses mentioned above, being almost entirely in the hands of the Commission, with decisions that are almost self-executing even outside the EU, unless, of course, they are overturned by the Court of Justice.

It is a major political and legal force against which third countries are unable to intervene. So why is it under attack, especially in France? Its actions have undoubtedly created a market that is much more competitive than those that exist anywhere else, in the United States, Japan, Switzerland (not to mention China!), with many advantages. Critics claim that it is too one-sided, that it neglects any consideration other than competition which it sets up as an objective and value in itself. These critics have focused on cases of prohibition of mergers and acquisitions aimed at creating European champions large enough to compete with the Chinese. Critics also point to the example of Airbus, which they say would never have happened if the current competition policy had been applied. Whether these criticisms were justified or not, mentalities have changed a great deal and the creation of European interest groups is explicitly encouraged and made possible in legal terms. Above all, I do not want to criticise, on the contrary, a Directorate-General and its Commissioner, Mrs Vestager, who are willing and able i.a. to curb the GAFAs, and who are far more courageous than anyone else in the world!

The agricultural policy– a real instrument for measuring the real progress of European integration – was one of the foundations of this European construction (and one will recall the vehement exchanges between Chirac, Minister of Agriculture, and Josef Ertl, his German counterpart). If we want to measure its success in terms of the creation of a truly common policy, it is a success that has also allowed the complete opening of our internal borders and, above all, our food self-sufficiency (+/-) which, pace the neo-liberals, is not so bad in a chaotic world… It has undergone a remarkable evolution from its dirigiste and interventionist origins (price fixing, purchase of surpluses, subsidised resale of these surpluses on the world market) to become a system of direct support for farmers’ incomes, in particular by means of per-hectare subsidies disconnected from any production objective, with the search for environmental conditionalities, with varying degrees of success, if we are to believe the often violent criticisms of the EU Court of Auditors and that of the French Court of Auditors (and of farmers).

Leaving aside criticisms of its aims and budgetary costs, the main problem is to reconcile the need for a common policy based on identical criteria with the vast diversity of European agriculture and to impose conditionalities that are accepted and applied in the real world by the Member States (and farmers). But this is not the subject of this paper. At most, it should be noted that the common agricultural policy suffers from the same problems as all other policies, common or not: the lack of human resources at the disposal of the Commission to ensure proper implementation at national level, and it is at national level that the problem arises because that is where the money is spent. This is a systemic problem.

To this must be added the quarrel between those who favour an agriculture like that of our parents, without GMOs, without or with much less pesticides, and those for whom science (or at least the science which they prefer…) should prevail, as well as the question of the distortion of international competition because of our higher standards which increase our costs (e.g. in terms of animal welfare protection) because our foreign competitors do not have them. Other distortions are created by our standards regarding the use of certain pesticides, constraints which our foreign competitors do not have. According to some studies (curiously of American origin), the concrete application of our current and future rules and the ever-increasing « greening » would be a disaster for our agriculture. True or false, it is essential to see more clearly for such an important sector. I would add to this the intra-community distortions caused by very unequal levels of social protection and the rise of large meat factories, reducing the smaller farms to vegetate or disappear.

These are vast ethical, economic, social and environmental issues, for which answers must be found to replace the quasi-religious wars between the proponents of one or the other thesis. Ah, the lovely smell of the religious wars of the 16th century!

As for transport, at the time the poor relation of common policies with little basis in the Treaty for action, we have seen a remarkable and controversial opening up of the European sky and land transport, against a backdrop of strong tensions over the approximation of competition conditions, both within and outside the Community. All of this has been to the delight of the consumer, who finds himself faced with a cheaper transport offer in Europe than anywhere else.

The policy of development aid was wanted by the former colonial empires, first and foremost by France. Since its creation more than fifty years ago, it has been a sui generis policy. This is perhaps a « good thing » if one considers that economic development should be supported without any ulterior motive or conditionality. In the field of development, I may surprise you by recalling that the EU and its 27 Member States contribute about half of the aid provided by all countries in the world, to the tune of a staggering 67 billion euros (+) per year, of which a little less than one third is managed by the European institutions. This is a « good thing » if it is well used and it is good for our conscience.

Like all other development aid policies, those of the Europeans (i.e. the Union and the 27 Member States in more or less dispersed order) have always been criticised for their alleged lack of effectiveness, for the risk of diversion to other ends, etc. Moreover, as with other Community actions, the human resources available to the Community institutions to manage all this, and which must ensure, among other things, the proper use of the aid, are out of all proportion to the enormous resources devoted to it.

I do not wish to join in the criticism of a policy pursued for humanitarian purposes. I will stop here, regretting that the European public knows nothing of all that is done, and perhaps well done, in its name.

However, would it not be legitimate to hope that this aid would be subject to much more pronounced ethical and environmental conditionality and, above all, applied? To put it in a way that is probably shocking to sensitive souls, what could not be achieved in terms of respect for human rights and protection of the environment and the climate with a little more conditionality linked to the annual disbursement of 67 billion… but to achieve this, more will and less sense of guilt are needed.

—Environmental policy has developed remarkably since its inception in the 1990s, gradually expanding to cover virtually all aspects of environmental protection within the European Union. This has been made possible by highly committed EU officials and the support of Member States who, while sometimes complaining that they cannot pursue their objectives on their own, seem to have realised that the subject merits the adoption of common rules. (This is complicated in Member States with a federal structure such as Germany, where, according to what an environment minister from one of the Länder told me, his colleagues were wondering who was the worse enemy, Berlin or Brussels. It seems to me that Brussels won.) One can, of course, ask questions about the purpose of some of these rules, which fortunately gives rise to sometimes very heated debates (here is a classic expression of a former Eurocrat who, even now, sometimes avoids calling a spade a spade…). An example: is it better to ‘valorise’ waste by burning it to recover heat or to impose selective sorting to recover the raw material? Is it even allowed to ask such a politically incorrect question?

However, controversial or not, these common rules for the protection of nature (and often our health), water, air etc. etc. suffer in their application at national level from the same syndrome as that mentioned in other contexts above: the difficulty for a few hundred people in Brussels to know what is happening 2,000 km to the north or south in a Union of 450 million inhabitants speaking 24 different languages, or even to understand the very different national contexts. Even if they do know, the question arises as to how to enforce these rules, as they are often directives transposed at national level by the Member States and subject to national political constraints and controversies. Let us not forget that the Union has no means of coercion other than economic, hence the very important role of the EU Court of Justice. For the aficionados, take a look at the water quality dispute in Brittany that started in the 1990s, which went through the signing of a letter of formal notice and financial penalties, addressed to the French government by yours truly in 2006 with the threat of a fine. Despite great progress, green algae still fill some beaches in Brittany.

This kind of problem would probably also exist in a truly federal system, or even in a unitary state, as the same causes often produce the same effects. In our concrete case, the causes result from a combination of pressures on the French authorities from intensive agriculture and other economic interests. The effects are that the public authorities choose between an important political pressure and a less important one, i.e. to displease Brussels or Luxembourg. « Brussels », being far from being directly subjected to these pressures, may not succumb to them.

Those who want a healthy environment are well served by a comprehensive EU action, strongly supported by the European Court of Justice, the Parliament and by highly motivated ‘Eurocrats’ in DG Environment.

Action to counter climate change. This has become the subject where the current Commission is ambitious, supported by the European Parliament, a good part of the Member States and, at least in principle, by public opinion. In reality, there is nothing new under the sky because the basis for most of the actions was created in 2007/2008, with a radical overhaul of the ETS (Emission Trading System) creating increasingly important constraints on CO2 emissions from industry and electricity production. Further regulatory constraints apply to reduce emissions from cars. With the global climate going from bad to worse, the Commission has decided to strengthen existing constraints and add new ones to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Since action at national level would serve little purpose except to make local governments unpopular, Member States seem to accept that a genuine and increasingly ambitious common policy should be pursued.

This also establishes elements of a common energy policy. Our energy markets are completely open and increasingly restrictive rules are pushing Member States towards renewables and nuclear power, creating an internal energy market (especially electricity) that makes little economic sense (another typical ex-Eurocrat understatement for saying that something is not making sense). For example, electrical energy costs the consumer almost twice as much in Germany as in France, even though France’s CO2 emissions are much lower than Germany’s, thanks to nuclear power and far fewer renewables. Gas and electricity prices are soaring everywhere. Opening up to competition will not be enough for a sector where the « price signal » dear to economists is above all a sign of great disorder and inconsistency, against a backdrop of divergent regulatory interventions by the 27 Member States. A good opportunity for the European Union to repeat the « vaccine approach » by proceeding with a real communitarisation of the sector?

But back to global warming. It is a great success in terms of the « communitisation » of objectives and means held to be essential by many Europeans. Is it worth it, will it be worth it to get us to ‘zero carbon’ here, at home? Some people may object that our progressive de-industrialisation since the 2008 financial crisis has reduced our share of global greenhouse gas emissions from 14% to 8%, which is the equivalent of a few years’ growth in Chinese or Indian emissions, which are not decreasing at all, on the contrary.

In 1983, during another major crisis, that of the Euromissiles, which threatened us with a « nuclear winter », François Mitterand had a phrase that struck a chord: « The pacifists are in the West, and the missiles are in the East« .  Now history is repeating itself, but on the subject of global warming (which, ironically enough, replaces the fear of nuclear winter), because the protesters are here but the CO2 emissions are mostly elsewhere. The demonstrators (whose good will I do not dispute) should rather go and demonstrate in Beijing, New Delhi and Washington where the main « polluters » are competing with each other in terms of inaction and good words. But which European political leader will dare to say so today?

As local emissions are mixed at the global level, only action at the global level would make sense, as action limited to Europe would create a lot of pressure on our industry without making any difference to the climate.

The response to these criticisms has been to insist that European actions should serve as a model for the rest of the world to persuade other countries to follow our example. I have been waiting impatiently for this to happen since our concrete measures were adopted twelve years ago… Some would like to create a system of border protection to compensate our industry for the extra costs generated by our constraints (ETS and others). Otherwise, European industrial production would be replaced by imports from countries where carbon would not be taxed as it is in Europe, leading to a net increase in global emissions (in the jargon, « carbon leakage »). This is another highly controversial issue between those who want to open up our markets almost unconditionally and those who want to avoid « carbon leakage » and hope that such a carbon tax at the border would be used to pressure third countries to follow us in reducing their emissions and thus avoid paying the tax at the border.

In a chaotic world, where other signatories to the Paris climate agreement are competing to do nothing, i.e. not to reduce their emissions, let us welcome Europe’s voluntarism. Let us hope that it succeeds in serving as an example, that the introduction of an appropriate border tax prevents our industry from sinking under the weight of its extra costs and that it encourages third countries to act… One can hope, the worst is never certain.

Let us conclude this admittedly non-exhaustive list of our successes and failures by returning to the two major successes of the past year, the Covid vaccines and mutual economic aid.

As for vaccines, it certainly started badly, amidst a cacophony at Member State level until they came to the only logical conclusion, that of entrusting the Commission with the task of acting for all. It did so, securing our short and long-term supply at unbeatable prices. By the end of the year, almost all the doses will have been produced in Europe, an unimaginable quantity of almost 3 billion, half of which will have been exported, partly to developing countries. Of course, as usual, the Commission was strongly criticised when a producer’s failure slowed down national vaccination programmes; now that success is assured, there is no longer any talk of the Union’s role. The Commission is used to this, but would it not be useful to consider extending the same principle of pooling our resources to other areas of health? The Commission, for its part, would like to see this, but will it be followed? This example, like the one that follows, is also a striking demonstration of one of our strengths, i.e. our capacity to improvise and act with few human resources but above all with highly motivated Eurocrats. However, this case also demonstrates our weaknesses, the jealousy of the Member States with regard to « Brussels », their short-sightedness which has so far prevented the creation of the common industrial and scientific capacities needed to face health and other challenges. Optimists would like to see the end of  « business as usual » after the end of Covid. It is up to the Commission to continue to work towards this goal and to say so loudly, and for the press to relay the message.

As the health crisis triggered an economic crisis, the Union finally rose to the challenge by creating a vast programme of economic aid, a mixture of outright grants and loans, distributed according to a key that gives more to the most affected countries, all backed by loans issued by the Union, backed by the Community budget. This is a revolution; will it be followed by a permanent evolution towards greater solidarity, economic and otherwise, or will it be without a future? There has been a tough battle between the ‘frugal’ and the other Member States. Has the prevailing mentality of the former changed? (In any case, the Brexit has helped change the balance of power, as Romano Prodi said on this subject, « ex malo bonum« …).

As for the substance, the Union has been up to the mark, to paraphrase Churchill, « after having tried every other option but the right one ». But do we have to invent or import fire engines every time the house starts to burn down? In this case, the need for national parliamentary ratifications slowed down the entry into force of the measures by a year, yes, by twelve months! Only the massive intervention of the European Central Bank saved us during this absurdly long interval.

 

 

How to manage such a large and heterogeneous group?

 

The fundamental question is: do we want a Union of solidarity, capable of acting quickly, or a vast baroque structure, capable of both the best and the worst, as we have seen since February 2020?

 

The Treaty of Rome of 1958 was a work of great clarity and, in institutional terms, both ‘cubist’ and ‘futurist’. The management of what was already a vast ensemble with the six founding countries was entrusted to a Commission of high-profile political figures and the first waves of ‘Eurocrats’ managed to achieve a first in world history, abolishing most of our ancestral fetters within the space of twenty to thirty years.

The successive Treaties, including the Lisbon Treaty, have become very difficult to read and understand. Above all, the respective roles of the institutions have become less clear-cut, with an increase in the power of the « European Council », which has often de facto taken over the role of the Commission as the driving force of the whole, depending on the subject. But can an occasional assembly of 27 national representatives legitimately claim to know and understand the interests of the whole Union? This is a rhetorical question, because a sense of the common interest is a profession that is learned and practised within the European institutions, not during periodic visits to Brussels. At most, the European Council should focus on its essential role of bringing the main issues of the day to the level of heads of state and government to resolve otherwise intractable conflicts.

The Commission, composed of personalities free in principle from any national affiliation or obedience, supported by a body of ‘apatride’ (sic) civil servants, is capable of understanding the general interest, of formulating it and of proposing solutions. However, gradually after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council took over some of these roles, culminating laughably in the « sofa gate » episode. How could we have fallen so low? Instead of a Treaty of Rome that I described as ‘cubist’ and ‘linear’, we have a decision-making system that resembles a kind of baroque Dadaism, with surrealist elements.

Whose fault is this? In the first place, it is the Member States who, instead of sending their best and brightest as Commissioners to Brussels, have often done so to get rid of this or that political rival. For this reason, when faced with the shortcomings of some Commissioners, the Commission’s Directors-General have often had to fill in, playing a political role. However, if you have an incompetent at the top, it inevitably weakens you vis-à-vis the Member States and third countries. This evolution did not start yesterday, but it was noticeable after the early days of the Barroso Commission when, in front of the Directors-General assembled a few months after he took office, he was heard, to their amazement, to announce that he thought he had it all figured out after his first few months at the top, that « the Commission was the biggest NGO in the world ». There are, of course, exceptions, but the President with the three or four stars of the current college of Commissioners cannot make up for the deficiencies of the others. But the Commission has, to put it plainly, a boulevard in front of it, with 27 often divided Member States, but also with the support of an increasingly important and courageous European Parliament.

There remains the institution whose importance and reputation have only grown, the Court of Justice of the European Union, a supreme court with a reputation untainted by political or national allegiances, to the extent that it is seen by some, so far especially in Germany, Hungary and Poland, as the main target to be brought down, to diminish its role and above all to ensure that its judgements can be overturned at national level. In a certain sense, this is the main battle not to be lost for those who call for a democratic and law-based Europe.

 

 

Conclusion

I did not want to make an exhaustive inventory of Community action (or inaction), if only because of my lack of knowledge of areas other than those dealt with above. Also, I assume that some actions, notably the opening of borders through the Schengen Agreement, are well known and that the concomitant flaws, namely the porosity of our external borders and the absence of a common migration policy, are also known by all, and not only by the inhabitants of Lampedusa… Let’s welcome in passing the fact that one can travel from the North Cape to…Lampedusa without showing one’s passport (but perhaps one’s vaccination certificate), and this only 75 years after the end of our last fratricidal war and a third of a century after the disappearance of the Iron Curtain. An amazing progress.

This is the end of my sometimes critical examination of what has been achieved at European level in the economic field and its weaknesses. Criticism of what has been achieved is part of political life, part of my right as a citizen to express my opinion, and in no way constitutes a criticism of the principle of joint action, on the contrary. However, you will have noticed the recurrent mention of Achilles’ heels, an almost tiresome refrain of implementation problems on the ground, of the lack of sufficient staff, partially compensated by the presence of often highly motivated Eurocrats.

I come back to the question, whose fault is it? Of all of us, in different ways according to our roles. Starting with the Member States who, while allowing the number of national and local officials to explode (an indirect reference to France, among others) keep the Commission on a very tight leash. This can easily be solved, by what would represent a drop in the bucket compared to Europe’s enormous human and financial resources. The Commission itself also bears a significant share of the responsibility, but in other respects.  For example, the well-known problem of internal governance in the Commission with the ‘silo’ system persists, where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It is aware of this and tries to overcome it with the means at hand. Unfortunately, this failure (also known at the national level) is too often aggravated by a form of political naivety which made Hubert Védrine say that Europe was becoming « the idiot of the global village ». However, I am encouraged by the proliferation of initiatives to correct this « naivety », as if Europe (or at least a handful of Europeanists) were waking up like Sleeping Beauty. More fundamental are other problems such as the lack of support from many governments. Another Achilles’ heel is the lack of knowledge about Europe which, in my own experience, extends from the bottom to the top of the economic and political hierarchy of the Member States, and for which the media bears some responsibility.

The main problem is above all the dilution of the sense of belonging to a community of nations with common interests, the erosion of the sense of having the same interests, of the famous « Community solidarity », of having the same future prospects. (You will notice that I exempt the European Parliament and the Court of Justice from my criticism in these respects…).

This famous solidarity is like virtue and morality, pace J-J Rousseau, one is not born with it, it is not imposed from above, it is learned, confirmed by exchanges of goodwill, by the adoption of rules, principles, actions, freely decided in common, and, to be very ambitious, by the learning by the leaders of a minimal knowledge of our History. We have seen the fragility between the nadir of February 2020 and the zenith of July 2021 when this seemed to have disappeared, only to reappear in fine. We can, but must not, continue like this: next time the swimmer may not be able to kick his way up from the bottom of the pool.

These last lines were written on 15 September. Since then, in the space of a few days, « European solidarity » has reached a new nadir with the affair of the breach of contracts for the French submarines. The United States has behaved as if it were an enemy (and I am not talking about Australia and the United Kingdom, which are merely subordinates). To quote Dominique Moïsi, a brilliant political scientist and hardly known for being anti-American, « What do you do when…your main ally and protector for more than seventy-five years betrays and discredits you? Nothing, if one is to believe the deafening silence of most of the other 26 Member States, which have limited themselves, and I am talking about the bravest ones, to « regretting » the matter, while insisting on maintaining the trans-Atlantic « link ». What link, that of an underling to his feudal chief? In 2003, President Chirac declared that the « Eastern countries » that had supported the US invasion of Iraq had « missed a good opportunity to shut up ». Today, at another moment of extreme political tension, one could turn the phrase around: these countries, and most other Europeans, « missed a good opportunity to talk ».

One joker suggested that France should build the famous submarines anyway and offer them to the European Union. An idea that should interest the tourist office of the city of Cherbourg, where the twelve submarines would be seen rusting away while turning around in the harbour, waiting for the 27 Member States to decide, unanimously, whether they could go to sea and if so, for what purpose.

I have started to anticipate the second part of this essay (in the process of being written) to emphasise once again our basic problem, the dilution of the sense of belonging to a community of nations with common interests. This applies to many issues, but especially to foreign and security policy, and less so to the economy, where there is less submission to the pressures of ‘certain third countries’. This is why it does not seem inconceivable or impossible that we should move towards a new treaty between the members of a « hard core », between countries that would like « an ever closer Union » in the economic and social field. And if some do not want it, an « x-exit » is always possible. Why would you want to force a country to stay in the Union for years and poison the well for others? The Brexit has taught us how to do more of the same, if necessary.

For years we have lived and survived with a series of major advances, operated by a few hundred people, manoeuvring with an institutional structure that I have called ‘baroque’. We can continue in this way, navigating by sight, cobbling together solutions to problems as they arise, but these solutions will suffer from the delays inherent in decision-making which often appear to be existential choices, and which, like Offenbach’s carabinieri, « always arrive too late » (but note the notable exception, the enormous recent success of vaccines, achieved by massive orders placed by the Commission, for the benefit of us all). The means of action provided by the current Treaty are almost exhausted, if only because of the unanimity rule in areas such as taxation and social affairs. We can, of course, resort to « enhanced cooperation » between a « happy few » but this is by definition less effective, complicated and slow to implement.

If we want to free ourselves from the constraints we have created ourselves in other times, a revision of the Treaty is necessary, including the disappearance of the unanimity rule which persists in key areas (here, I repeat, I am not talking about foreign and defence policy, see below). This will be very difficult (a Eurocratic expression for « impossible ») for the 27. Let us have the courage to envisage a structural overhaul, such as should have been done in 2000, i.e. before enlargement, with a hard core operating under a Treaty free of its constraints, the other Member States being bound by institutional and ad hoc agreements, for example of the kind we have concluded with Norway or Switzerland, or even with the United Kingdom.

In the field of foreign and defence policy, however, this will hardly happen until the United States has repeatedly demonstrated that the word « ally » is now written in inverted commas or until a future « Trumpist » president has left NATO. Rebus sic stantibus, it will have to wait. On the other hand, in all other areas, a proactive approach can succeed, but let us be realistic: only France, supported by the Commission and the European Parliament, is capable of taking the initiative.

France will hold the EU Presidency for the first six months of next year. It is now alone among the Member States, after the much regretted departure of Angela Merkel, in being able to make this out of tune orchestra play. It has the political capacity, with a proactive President and government, to lay the foundations for a new beginning. France can bring about the beginning of a deepening of the European Union (economic, fiscal and social) and if it does not do so, it will not happen. As for foreign policy and especially common defence, to repeat myself and to be realistic, we will probably have to wait for new, almost terminal provocations from across the Atlantic to make progress (we could, of course, hope that Washington will realise the usefulness of having real « allies » and not sometimes restive subordinates, but such a change is not in our hands and we cannot base a policy on hope).

Please forgive a well-worn cliché, we are at a turning point. May President Macron use the French Presidency to make this historic turn in the right direction for Europe and for France.

Mogens Peter Carl
October 2021

Biography

Mogens Peter CARL left Denmark at a young age to pursue an international career. After Sevenoaks School in England, he obtained an M.A. at Cambridge University, followed by an MBA at INSEAD. He was a senior official at the OECD and Senior Economist at the World Bank. Most of his career was spent at the European Commission, where he rose through the ranks to become Director General of Trade. Here, for some twenty years, he negotiated agreements with the United States, Russia, Korea, Japan and China on trade in industrial goods (aircraft, satellite launches, steel, shipyards, textiles, semi-conductors, etc.), led WTO negotiations on intellectual property, information technology, defended European agriculture against attacks from third countries and helped launch the new trade negotiations at Doha. He managed the reform of the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences and the elimination of tariffs on imports into Europe of products from the least developed countries. He then became Director General for the Environment where he led the overhaul of European legislation in the fields of air pollution, waste, water, chemicals and participated in the development of the new policy to reduce CO2 emissions from cars. He also lead the reform of the Emission Trading System (ETS), the cornerstone of the European fight against climate change, and participated in the drafting of the Energy and Climate Package, adopted in December 2008 and in international negotiations on global warming.

He left the Commission in 2008 to join J-L Borloo, then Minister of State for Energy and the Environment, as representative for Europe and negotiated the energy-climate package with the other Member States during the French Presidency of the EU. In 2009, he left his official position and continued to work on various consultancy assignments in the fields of international trade and the environment.

Languages: Danish, French, English, German, Italian

Officer of the Legion of Honour

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