This is the first post in a Disorder forum on the EU referendum. Click here for the forum introduction with the links to the other posts.
Our first guest author is Christopher J. Bickerton. Chris is University Lecturer in politics at POLIS and an Official Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has taught at Oxford, the University of Amsterdam and Sciences Po in Paris. He is author of European Union Foreign Policy: From Effectiveness to Functionality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford University Press, 2012) and, most recently, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (Penguin, 2016). Chris is a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and The Wall Street Journal, and has written for the Financial Times, New York Times and Foreign Affairs.
When I am asked to describe the EU, I often say that it is a bit like a mirage. We all know how a mirage works. From far away, the image is clear and strong. As you get closer, it starts to wobble and shimmer until eventually, it disappears.
The EU is like that. Seen from national capitals, from London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava or Madrid, it looks clear and distinct. It has its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks. But as you get closer to Brussels, this image begins to wobble. Finally, when you are really up close, it disappears altogether.
What is left are our own national leaders – Merkel, Hollande, Renzi, Cameron – taking decisions between themselves in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions but it is closely policed by member states.
Traditional EU institutions, like the European Commission, have lost much of their power in recent decades, with a leading role played by the European Council which is made up of heads of state and government. Even an institution like the European Central Bank, with its shiny new headquarters in Frankfurt, is far weaker than many think. Its new powers were foisted onto it by national governments keen to distance themselves from the responsibility of solving the Eurozone’s economic and financial crisis.
Looking at the EU as a whole, we cannot say that it stands above its member states, dominating them and issuing orders that national governments must comply with. In fact, the EU is these member states. But why doesn’t it look that way? Continue reading