Three incompatible conceptions of Europe are pulling to tear the Union apart. The likely outcome is its survival in muddle.

The germs of a formally united Europe was planted by the ignominious French surrender to Germany at the outset of World War II. At the end of that war France was liberated by Anglo-American power, something the deepest sentiments of the country never forgave the liberators. America got added as a constant object of dislike to the hereditary enemy England, the strength of the visceral hostility to the “Anglo-Saxons” and the free trading and capitalist order embodied by the Anglo-Saxons added to the sense of national panic that went with the loss of great power status, the loss of prestige, influence and the bleak prospect of a second-class future in a wholly alien post-war world.

De Gaulle, a rare master of bluff and the bold, confrontational stance, successfully played on his people’s existential panic as well as on the patience of the “Anglo-Saxon” victors to reclaim for France a rank of great power and the confidence fit only for a winner in the war. However, based as this was on assertiveness, rhetoric, and occasional tantrums, the post-war position of France remained precarious. Throughout her history, France in asserting her ambitions, has nearly always overplayed a relatively weak hand and was made to pay a heavy price for it, notably in the two “Hundred Years Wars” in the 15th and 18th centuries that had bled her white in population and wealth. Gaullist posture after World Ward II looked dangerously like the eternal French temptation to overplay the weak hand history had dealt her. Wise heads, with Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in the lead, saw an alternative at least in embryonic form, in a formally organised European quasi-state under what they believed to be inevitable French leadership. They and many allies, including the Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak and the Italian Alcide de Gasperi, neither of whom was an obvious French agent, set about erecting an increasingly elaborate construction with the avowed purpose of “ever-closer union”. Starting with 6 nations, sixty years latter it counts 27 and is still growing as we write.

The first forty years of this project, from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, were shaped by two main forces. One was the deliberately low profile of Germany, penitent for its wartime doings and wholly devoted to performing the Wirtschaftswunder that restored and surpassed her pre-war economic strength. The other was the superior administrative skill and ruthlessness of the French high civil servants who captured the major part of the bureaucratic machinery of the Brussels quasi-government of the nascent European quasi-state. Put together, the two resembled a strong and docile German draft horse ridden by a self-confident mandarin of the French administrative labyrinth. The period was marked by two outstanding presidents of the Brussels machinery: from 1958 to 1967 the scrupulously impartial Walter Hallstein and from 1985 to 1994 Jacques Delors, an able and ruthless Socialist steam-roller, admired in France and detested in England, who served French interests too effectively for France’s own good, ultimately giving his country rather a bad name. The Hallstein era was the golden age of the Common Market, the Delors era the age of ever heavier bureaucracy and finally the absurdly ambitious and an unenforceable Maastricht Treaty that drained the European project of its seriousness and credibility.

Until the reunification of Germany, the European project was clearly under French management. Germany was passive and patient and simply lent its weight to what France wished to happen. After reunification, Germany started to have an independent foreign policy. At the same time, the Brussels bureaucracy also began to lose its all-French aspect. In many top posts, English, German, Spanish and other officials replaced Frenchman and English crowded out French as the informal working language. All this has caused alarm in Paris. However, whistling in the dark as is its customary self-defence, the French political class came to repeat more and more insistently that France and Germany were like a married couple, always adopting a joint position toward the rest of Europe and governing it as equal partners.

A Franco-German partnership, as a straight Paris-Berlin line that served as an axis around which everything turned round and round, has become increasingly fictitious from about 2005 onwards. France’s ever more evident economic decline and the rock-solid performance of Germany in fair weather and foul has emptied equal partnership of the two of all plausibility. The time has come for the straight line signifying the shared domination of Berlin and Paris to be replaced by a more tricky three-player triangle of Berlin, London and Paris. Each tied to the other two and leaning away from one as it leans toward the other, the equilibrium shifting with every move they made. The triangle is obtuse, with Germany occupying the broad angle, Britain and France the acute ones.

Germany, sincere federalist

Majority opinion in Germany sincerely favours the “ever closer union”, the federal version of a united Europe, simply because the federal solution seems to them intrinsically less bad than all others and because it makes a Franco-German war very, very unlikely for at least the next two or three generations. In this, there is no hidden or subconscious ulterior motive. There seems to be no calculation that a federal union would allow Germany as the top dog to exploit the others.

But federalism would, on the contrary, make it difficult for the others to exploit Germany. At present, heavy deficit countries are clamouring for the creation of Eurobonds that would allow them to do their sovereign borrowing with what was in effect a German guarantee, entailing a much lower interest cost than the rate their un-creditworthy signature could command. Taxing, spending and borrowing powers all placed at the federal level would relieve Germany of the nagging demand to show more “solidarity”.

France to have it both ways

“Ever closer union”, in France’s deepest unreasoned, reflexive sentiments, means a Fortress Europe that will stand up to all outsiders (notably to America), protect European industry and agriculture from the free-trading ravages of capitalist liberalism, defend a certain “social model” no less generous with the other fellow’s money than the existing French “model” and adopted by all member states, an ever-agile grasp laid on all fields of human endeavour where the long hand of the state can reach a complete system of rules and regulations that leave no vacuum and little free choice, but where everything is either “legal” or “illegal”, including “legal” hours of work, terms of employment, shop opening hours, a meticulously regulated compulsory education system and, in sum, an enlightened central authority untiringly searching for whatever it can change for what looks a good idea.

This ideal central authority working away for European greatness and social justice, however, must not infringe the sovereignty of nation states and least of all that of the Union’s spiritual leader, France. It must be understood that “European values” really means the values of French republicanism. There are no French interests that by virtue of being French, are not also the interests of Europe.

In calling for more European integration in the abstract, French politicians of both right and left of center leave it unsaid but clear that French independence, including the sovereign power to tax and spend, will not be sacrificed. The most that will be conceded is joint “consultation” on national budgets—consultations that, if ignored, can at worst result in some finger-wagging requests to be more community-minded next time round. However, no French politician and probably no other, either, will in practice give up the vote catching power of shuffling around taxes and expenditures.

The upshot, then, is a French conception of Europe that both is and is not and in reality resembles a vast replica of the French state promising ever greater prestige and social justice to both the French and the non French, a model of intelligent generosity.

Matter-of-fact Britain

When de Gaulle’s road block barring British entry was pushed aside and Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, joining seem to be the smart thing to do. The European economy looked dynamic and go-go and though the Common Agricultural Policy was a hard lump to swallow, and some Continental European tendency to fussy regulations and busybodyness caused a little concern, on balance “joining Europe” seemed wiser than staying outside.

Forty years on, much if not all of that has gone sour. Europe’s economic dynamism has petered out when (though not because) Britain entered the EEC, the busybodyness has intensified, the French have ganged up with the Germans against Britain on the Common Agricultural Policy and minor other matters, and the European Court of Human Rights has caused deep irritation by giving lessons to the very country that took quiet pride in being the first, by half a millennium, to adopt the rule of law. (The public over-looked that it was the U.K.’s own government that, by the EU treatises, had agreed that human rights judges could and should overrule British courts of laws.)

See European Union, by Marian L. Tupy, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics for background information.

If the polls are to be believed, a clear majority of the British would now quit the EU if given the choice. Many reasons are cited; what was felt as the insulting conduct of the European Court of Human Rights is one of the many. The only major one is that for the commonsensical, matter-of-fact Englishman, the EU has lost all claim to credibility by catching both feet and both arms in the trap of the euro, a trap it erected for itself in the hardly pardonable hope that it was building a growth machine. Inflicting the euro on the economy gave it no perceptible growth impetus and got it into a frightening and costly mess when the first eurozone country to get into payments trouble, namely Greece in 2008, had to be “saved” from defaulting on its debt. Not rescuing Greece would be mortal danger to the euro, if not its certain destruction. Matter of fact Englishmen no longer felt any wish to belong to an economic body that, scared by real or imaginary dangers, would throw hundreds of billions of good money after bad to prevent 3 per cent of itself—the share of Greece in the zone’s GDP—from being chopped off and left to go its separate way. Much of simple-minded John Bull’s contempt for the Brussels brains trust that has sold the euro to the European public is misplaced in the sense that Britain has long ceased to be under pressure to adopt the euro and could remain in the EU while keeping out of the eurozone. Nevertheless, the word “Europe” has now lost all its glamour for Britain, leaving only the wish to have continued access to the EU market just like the other non-members of the EU, Switzerland and Norway. It would not be in the interest of the EU to deny such access.

If the present UK government survives the general election due in 2015, it will be under an obligation to call a referendum on EU membership by 2017. On present form, the “out” option would win. In the meantime, however, the triangle of the three main EU countries will have been at work. London will be negotiating for release from certain EU constraints and also for a generally more liberal, more “Anglo-Saxon” regulatory regime. Berlin has little desire to remain alone with France, and maybe France would also prefer to have the equilibrating potential of a three-person triangle to having to face Berlin alone. The odds are on London gaining enough in negotiations for the staying-in option to prevail on 2017—if indeed the referendum is held at all. As usual in weighty international matters, the likely outcome is untidy muddle. Soberly, one can hardly demand much more.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.