A salutary shock for bien pensant Europe

RP 133 () / Commentary

To judge the significance of the French and Dutch rejections of the so-called EU Constitution, we need some assessment of what the nature of the current EU project actually is. Mainstream academic answers to this question take for granted two ideas about the EU: first, that there has been a basic continuity of the EU project since 1958; and second, that the central logic of the project is ʻunitingʼ or ʻintegratingʼ Europe. This orthodoxy then offers us a debate on who the key actors uniting Europe are and what their goals are. Some think the key actors are member state governments responding to economic interdependence through policy coordination; others see the key actors as business groups within states and EU institutions (the Commission and Court), pushing governments towards market integration at a European level.

referendumYet this orthodox debate focuses on a rather minor issue. National state executives, the Commission, the Court judges and business groups have been the key actors and they all have a great deal in common. The much more important puzzle is why the EU policymaking initiative is monopolized by these groups alone. Writing in the early 1990s, Shirley Williams captured this puzzling reality well: ʻBrussels … is accessible to professional lobbyists – many, incidentally from the United States and Japan – with credit cards in their pockets … but not to Greek peasants, Portuguese fishermen, Spanish factory workers and Scottish bank clerks.ʼ Quite. These business lobbyists have easy access to the Commission, which has a formal monopoly on policy initiative in the EU. But ʻBrusselsʼ also houses the top officials – most centrally, top civil servants – of the executives of the member states. Why do these people and the social groups they represent own the EU project? Connected to this is a second big puzzle, in the first instance a factual one: just what does this EU ʻunitingʼ or ʻintegratingʼ activity actually change; what social relationships are reshaped by it? When we explore this we find that the EU project has been marked by major discontinuities, since the late 1950s.

West European governments and business groups have used the EU since the 1950s to change the pattern of business exchanges both between the EU and the rest of the world and between the member states within the EU itself. But since the mid-1980s, the EU project has acquired an entirely new character because it has been turned into a mechanism for transforming relations between social classes within each of the member states themselves. Of course, one could say that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had already been doing this since the 1960s for relations between farmers and nonfarmers. But this mid-1980s turn has been qualitatively different in its scope and depth, affecting relations between labour and capital not just in economics but in politics and social life more generally.

This reshaping of social relations within its member states is presented as a reshaping of economic relations between member states and between the EU as a whole and the rest of the world. If class restructuring appears at all it thus appears as a side effect of ʻunitingʼ and ʻintegratingʼ. The two key instruments for this reshaping of domestic class relations are, after all, the Single Market Programme and ʻcompetitionʼ arrangements, and the Economic and Monetary Union instruments. But a dispassionate analysis suggests that the specific forms of these instruments have been fashioned precisely and above all to achieve the domestic class reshaping effects. Their declared ʻunitingʼ economic goals are secondary.