If you really want to understand the EU it is worth bearing in mind that at its very core the EU is seeking to bring harmony (by the use of common harmonised rules) to fracture (27 national rules). The roots of the EU, to recall, lie in the European Coal and Steel Community – not in the creation of a federated super-state.
When the “European Economic Community” was signed in 1957 its purpose was – as the name suggests – to extend the rules of the European Coal and Steel Community to a broader area of economic activity.
Europe and the ancien regime
When considering the initial objectives of the then EEC (many of which still hold true) one comparison that springs to mind is Napoleon’s endeavours to develop common standards for France following the inequality of the ancien regime and the terror of the French revolution.
It is perhaps hard to imagine now that during the ancien regime France was actually a very fragmented country. The King’s law differed depending on what class one came from, the region one happened to live in and what religion one did or did not practice. Units of measurements varied from the south west of France to those used in the east so trade remained parochial. France’s infrastructure was incomplete and fragmented. Goods moved at a snail’s pace from Lyons to Bordeaux – if at all.
Napoleon was revolutionary because he went on a standardisation spree – he standardised the language (French), he created a unit of measurement common to the whole of France (the metric system), he drafted a codified law (the code civil) that applied to all and sundry regardless of class, region or religion and he undertook enduring infrastructure projects that created a functioning network to facilitate trade.
Napoleon may be remembered for his Waterloo but to the French he is remembered just as much for these achievements as he is for his victories and defeats. Napoleon’s standardisation efforts helped heave the French economy out of the middle-ages and into the nineteenth century.
There are differences, of course.
Unlike Napoleon the EU does not have any territorial ambitions. It only seeks to operate within the borders of the national states who have consented to becoming a member of the EU. Nor does the EU aspire to create one single, harmonised language for western Europe. Nor, contrary to the accusations of her detractors, does the EU wish to harmonise all national laws. An impossible task that it has absolutely no interest in undertaking.
The then EEC was and remains, at heart, an international organisation that seeks to regulate commerce amongst its members. That this then spills over into other policy areas such as the environment is an inevitable consequence of it’s commercial objectives.
By creating common commercial standards and a level playing field for all, the EU has facilitated unprecedented prosperity across the European Union that is the envy of many other regional international organisations.
Ironing out the differences, finding common ground, acting more effectively from the centre
As already stated the first and foremost objective of the European Union is to regulate Europe’s commercial activity to allow for a level playing field.
At the same time there are other policy areas that are better regulated from the centre rather than from a national level. The environment is a good example. Rivers polluted up-stream flow through the whole of Europe and do not stop at national borders. Air pollution is no respecter of border controls. Poisonous pollutants travel along Europe’s coast-line without bothering to stop for visa inspection.
In certain policy areas it is simply much easier and more efficient for the EU to co-ordinate the task rather than leaving each individual member state to develop differing rules.
Take another example: connecting Europe’s energy and transport networks. The EU is far better placed to over-see the organisation of a European network of roads, railway lines and energy grids. If the EU doesn’t organise such a task then who else? Would the English care to leave this task to the French? The French to the Germans? The Germans to the Italians?
Alternatively the nation state can retain sovereignty over each and every aspect of its individual network and refuse the EU responsibility for such a task. But this would result in a fragmented infrastructure – hardly a recipe for encouraging economic growth.
To sum up, from a micro-national point of view the decisions made in Brussels can appear dictatorial, imposing and irritating.
From a macro-platform the EU has much to commend. The alternative is a messy, fragmented and incoherent set of differing rules that lead to sclerosis rather than movement. If some think the EU is too bureaucratic they should see what life would be like without it.