The EU as a power-diffuser

Fighting my prejudices, I went to a seminar about CFSP yesterday. In my defence, I was a) tired and b) knew that both speakers would be well worth it. And indeed they were.

Just to be clear, my prejudice is that the EU’s foreign and security policy is much more an object of academic study than it is a reality on the ground: I’m often struck at conferences by how many panels there are, talking so much about so little. Indeed, it might be fair to argue that any notion of a European security community is more a function of that academic interaction than it is of politicians or military types.

But no matter, since the seminar was precisely about the future paths for CFSP, and both Sven and Anand were more than aware and candid about those prospects.

Of course,  a key part of my attending was to help my thinking about the things that I usually work on, namely euroscepticism and the nature of integration. A couple of remarks made a real connection on this front.

Firstly, Anand noted that the EU is not designed to project power, but was rather conceived as a power-diffuser. Much as it might seem like ancient history, the EEC was founded in significant part to allow for the reintegration of West Germany into the international system – both politically and economically – in a way that would tie it in close to other states, thereby reducing the likelihood of it pursuing a path of autarky.

The side-effect of tying in Germany in an equitable way is – of course – that others are tied in too. As Scharpf’s Joint Decision Trap swings into effect, states want more and more to come out of the system, just as the system becomes less and less able to produce such outputs.

Much of the debate we see about the EU is on its failings to provide. In the absence of a European demos, output legitimacy is obviously front-and-centre. But it’s not the only story here.

A core tenet of all democratic systems is that they constrain power. We separate executives from legislatures from judiciaries precisely in order to stop an individual (or group of individuals) taking all power to themselves. We create constitutional orders so that we can hold government to account. The pay-off is a drop in efficiency, but that is a price we accept.

The EU is not a state, but the same ideas apply. The myth of ‘Brussels’ is a powerful one, but a myth nonetheless. We are the EU, not some anonymous bureaucrat.

States are pervasive in the EU: they structure public debate, work with the Commission to find appropriate legislative proposals, work with each other and the EP to agree those proposals into law, then implement them in national contexts. States lend their authority to the Union, but do so with a very close eye to keeping a say.

That say is in turn limited by the necessity of working with other states, hence a logic of negotiation and compromise that pervades the system. That doesn’t mean giving on everything, but rather that states work to accommodate the interests of others, just as others accommodate their own. And yes, often that means moving slowly or even not at all.

Without an understanding that the Union is constrained for a reason, we risk throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. If we have difficulty with a bargained and negotiated system, underpinned by a robust legal order, then are we not likely to have more difficulty with an anarchic free-for-all that does not safeguard national interests at all?