How to Tackle the “Brussels” Strawman

Every month, TEPSA Secretary-General Jim Cloos writes a newsletter editorial on the news of the day, the future of Europe, and the work of the TEPSA network. To read every upcoming editorial early, SUBSCRIBE to the TEPSA Newsletter here.

Last week we issued our first episode of EuropeChats. While there is a lot of information available on the EU, there is also a lot of background noise blurring the message and a considerable degree of confusion creating misunderstandings. Our objective with these chats is to contribute to a better understanding of what the EU is and is not, how it functions, who is responsible.  We will try to do so by highlighting a number of elements to bear in mind when talking about the EU:

History is important: to understand the EU today, you have to know where it comes from and how it has evolved. That is why we will strive to always remind viewers of the important historical aspects related to the theme we are looking at. Not because we are turned backwards, but because moving forward requires to draw the lessons from what had gone on before. If you want to overcome old enmities and hatred, it helps being lucid about the past. The whole point of the EU is to overcome the past, not to reenact it. This is an important message for our friends in the Western Balkans where national myths are strong. As Misha Glenny writes in his remarkable book about the region, a myth is something that never was but always is.

The sum is bigger than the parts: a lot of the communication in the EU is about what the different institutions do. Each institution quite naturally wants to catch the limelight and show how decisive it is within the system. The Member States do the same, of course. Their communication also partakes of the negotiation; they use it to put forward their take on the various files. All of this is legitimate. But it also creates confusion and leads to a distorted image of what the EU is. Our ambition is to talk about the EU as a whole and to show the interplay between the institutions and the Member States. The truth is that none of the institutions can function in isolation.

Member States are part of “Brussels”: there is a tendency in Brussels to consider the Member States, and hence the Council where they are represented, as les empêcheurs de tourner en rond. This is a strange way of looking at things: without the Member States there is no Union; the Union IS the institutions AND its Member States. The mirror image is the tendency of governments to talk about the Union as if they had nothing to do with it. This happens when the going gets rough of course, not when things are going smoothly. In the latter case the Ministers claim their part in the achievements; in the former they are often quick to blame an entity called “Brussels”. The truth is that they are very much part of “Brussels”, via the Council and the European Council.

The EU provides a new way of defending the national interest: one sometimes hears accusations levelled against a country or a politician for defending “the national interest”. A strange argument, indeed! The people who vote for a government want it to defend the national interest, what else? Opposing the “bad” national interests and the “good” European one does not make sense. The question is not about whether people defend a national interest, it is about HOW they defend it. The beauty of European integration is that different nations have decided, after WWII, that the most intelligent way of defending their national interest was by pooling resources and sharing sovereignty within a new type of Community. Our next episode of EuropeChats will look at the balance between national and European interests.

The EU is based on treaties: there is another interesting phenomenon we witness day-in day-out as far as communication on the EU is concerned. The voices that seem loudest seem to come from those who would like to see the EU being more federal, and thus blame it for not being ambitious enough, and those who consider any idea of supranationalism anathema, and hence would like the EU to do less – or even, in extreme cases, to disappear. Our approach will be to talk about the EU as it is defined in the treaties, and to judge its actions by this yardstick.  

The EU adapts to new needs and circumstances: the EU is not a static organization. It is a living body that evolves over time. New competences have been added, voting rules have changed, the role of the EP has been considerably strengthened to lend more of a voice to the citizens electing the EP. The upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe will be a good opportunity to reflect across our continent on how we want the EU to develop. It would be great if this exercise could give a big place to the European youth. I am reminded of a phrase used by Goethe talking about inheritance: Was Du ererbt von deinen Vätern, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.*

Democracy requires a dose of complexity: one of the criticisms often levelled against the EU is its complexity. It is true that democracies are by nature a bit complicated because they have to cater for many interests and have to ensure that the rights of the minority are respected. This can be a bit cumbersome at times, especially in a Union composed of 27 Member States. But should we look with envy at autocratic regimes, particularly in a time of crisis, because they seem to be able to react more quickly and decisively? Maybe they do in some specific cases, but the price to pay is high in terms of freedom and rights. Developed democracies cater far better for the interests of their citizens over time.

The European Union is a unique experiment in pooling resources and sharing sovereignty for the greater good of all. Its institutions allow the different interests and legitimacies to express themselves. It has shown over the decades that it can adapt to a changing world while preserving its key “acquis”.  

Jim Cloos, TEPSA Secretary-General

* “What you inherited from your fathers, acquire it to make it your own.”