The EU project has at its heart a vision of European integration, a United States of Europe. In the beginning the vision was far off and involved only six countries. It was an abstraction anyway and the statesmen (they were all men) of the time saw the first steps as either safely subject to later modification or justifiable without popular consent as an act of leadership. The most important thing after all was to avoid another major European war.
So the institutions of Europe were made deliberately undemocratic. National governments each had a veto and that was enough of a safeguard. The people of Europe were to be led towards what was considered good for them, a good they might appreciate more and more as it unfolded but which they might foolishly doubt in the abstract, not least because of the then recent history of conflict.
But the vision of integration, not to mention the central concept of politicians as visionaries, survived changes in the structure and extent of the EU which no one envisaged at the start and which have been truly staggering, including the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In trying to deal with upheavals of such size and scope no one can blame politicians for using whatever tools and structures lay to hand, but the result was a tectonic shift in what made sense for Europe. Nevertheless, too much political capital had by then been invested in the vision, so the wise leaders pressed on.
For politicians had succumbed to their own myth and believed that their wisdom and guidance would lead their unruly peoples to a promised land, like Moses in the desert. Perhaps they were just sanguine about the changes that had occurred or perhaps they chose not to notice that the destination was now unrecognisable. Perhaps, more kindly, they responded to increased complexity with a desire to concentrate power simply to get necessary things done. They might for example have been genuinely torn between their answerability to their own national assemblies and the prospect of conflicting answerability to a pan-European assembly, so the nascent European Parliament was left as a travesty, a show assembly hardly more relevant than a party conference in a communist state.
Even when national vetoes were removed in the interests of easier governance, no balancing increase in democratic accountability took their place. When the wise leaders produced a European constitution to replace the treaties on which the EU rests the people in many countries had to be given the opportunity of a vote and in sufficient countries rejected the idea. But were the wise leaders daunted? No, they called the constitution something else and carried on anyway.
In the UK we are now promised a vote on whether to stay within the European Union. This will in the end be presented as an economic choice – are we collectively better or worse off inside or out? The truth is, nobody can be sure. Either course will be better for some, worse for others and the arithmetic is difficult. Business will weigh in on the side of remaining, because of course an integrated market is good for business, as is a single focus for lobbying. Since most politicians are in awe of business in one way or another that will likely be the political consensus too.
But surely it is not financial arithmetic which should be at the heart of the choice but what has become the arrogance of imposed political and economic integration. A wide European alliance is an excellent thing and a large free trade area is probably very helpful, although much less relevant than in the past because of developments in the world trading order. Without the ability for the people to have some choice in what should happen along the way, however, these benefits are bought at a high price even if GDP is higher.
It’s not that we can or should have referenda at every turn because, after all, nation states are already far too large for direct democracy. We choose leaders to act for us and trust that they will take decisions with which we broadly agree. But in the EU they can’t even do that. All they can do is go off and contend throughout the night with a couple of dozen leaders of other states with the outcome decided by some combination of trade-off, power and tiredness. Even the tenuous link of trust between us and them is broken. Democracy, already pale in the nation state, is bleached to such a ghostly shade in the EU that it no longer exists.
The central vision of a United States of Europe has thus become a crude weapon against democracy. The structures and assumptions of the EU need thorough revision to meet the needs of an organisation which stretches far beyond what its founders would have believed possible.
That process of examination and revision, that wholesale reimagining of the project, will just not happen. It will not be allowed to happen by those who benefit economically from the status quo. Power will move further and further away from the people over whom it is exercised. And that is why the EU, sadly for it has noble aspirations buried there somewhere, should be mistrusted.