[Column] Why Europe’s interminable compromises are a virtue

Ahead of yet another European summit meeting later this week, EU governments are bickering over migration: countries of destination and countries of arrival are accusing each other, not for the first time, of not doing enough to manage it.

They also disagree on many other issues, such as the 10th round of sanctions against Russia, using frozen Russian assets for the reconstruction of Ukraine or the best way to respond to America’s Inflation Reduction Act — the generous green subsidy scheme that many in the EU fear could harm European businesses.

  • Unfortunately, politicians often prefer cursing ‘Brussels’ than explaining how it functions — while citizens increasingly demand nice, short and clear decisions. But with 27 EU countries, this is impossible

Some despair at so much European disunity. At the heart of it, the Economist once wrote, “lies the inability to answer a question that is decades old: what is the EU actually for?”.

That is nonsense, though.

European governments know very well what the EU is for and that is precisely why there discussions take place. The EU is there to help them to manage conflicts that could otherwise spin out of control. They prove this every day — by bickering, sometimes loudly, and then trying to work out a compromise that all can live with.

Sometimes, national leaders, who take the important decisions in Brussels, must cross their previous red lines to find such compromises. Their decision to collectively borrow money in order to help stricken economies to recover the pandemic was a classic example. The decision to send tanks to Ukraine, another.

They clearly understood European conflicts can escalate and that the EU is meant to help prevent that. After being tempted by purely national approaches, they quickly understood that the size of the challenge meant it had to be tackled together.

Some keep dreaming that European countries will stop arguing one day. They dream of altruism, solidarity and perfect solutions. They are right to criticise national leaders for disregarding or undermining the decisions they have themselves taken in Brussels.

Erasing national differences is not what Europe is about; it is about managing them in a way that still allows for effective collective action.

As long as national leaders keep calling the shots in Brussels, elected in their countries to defend national interests, they will keep quarrelling about every issue, small and big. To manage these quarrels, they use the EU as a forum to find compromise solutions. The enormous amount of decisions they take in Brussels, proves how useful this is.

Since the establishment of the Coal and Steel Community in 1952, compromises have been crucial in Europe. After the Second World War, six countries agreed they would fight their battles at a conference table not the battlefield, with words as their weapons.

That table stood in Brussels, a large city in a small, non-chauvinist country with plenty of space to accommodate the new European officials, national representatives, lawyers and experts.

Why Brussels? (Not the weather)

Brussels was a historic choice: between 1850 and 1914, thousands of lawyers, diplomats and experts had already settled in the city. By working together to develop telegraphy, the metric system and railways, they hoped to build a new society without politics or war, as conceived by the French aristocrat Saint-Simon.

In the slipstream of these technocratic internationalists came artists, businessmen and inventors — not unlike the European crowd we see today in Brussels.

In 1914, national governments lost interest in cooperation, to say the least. The technicians were called home and were drafted to fight each other, as Mark Mazower describes in his book Governing the World, the History of an Idea.

The European Union is built on the trauma of two world wars. To prevent national leaders from getting at each other’s throats again, post-war unification made sure there would be no more winners and losers.

Countries keep their own hangups, interests and fantasies. In the past, these could lead to wars. Nowadays, they negotiate.

It can take years, even decades, to find compromises. Those decisions are usually long and hard to understand, because of their (deliberately) ambiguous provisions, unworkable timetables and bizarre, questionable loopholes. That’s because national politicians must be able to go home saying they have won the day.

All member states complain about European compromises, each for their own reasons. Nevertheless, these decisions tend to be robust precisely because there is enough in them for everybody. And nobody wants to start negotiating all over again for another deal.

Unfortunately, European citizens have little insight in this mechanism. It is not taught at school. Politicians often prefer cursing ‘Brussels’ than explaining how it functions, feeding the wrong expectations. Citizens increasingly demand nice, short and clear decisions. But with 27 EU countries, this is impossible.

Take the conflict over Europe’s response to the US’ massive green subsidies. Some member states want the EU to replicate those subsidies on this side of the pond. Others abhor ‘centralised’ EU financing or believe market forces will sort everything out.

The cocktail of compromise

Whatever the final compromise will be, one thing is certain: it will be a typical European cocktail, representing many tastes and preferences. And everyone will complain about it.

Compromising is a crucial part of democracy. Unfortunately, it is often seen as a weakness, not a strength. Europe’s tragedy, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit once said, is “that it must always live with an inbuilt tension: what it does is often useful and effective, but at the same time a little despicable”.

In his book Compromises and Rotten Compromises, Margalit defends political compromise as a key product of civilisation. He calls it “political virtue in the interest of peace”.

A good thing to remember, next time national leaders start bickering again over something.

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