Feb 7, 2011

The Unromantic Union: Give and Take in EU Home Affairs

There is a romantic notion that the EU has state-like qualities and embodies complex values such as "solidarity" between its members, says Roderick Parkes. But current reality shows that the Union is actually a community of hard-headed governments. Instead of romanticising qualities which do not yet exist, the EU therefore needs to find hard-headed ways of mimicking these values. With the Union undergoing an acute crisis of confidence as regards immigration from North Africa and its passport-free travel area, Schengen, there is no time to spare.

After a year of muddling through, the EU will try to put its new institutional machinery to good use in 2011. In the blue corner, Herman Van Rompuy is aiming to ace the financial and geopolitical situation. Eyeing him from the other blue corner, Jose Manuel Barroso will try to regain the initiative on issues such as the internal market. Given the current political climate, the pair faces a tall order: no matter how many presidents the EU produces, none has been keen to admit to the depth of tension and difference between member states.

Indeed, most treaty reforms have aimed at bypassing the differences between members. The perpetrators of these reforms have slyly blended out the divisions between the EU’s members, and romanticised the Union as a body with not only the size but also the cohesion of an international actor like the US. The approach has been a failure, and a new perspective is needed. European policymakers could usefully view the differences between members as a source of strength and spend their time dealing with them in an imaginative way. Some examples from Home Affairs.

The politics of commonality

Member governments have famously viewed Brussels as a resort for mere ‘comma politics’ – an arena for phrasing regulations and for arguing over the positioning of punctuation, not a place with its own political inner-life. Political thinkers in Brussels have returned the favour, not always giving the member governments the attention they deserve. Sitting in Brussels’ brutal glass towers, and with EU provinces such as Germany, France and the UK a distant abstraction, Eurocrats have seldom appreciated the real depth of the differences between the members let alone their competing interests. They talk instead of commonalities.

One result of this way of thinking has been a certain flabbiness in estimates of what the EU is capable of doing: when discussing the scope of EU activity, it is simply asked where the 27 states might usefully cooperate. It is seldom asked whether the EU will be able to overcome the differences between them – or indeed use these differences in an imaginative way.

The gap between aspiration and reality has increasingly been bridged by the ‘institutional statement’: in successive treaty reforms, changes to decision-making procedures have purported to create ‘common’ (foreign policy), ‘European’ (security policy) and ‘effective’ (home affairs) policies. These changes have reduced the scope for member governments to make the differences between them felt – by diminishing formal veto powers for example. But this effort to blend out the differences between the member states – an effort in which the member states themselves have been more than complicit – has not been a flying success.

For one thing, the perpetrators of such reforms ignore the necessity of ensuring that the new institutional rules are exercised in a proper spirit. The member states have continued operating under consensus, for example, even when treaty rules have removed formal veto powers. For another thing, the EU’s special charm may well lie precisely in the differences between its members. By
blending these differences out, policymakers no longer have to think imaginatively about making the most of them. Whatever the case, there is growing discontent at the disparity between declaration and reality.

The politics of difference

If all this flabby Eurothink sounds dire, the alternative has not proved much better. In 2009, grouchy member states made something of an ‘institutional counter-statement’: the Lisbon Treaty brought the governments back in. They had clearly been irked by the sneaky way the processes of widening and deepening had been turning minor EU policy commitments made one year into policy behemoths a decade later, and wished to regain control over their collective future. With their reform of the European Council, the capitals were aiming at a kind of strategic intergovernmentalism – a setup in which the heads of state and government set the long-term political parameters for a whole range of EU activities.

Although this shift met with much wailing and beating of breasts from Europhiles, it actually
seemed to mark a positive new step in the EU’s development. This move would surely force the Eurocrats to deal more imaginatively with differences between the Union’s members, but also force the member governments to deal more constructively with the EU, right? Wrong. Lisbon’s reaffirmation of government power has so far proved less a positive confirmation of the EU’s powerbase than a source of stagnation. Whilst much weight is certainly now being given to the differences and tensions between the members, little imagination let alone positive spirit has been in evidence.

And yet, the prize is clear. If states no longer feel in control of the long-term development of the EU, they can no longer commit to it unequivocally. The reform of the European Council offers a chance to increase their control and thus their engagement. In policy areas like home affairs, where the European Council has gained important new formal powers, the addition of a more robust governmental level might, for example, be a source of political impulses which the Commission alone simply would not have the clout to propose let alone deliver. The task then is to ensure that the governments’ attempts to regain control are constructive.

In this, the onus lies with Barroso and Van Rompuy. If they wish to see this intergovernmentalist crust develop as a useful addition to the classic community method, they will have to offer governments more clarity about the EU’s strengths and limitations. The EU of 2011 can no longer be viewed as an EU to be applied to any area and capable of achieving what the member states do, only on a grander scale. It must be a Union that recognises the differences and tensions between the member states.

An unromantic union

Whatever their vision for the future of the European Union, the duo of Van Rompuy and Barroso must explain how we can get to it from the current reality. That reality is a conglomeration of 27 often competing states involved in deep but discrete pockets of activity, and joined by an impressive but limited modus operandi for cooperation. The pair’s agenda for 2011 will have to be one in which the diversity of the members are recognised, and the very specific strengths of the EU as a modus operandi are put to more targeted use. The romance of state-building has no place there.

Solidarity in the esoteric union: Such esoteric values as trust, solidarity, mutual responsibility and neighbourliness are supposed to underpin EU cooperation, and can be used rhetorically to justify cooperation in almost any area. If these cohesive values were really in place, it would certainly set the EU apart from international organisations and make it very much more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, these values do not exist independently of national interests. In home affairs, EU bodies such as Frontex, the agency for protecting the Union’s common borders, have foundered precisely because of this kind of wishful thinking. Frontex’s architects wrongly assumed that the member states felt a serious degree of solidarity towards one another.

The key strength of the EU setup, and the one which sets it apart from all other forms of cooperation, is rather different: unlike other international organisations, its unusually robust institutions can provide a structure with which to mimic such values as solidarity and mutual trust. By translating altruistic values into quid-pro-quo arrangements between the member states, the EU’s strong institutions can give the members the faith to engage in virtual solidarity, plastic trust, pseudo neighbourliness. Policy problems where such values should become the EU's speciality – a higher form of cooperation for a higher form of problem.

The EU’s new ‘asylum support office’ is a case in point. This body has the task of promoting ‘burden-sharing’ between the member states when accepting and dealing with refugees to the EU. It would be a mistake to think that this office will be able to tap into some kind of pool of unlimited solidarity between the members. The office could, however, create a quid-pro-quo arrangement, by which all members gain from showing a kind of virtual solidarity to one another. This would simply require the office to identify the different kinds of burden-sharing of interest to the members. States in the south and east, for example, demand practical burden-sharing when dealing with influxes of migration over the EU’s external border. As a quid pro quo for receiving help, they could be persuaded to better implement the EU’s common minimum rules on asylum – a form of burden-sharing of interest to northern and western members which tend to have higher standards.

Labour migration and international competitiveness in the diversity union: The emphasis on commonalities has also led the EU to mimic large states like the U.S., whose success lies in a mixture of not merely geographical size but also political cohesion. This rationale certainly underpins home affairs. The recent EU ‘Blue Card’, introduced in order to attract immigrant labour to the EU, sought to emulate large integrated labour markets elsewhere. Certain desirable forms of immigrant would be offered access to EU-wide labour markets. Now that the Blue Card is finally being translated into national legislation, it looks set to be a flop. Given the differences between them, the member states were simply not prepared, or able, to integrate themselves to the degree necessary.

A more imaginative approach would have asked not how the EU can ape larger states elsewhere but how it might do something different. Its quality as a consortium of different, often competing, countries gives the EU its most remarkable structural advantage. This is a fact ignored in the Blue Card. The EU, with its different languages, regulatory regimes, histories, cultural links could never compete on the same terms as the integrated labour market of the U.S. when it comes to attracting immigrants.

If the member states had instead made use of this diversity, however, they would have better exploited their advantages. Immigrants are attracted to a destination by a whole range of factors including language, regulatory regime and historical links. Each of the individual member states can compete with the U.S. on at least a handful of these factors. Instead of seeking to homogenise its members, the EU offers a means to put the variety to concerted use. The EU could have offered an umbrella for member states with a similar competitive advantage to work together, target specific third countries, and perhaps even offer access to each other’s labour markets for well-qualified immigrants.

Visa liberalisation in the more modest union: The strong insistence on the commonalities between the member states, has led the EU’s work astray in other ways too. Inaccurate thinking about what the EU can achieve has seldom been corrected and the resulting policy approaches continue to develop, year on year, unchecked. Unfortunately for those European home affairs officials dealing with relations with the outside world, EU foreign policy is a case in point. The strong insistence on the commonalities between the member states gives rise to the idea that the EU will develop quickly into a serious geopolitical player: the Union will be able simply to replicate the member states’ foreign policy structures on a grander scale and pool the 27’s collective clout. This is an assumption which appears to inform the Lisbon Treaty. It is one which falls short of reality. The resulting capability-expectations gap in external relations has created an odd situation whereby EU home affairs increasingly substitutes for foreign policy.

The creation of the Schengen Zone certainly has serious regional implications, and gaining preferential access to it is high up on the list of many a non-EU state – not least countries in the so-called Eastern Partnership. Yet, merely because the Schengen Area, and most particularly the question of the liberalisation of Schengen visas, has foreign policy implications does not mean that it should be treated as a core tool of foreign policy. Visa liberalisation is primarily a tool of EU home affairs, and can be offered to neighbouring states as an incentive to reform their own justice and home affairs sectors or indeed to create common goods, including free movement throughout an extended area. In all this, the foreign policy implications – relations with Russia, free movement as a means of creating cultural exchange with Eastern partners – would have to be taken into account.

Yet, to treat visa liberalisation not as a tool of home affairs with important foreign policy implications, but rather as a foreign policy tool making up for the lack of other EU capabilities in external affairs, is a recipe for disaster. For one thing, the EU increasingly finds itself committing to visa liberalisation for reasons of foreign policy which, from a home affairs perspective, are risky. The reaction of a number of EU interior ministries following the liberalisation of the visa regime towards the Western Balkans was a case in point: feeling that liberalisation had been offered too soon, they threatened to reintroduce visa restrictions. This in turn undermines visa liberalisation even as a tool of home affairs, with the EU member states seeking to leverage permanent home affairs reforms in neighbouring countries by reference to incentives that suddenly look altogether temporary. For another thing, it is unclear whether visa liberalisation really should have emerged as the core interest and priority of so many of the Eastern Partners. Many of these countries, from government level to civil society, still struggle to identify their own national interests and are highly dependent upon the EU to tell them what this interest is. They do not see the potential risks associated with visa liberalisation, let alone the other forms of foreign policy engagement which they might expect from the 27.

In short, what is called for in the present political climate is a return to first principles and a serious spring clean of romantic thinking. This should be treated as a spur to the further development of the Union, rather than as a dampener. After all, readiness to adapt to the changed circumstances of the 21st century would be a sign of political maturity from the European Union rather than a sign of flagging commitment to its goals, structures and values.

Dr. Roderick Parkes is the head of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). This essay was first published in an earlier form with the Federal Trust for Education and Research in London.