Wednesday, 16 August 2006

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothes

The EU Presidency is by far the most honest expression of the European Union’s real nature.

First, given that it hardly matters who presides over the entity ruled by an unelected and largely unaccountable European Commission – the EU Presidency is useless when it comes to actually getting things done.

Second, the Presidency – more by chance than by design – does occasionally fall into the hands of a competent national leader. Yet, this national competence inevitably gets sucked into a morass of Euro-speak, becoming a part of the system of values that abhors initiative and loves grandstanding.

Witness Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen’s Presidency of the European Union, which was launched last month.

Five weeks ago, the Financial Times billed him as modest man – the “right person to lead the EU at the right time” – a man who built his own house, loves heavy metal music, and enjoys strong support of female voters. Vanhanen presides over a country that, to the media’s delight, is crazy about SMS messaging and makes translates news into Latin on its website. A country that is often listed among the most competitive economies, yet is loved for its socialist values, high taxes and high R&D spending by Scandinaviphiles around the world.

Vanhanen launched Finland’s EU Presidency with an agenda of achieving improvements in EU-Russia relations, promoting openness and transparency, and the EU capacity for innovation. In line with the latter, his Presidency negotiated an EU-wide agreement on R&D funding: €55 billion to feed Brussels’ favorite policy pet over seven years. Brussels insiders and the press were pleased. It seemed Vanhanen could do no wrong.

Then, suddenly, Vanhanen decided to shift gears. Speaking at the plenary session of the European Parliament, he stressed the need to increase the EU’s legitimacy with voters. “In recent years, the EU’s decision-making ability has left something to be desired, and citizens are more critical than they once were,” he declared. “However, I do not go along with pessimistic talk of a Union in crisis. The agreement reached on the Financial Perspective and the progress made on the Services Directive demonstrate that the Union is capable of taking important decisions when the political will is there.”

There he is wrong. To measure the EU’s progress toward popular legitimacy by its ability to draft a set of technocratic Directives is equivalent to measuring election votes in numbers of bureaucrats overseeing the polls. It is also hard to imagine how a toothless Services Directive, passed after a Soviet-style anti-market campaign waged in the European Parliament, can be an example of the Union’s capacity to progress on anything at all.

Vanhanen continued: “The Union’s weakening legitimacy is due in part to the fact that citizens do not know what the Union does for them. Many of the things…such as the right to live, work and study anywhere in the Union – are taken for granted. People forget that such things are possible only because of the Union.”

Now, imagine that. Vanhanen – a man presiding over the EU’s knowledge economy future, surely knows a thing or two about the way countries are run. So, here is his test for a legitimate government: it must allow (1) its citizens to live, (2) work and (3) study in a place of their choice within the country.

Here is how the EU scores on Vanhanen’s tests of legitimacy.
Test Number 1: “Failed”. Mobility in the EU is ages behind that in the US. The only appreciable mobility of people in the old member states takes place out of necessity – the young Italian, French, German and other workers moving predominantly to the UK and Ireland in search of jobs. The only other source of mobility is amongst the highly skilled professionals who move within a globalized economy. Incidentally, the latter sort of mobility was present in Europe long before the advent of the EU. Just look in your history books. In the end, millions of EU citizens are denied a right to move freely by professional protectionism of the member states, lack of pensions and benefits transferability and the EU Accession Treaties (just ask a Pole wanting to move to France).

Test Number 2: “Failed”. Roughly 15 percent of EU citizens cannot get any job in their lifetime, while another 25 percent hold jobs they loathe, precluded from changing by welfare state rigidity and anti-business policies. Yet another million – this time from the accession states, again, residing in the few old member states that let them move “freely” within the EU – cannot work in the professions in which they are trained because the protectionist interest groups do not recognize their qualifications. Hey, things got so bizarre in Vanhanen’s “free” Europe, that in some states, like Ireland, a native person educated abroad is precluded from working in his professional field. This is why a Harvard-educated, Irish-born pharmacist in Dublin is not permitted to manage or own a pharmacy.

Test Number 3: “Failed”. Hundreds of thousands of EU students cannot get into professions of their choice because of the EU’s inability to deregulate education. Millions of the EU high school graduates cannot get into universities because of an elitist, age-old structure of schooling in many member states.

Can anyone be surprised by the fact that over the last 11 years, according to the Eurobarometer survey, the EU managed to attract on average only 50.9 percent of voters who support their country’s membership in the EU, or why since 2000, on average just 46.5 percent of EU voters have a positive view of the Union?

Vanhanen knows better. He knows that all the privileges and “rights” the EU bestows onto its citizens sound great as sound bites, but fail to convince voters. In the same speech, just a paragraph below his exhortations about the citizens’ lack of appreciation for the EU he states that “The purpose for which the Union was created – securing peace and stability in Europe – is still relevant. I was given a very personal reminder of that on my trip to Croatia a few weeks ago. Croatians want to join the Union so that they and their children never have to witness war again.”

Thus, according to Vanhanen, the EU, originally conceived as the means for keeping Germany from invading France, today has only one remaining tangible reason for existence – to keep Serbs from invading Croatia. Now, there is a reason that an average voter in, say, Belgium can relate to. Given that it took NATO and the US to get the Serbs out of the game of killing their neighbors, while the EU stood by incapable of any meaningful action, suggests that it will take serious re-writing of history to get Vanhanen’s ideas on sources for EU’s legitimacy pass a first grade lesson in civics.

No matter what Vanhanen says, the EU today represents an entity without any direction or legitimacy. And the EU leadership, Vanhanen including, has no idea as to how these objectives can be gained. Thus, meaningless strategies, vacuous statements and market-retarding directives. Effectively, despite Vanhanen’s well-intentioned grandstanding, the EU is well beyond crisis – it is currently in paralysis.

By Constantin Gurdgiev
The Author is a TCS Daily contributor.
This article first appeared on