2024 sausio 20d.
The European Union is at a crossroads. The EU, in its current form under the Lisbon Treaty (2009), is a union of states, even if it periodically tries to overstep its own mandate. EU members that understand the importance of sovereignty, such as Denmark and Poland, can and do behave as sovereigns. This usually provokes a struggle, but it is possible. That, however, may change.
The European Parliament recently approved an amendment to the EU treaties that would be the next step in abolishing the member states’ veto in the EU Council and increase the powers of supranational institutions. Such a reform is a decades-old federalist dream. It is no coincidence that Guy Verhofstadt, one of the fiercest federalists, is pushing for it. The idea has a long history. At the beginning of the century, the EU proposed a constitution that was rejected by referenda in the original member states—France and the Netherlands. Later, in 2010, Herman van Rompuy openly said that “nation states are dead” and that borders were obsolete. Everyone heard him. Throughout the last decade, the sentiment of centralisation has been fading in European societies, while it has been expanding among the Brussels elite.
The current proposals are the most concrete manifestation yet of this anti-democratic trend. They are far from accepted. A vote in the Council is looming. However, there is considerable support. Even greater than the support is the threat this reform poses to freedom and democracy in Europe.
The first problem is one of principle. The abolition of the veto in the European Council would essentially make each member state cease to be a self-governing country and become an administrative unit. Even now, Eurosceptics across the continent argue that EU members are already vassals under the existing arrangements, but it remains—for the most part—a case of rhetorical overstatement. Abolishing the veto would make such vassalage a plain fact of political science.
If a state cannot reject a decision to which it is bound by the will of its citizens, and if the decision can be imposed on it by other countries, it is no longer a free state. The EU is not the result of a mystical single European demos, but of the wills of individual European member states. They sign the treaties and are represented in the EU institutions. Each country must be able to decide whether to make major decisions. The EU can dictate whether we can remove Coca-Cola caps, use plastic straws, or how long cucumbers must be grown (although this is all extremely stupid). But it cannot decide on our constitutional principles.
The other problem is more geopolitical. Germany and France see the EU as a projection of their own power. Their leading position within the EU gives them extra clout at the table. It is no coincidence that both countries are overwhelmingly in favour of greater centralisation—the more deeply integrated the EU is, the more influence they have within the EU and, through it, in the world. The amendments adopted by the European Parliament make it very clear that the relative influence of the smaller countries would drastically decrease while the relative power of the largest countries would increase.
Since this cannot be denied, the usual response to this comment will be not to think of power as a zero-sum game: ‘Greater unity will benefit all’ or some such platitude. The truth is that Giandomenico Majone, twenty years ago, was very precise in his formulation that European integration is a zero-sum game between efficiency and democracy. The deeper the integration, the more efficiency and the less democracy. Integration is a zero-sum game—sovereignty and democracy are sacrificed on the altar of ostensibly more efficient solutions. But what we consider efficient in different countries also differs.
After the elections in Poland, there was a joke on the internet. One man asked why there was no more German minority in the Polish Parliament. ‘Because now there will be a German majority,’ replied another. It was a good joke. Everyone can have different opinions on Donald Tusk’s policies, but they are clearly more favourable to Berlin than Kaczynski’s were. The Poles as a nation are well aware of who is pulling the reins of EU politics and are very wary of German influences.
After all, if we understand (and we do) that a federal EU would be an EU of decisions dictated by Germany and France, what do the rest of us hope to gain from it? What do German and French influences mean in practice?
In domestic politics, it means more and more leftist ideology, woke thinking, and aggressive culture wars. At present, it is only the veto and similar such brakes that are preventing us from being mandated to declare the homosexual family, abortion, gender reassignment, and limitless migration to be alienated human rights, guaranteed, and enforced at an EU level. Particularly on the issue of border protection, the dominance of the German approach would be disastrous for both Southern and Central European countries. It is even disastrous for Finland, which is also suffering from Russian hybrid attacks and has closed its border to the surprising waves of African migrants hailing from beyond the Arctic Circle (you heard correct).
Berlin and Paris do not understand, and do not give any indication of even beginning to understand, that the EU’s external borders must be protected, that mass immigration is a threat, and that, once immigrants are admitted, they require strict integration, which is not always possible but more often not wanted—neither by the timid political elites of host countries nor the immigrants themselves.
In foreign policy, domination by Germany and France means being pragmatic with Russia and cautious with the United States. Many in Western Europe would love that. In Central Europe, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. In terms of defence, it would be tantamount to indifference at a time when Europe’s military capabilities urgently need to be strengthened. It is commonplace in Europe today to consider Trump a friend of Putin, who would betray Europe if he were elected. It is quickly forgotten how, in 2018, Trump scolded Germany for not providing defence funding, for its piddling army, and for its dependence on the pipelines that fund the Russian war machine. Germans literally laughed in the hall of the United Nations and said that they contribute to defence through humanitarian aid. Troubling thing to hear anywhere east of Germany.
This Franco-German attitude is not just a problem for Central Europe. Central European countries like Lithuania and Poland have been saying since Putin came to power that Russia is a threat, that it is imperial and revanchist, that it cannot be a reliable partner, and that energy projects for Russia are just levers of influence. Nobody believed it. When the war in Ukraine broke out, a number of Western countries and EU officials publicly admitted that they had been wrong not to hear the warnings from Lithuania and Poland. Not Merkel, of course.
From what has been said, it may be clear why the issue of deeper integration is particularly ironic in a security context. In countries like Lithuania, where support for the EU is high and aid to Ukraine is a priority, the abolition of the veto is perceived precisely as a means of strengthening security. It will then be possible to ‘break down’ obstacles to support for Ukraine, such as Hungary. Good, patriotic, nation-state-loving people are ready to support the change of EU treaties and the surrender of sovereignty for the sake of … bending Hungary. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A federation within the EU would be incomparably more favourable to Russia. For the post-Soviet countries that regard Russia not as a temporary but as a permanent threat, this would mean a loss of power, a rape in culture wars, and a quicker return to so-called normal pragmatic relations with Russia. It is no coincidence that even Politico has argued that deeper EU integration is in Russia’s interests and contrary to those of the United States.
Orbán’s Hungary and its stance on Ukraine are just a pretext and a smokescreen that allow countries like Germany and France to kill a few birds with one stone. Firstly, it allows them to hide their own pro-Kremlin stance, their avoidance of conflict escalation, and their fear of damaging relations with Putin to the point where they cannot normalise them. Fingers are being pointed at Orbán, but for half a year no obvious steps were being taken to bypass him on an opt-in basis, with aid packages being accepted by all the countries that want them. After all, if there really is a will, it would involve almost all EU members. But maybe there is no will, and it is more convenient to berate Orbán for supposedly being the one who is standing in the way of defeating Russia.
Secondly, by waving Orbán around, the federalists are successfully selling the idea of a centralisation to the countries that are or should be the least interested in it: the culturally conservative, leftist-rejecting, Russia-fearing, relatively small Central European countries. It takes some great marketing skills to sell something that the buyer does not need, especially when it also stands to harm him. The partisans of the United States of Europe are demonstrating it.
Lithuania was the first in the EU to ratify the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe without having read it or even translated it into Lithuanian. We tend to be in favour of anything ‘Brussels.’ There are, however, a few countries in the post-Soviet space that could lead the vetoing charge. This issue will also be a serious test for Meloni. Whoever cries ‘veto!’ and puts the brakes on this reform, the EU as a whole will have to thank them. Although it will take a while for many of us to come to our senses.