Is the EU essentially contested?

One of the more handy concepts in political studies/science is the notion of essential contestation, the idea that some things (concepts, ideas, etc.) do not – and cannot – have a single ‘correct’ interpretation, since they can be approached from a variety of fundamental different (and incompatible) first principles. If one were cynical, one might suggest that this was just a fancy way of dressing up disagreements, but since I’m not cynical I will work on the basis that it offers a useful insight into the debate on European integration.

Let’s take the notion of ‘ever closer union’, a phrase that has appeared in the preamble of Union treaties since Rome and which is often rolled out as a prime exhibit in the discussion about what the EU and where it’s heading.

For many sceptics, ‘ever closer union’ simply means the creation of a European state that replaces national states. All EU institutions and most governments are assumed to desire this, hence their continual strengthening of the EU level of governance and the accumulation of the trappings of statehood (a flag and anthem, an integrated legal order, directly-elected parliament, a president, military force, etc.). The absence of a clear finalit√© politique is symptomatic of a desire to hide this process from citizens, which is designed to protect the power of existing elites in the face of increasing challenges: if countries are being buffeted by global economic, political and social forces, then at least a large state will offer more protection.

However, not only am I not cynical but also not happy with conspiracy theories, so I understand ‘ever closer union’ very differently. The full phrase in the preamble is “the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” The second half of this is an explicit recognition that there no one ‘Europe’, but rather national communities that can work together to secure joint needs, in a way that they cannot do alone. If I were building a European state then I wouldn’t do it like this; over several generations, with extensive introduction of direct democratic¬†participation, but with ¬†the retention of national control of decision-making. Let’s remember that the EU (and predecessors) have had many opportunities to create a state, but each time have chosen to evolve existing structures, which blend intergovernmental and supranational elements. States remain at the foundation of the EU and the latter cannot operate without the former, not for implementation of legislation (which is agreed by national ministers), nor for budgetary income (which is collected and (broadly) allocated by governments), nor for military force (which relies on national agreement), nor for the entire legal order (which relies on the limited acquiescence of national supreme courts).

Put another way, how do we understand the absence of any European national leader saying that states should be replaced by a European state? I’d say it’s because none of them want such a thing, but others might say it’s because they don’t want to frighten the horses. Likewise, the absence of plans to abolish states can be seen similarly.

The problem is that none of this can really be resolved, since the actual ‘meaning’ of phrases such as ‘ever closer union’ does not exist: everyone takes their own interpretation and (within some limits) each interpretation is ‘correct’.

What we need to do is to appreciate the diversity of views that present themselves to us and consider why they exist and what they mean (for example, there’s a nice piece by Harry Cooper on whether we are governed by the EU that touches on this).

For all the wide range of opinions we will hear in the coming weeks, we might reflect on the surprisingly large degree of agreement about the need for collective action and reliable legal orders, the importance of democratic processes in legislation and the challenges that the Union faces (both internally and externally). It will be all too easy to speak of difference, when what we really need is common ground.