Monday, 16 July 2007

The EU as a form of empire … Commission President Barroso

[Comment] Citizens of partnership, not subjects of an empire

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT – Having now seen the headlines, Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission, must be regretting his careless remarks about the European Union being an empire.

Europe has not had an altogether happy experience with empires, whether at home or abroad and in any case the idea of empire – a centre that grows wealthy on the resources of the lands it controls – is surely the opposite of what the EU is supposed to entail. His rationale is therefore something of a mystery; more importantly it is a worrying mystery.

Mr Barroso made his remarks at a press conference held to announce the Commission’s approval of the recent proposals for a new constitutional treaty. A journalist had asked him how he would characterise the EU? After explaining that the EU was unique he continued: ‘Sometimes I like to compare the EU to the organisation of an empire. We have a dimension of empire.’

24 point headlines
As might have been expected this exchange was followed by frantic sounds of rowing back – a desperate attempt to unsay what had been said. Too late, the cat was out of the bag. Already editors in the more eurosceptic corners of the continent were setting up 24 point headlines coupling the words ‘Europe’ and ‘Empire.’ ‘Referendum,’ they screamed.

In other words exactly the reverse of what Mr Barroso and his Communications Commissioner colleague, Margot Wallström, had wanted to emerge from the session.

In vain did Mr Barroso explain that he didn’t mean that Europe was an imperial empire, getting its way by force; rather it was a non-imperial empire, based on voluntary consent.

Now Mr Barroso’s English is second to none. I think sometimes that he speaks his second or third language better than I do my first. So he must know that the phrase ‘non-imperial empire’ is a meaningless oxymoron. It is like talking of dry rain or a non-automobile motorcar.

In the context of attempting to allay fears about the new constitutional proposals (non-constitutional, constitutional proposals perhaps?) his remark was singularly revealing as well as simply unfortunate.

For it appears that Mr Barroso – indeed the whole Commission – has not even begun to understand the true nature of the wide unease about the future of Europe – an unease that stems primarily from concerns about a lack of control rather than a lack of communication.

Communication with the citizen
‘Communication with the citizen’ is to be a priority during the next year and a half as member state governments struggle to ratify the new treaty. Mrs Wallström will be publishing a paper in the autumn on how this might be done.

If the benefits of the new treaty are ‘explained,’ people will be more inclined to accept it without demur, is the prevailing belief. Well, let’s hope they do. But this strategy misses the wider point – the point about the loss of control over the European project.

And it is a very large point – a barn door of a point in fact – and one which, whether deliberately or no, both Commission and member states have shown little sign of addressing.

Although this point drives many eurosceptic arguments it is not by any means confined to eurosceptics. There are many with a deep and long-standing belief in the benefits of the European construction that feel it just as keenly. The point can be put clearly in a very simple question: are the good folk of Europe subjects or citizens?

Democratic safeguards
Had this point been understood Mr Barroso would never have made his remark about a European empire – imperial or otherwise. For most folk of an empire are clearly subjects – in thrall to their Emperor. Thankfully the EU is not an empire but – and this is the crux of the matter – there is nevertheless a similar sense of a lack of democratic control . Though we are notionally citizens, we feel like subjects.

We may come to believe (if Mrs Wallstrom’s communications are successful) that we live in the best of all possible Europes and furthermore that Mr Barroso’s decisions are the best of all possible decisions. But that is poor comfort unless we the citizens have also the real possibility of initiating change and carrying it through. An empire with subjects rather than citizens is the one thing therefore that the EU must never be allowed to become.

The train may be running smoothly towards the land of milk and honey but it is the lack of a brake and the inability to switch points that really concerns the passengers.

What and where and when are the European democratic safeguards?

That is the urgent question. European democracy, mired by lack of a proper pan-European political base, is weak; the media, at European level, is exceptionally weak. What mechanisms do we citizens have to control and amend the evolution of Europe? It is that that we need to debate.

Let us drop this talk of empire
So please let us drop this talk of empire. The EU is a partnership of member states that have joined together the better to achieve important strategic objectives. It is also a union of European peoples concerned to preserve and enhance European ideals and the European way of life.

To this end both – member states and citizens – have seen fit to allow the creation of institutions operating within a legal framework to give substance to their democratic and voluntary co-operation. Like a pre-stressed column these two pillars are bound to co-exist in some tension. That gives the EU strength.

So, in closing, a pat on the back for the European Parliament which has just agreed to give ‘official character’ to the EU’s flag and anthem dumped unceremoniously by member states from the constitutional reforms agreed three weeks ago.

The action put me in mind of the stout words of Captain Smollett in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island, after the buccaneers had sighted on his flag and were taking pot shots at it.

‘Strike my colours! No sir, not I!

By Peter Sain ley Berry
The writer is editor of EuropaWorld
This article first appeared on