CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: Continentally Challenged (Report No. 5)

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Continentally Challenged

Wrestling with porridge

There is no doubting the difficulty in getting to grips with the European debate. Its language is frequently abstruse, often soporific. The 1991 Treaty on European Union (TEU),[1] agreed at Maastricht, has been described as "written in an incredibly turgid Euro-speak that defies interpretation".[2] Much of the credit immediately accruing to the republic's draft of a successor was that it was relatively comprehensible.

This is not simply a matter of a European community of many different languages. In reality, it reflects an underlying assumption which endured during the period between the founding Treaty of Rome of 1957 and Maastricht. That assumption was that European integration required only a 'permissive consensus' on the part of Europe's citizens: as long as the technocrats and the political class knew what they were doing, that was good enough.

This led to an incredibly complex architecture, built layer upon layer. By one count, decisions are made in 18 different ways: 11 legislative procedures, two budgetary procedures, three procedures for international agreements and two for appointments of members of EU institutions.[3] The TEU was the last straw, with its three-'pillar' structure and its presentation as a series of amendments to the preceding treaties - it was thus literally unintelligible to anyone not familiar with the latter.[4]

But none of this is any excuse for the wilful, ostrich-like stance of John Major's administration in Britain, with a rampantly Euro-sceptic mood on the back benches and virulent propaganda in the tabloid press. Indeed, the war-comic style of the Mirror's cover before the England-Germany soccer match in Euro '96 betrayed in one go the infantilism, the imperial nostalgia and the anti-Germanism which has bedevilled the European debate in Britain.

Yet this also told another story. Germany may have defeated England, on penalties, in a game which England marginally deserved to win. But the fundamental Euro-sceptic error is to place Britain, rather than Germany, at the centre of the European universe, and to assume Britain can, once again, stand alone but eventually prevail in the intergovernmental conference which began in March 1996.

As Paul Gillespie argues,

the most important polarisation in the IGC negotiations is between the German aspiration for a more tightly integrated Union and the British model of a looser, wider one. Germany is becoming Europe's leading power and the agenda-setting role characteristic of such hegemony may be seen in the flow of ideas for a European integration project that will match its own interests ... That the polarisation should he between a reluctant Britain and an emergent Germany is pregnant with historical meaning for a Britain that is still coming to terms with its own loss of imperial hegemony and going through a crisis of political identity which makes many of its leaders suspicious of German motives.[5]
Early last summer, a senior European Commission official was already bemoaning the "enormous strain" the UK position had placed on negotiations in the IGC on the future of the union. Indeed, it had at that stage prevented serious negotiations getting under way Yet the stalling tactics could not durably succeed.

The issue is not whether the UK (and so Northern Ireland) should continue to resist integrationist measures in the IGC, or whether it should endorse membership of economic and monetary union (EMU). In reality, the other member states at the IGC will support what Brigid Laffan has described as "partial deepening" of the union.[6] In reality, EMU will begin on time with a sufficient core of participants; as the chief economist with one of Britain's biggest manufacturers put it, "We really should assume, in government and in business, that EMU will go ahead." And so, in reality, the issue is: will the UK attempt, yet again, to stop, Canute-like, European developments which it cannot prevent, only to seek to catch the tide later?

In Missed Chances, a remarkably acerbic analysis of 50 years of British failure effectively to engage with the process of European integration, a very senior former UK civil servant and EC ambassador to Washington, Sir Roy Denman, blames this sorry state of affairs in part on the emphasis on the 'special relationship' with the US and British ignorance of foreign languages. But he points the finger at the UK's class system: "Britain never had a serious, house-clearing revolution ... The result has been that Britain has largely become a cosy backwater, a backslapping, 18th-century type oligarchy, its boardrooms stuffed with clapped-out politicians, Foreign Office retreads, and sundry cronies of the Establishment." He describes the prime minister, John Major, as "a well-meaning nonentity" and says a change of government is an "indispensable minimum" if this dismal record is to be changed.[7]

That view is reciprocated in Bonn. Accusing Britain of "flag-waving", a senior German official said last October: "We have given up all hope of the UK in the immediate future."[8] Yet a change of British government may well not be enough. As Ian Davidson writes of the British Labour leader, "Mr Blair has not learned to speak 'good European'. His rhetoric is the old language of defending the national interest, national sovereignty and the balance of power. It simply won't play in Paris or Bonn."[9]

From a Northern Ireland point of view, this is not just an issue of political realism. For, within the UK, Northern Ireland has a unique relationship with the EU - it is wholly granted 'objective-one' status as a poorish EU region with recognised 'special' political circumstances, and shares a landmass with another (increasingly not-so-poor, in aggregate) objective-one region, the republic. In particular, it is a matter of obvious concern to Northern Ireland, from a purely pragmatic perspective, that north-south disjunctions in relation to the evolving Europe should be minimised.

One could go further. Northern views of southern attitudes to the EU can often be outdatedly cynical. While it is true that the republic has been a substantial net beneficiary of European funds since it joined along with the UK in 1973, it is quite wrong to reduce its Europhilia to a 'begging-bowl' mentality. Its experience as a state of a sustained engagement with the EU, the associated debate in national press and broadcasting, as well as the sophisticated contribution by a number of key intellectuals, have all led to a much more profound discourse in the republic about matters European, from which the north has much to learn.

For all these reasons, the starting point for understanding how Northern Ireland can best exploit developments within the EU is to understand them in their own terms, and then to place Northern Ireland's specific interests in that context-not the other way around. Northern Ireland may not, pragmatically again, want to leave the union with Britain - which, after all, delivers a vastly greater redistribution to its poorest region than the EU can ever do. But it does need to get out of the shadow of the narrow British debate on Europe, to take on board a broader European perspective, and to engage in the process with the vibrant discussion south of the border.

So where is the European Union going? What is the context in which Northern Ireland must situate itself in the 21st century? The bad news is there isn't a simple answer. The good news is that this means that much is up for grabs, if Northern Ireland can articulate sufficiently shrewd and sophisticated responses.

Since the establishment of the EEC, two views about the future of Europe have stood in contestation. On one side have been the 'supranationalists', those who believe that the EU is inexorably heading in a federal or quasi-federal direction. This view is often misunderstood in Britain, as implying a 'centralised super-state', whereas in fact the model is federal Germany, with its powerful regional Länder, writ large. Ironically, an official from the Land of North-Rhine Westphalia has observed that "Britain is really one of the last old-fashioned super-centralised states in the European Union".[10]

The supranationalist view has nevertheless seen power gradually leaching from the member states to the European institutions, a process for which so-called neo-functionalists' have provided the accompanying theory. The latter have argued that co-operation in any particular area tends to lead to further initiatives, or 'spillovers'-for example, the way establishment of the single European market was seen to require the further step of economic and monetary union for the market to operate fully. The supranationalist perspective says that the future will be quite unlike the past - that at some point the EU's 'federal vocation' will have been essentially realised.

The opposing, 'intergovernmentalist', view regards all this as political toffee- indeed it places much weight on its socalled 'realism'. In reality, its advocates have claimed, the 'F-word' was removed from the Maastricht treaty, the people of Europe are becoming increasingly restive about the baroque constructions of Brussels technocrats, and national identity cannot be so easily wished away. The EU will remain fundamentally a consortium of nation states, or it will be nothing. The future, in other words, will be a reassuring continuation of the present.

These two perspectives have more in common than their proponents would like to admit. For a start, both make philosophically illegitimate, teleological, claims that existing trends - however analysed-can be projected into the future. Post-1989, enlightenment-based certitudes about the 'march of progress' (wherever that is deemed to lead) look increasingly shaky.

Moreover, whether they assume there will be a new country called 'Europe' or that existing nation-states will prevail, both approaches think only in terms of the system of modern sovereign states as inaugurated by the 17th-century Treaty of Westphalia. Yet the EU, in as far as it represents a 'state' at all, lacks the essential tax-and-spend character of Westphalian states-it spends only 1.3 per cent of European gross domestic product. It is a 'regulatory', rather than a sovereign, structure.[11]

James Anderson argues that the transition to modernity involved the 'bundling' of power - dispersed in medieval times among overlapping sovereignties and exercised at different levels-into the sovereign 'nation state', underpinned by the modern ideology of nationalism and defined by 'hard' borders. Conversely, European integration today is 'unbundling' that sovereign power once again.[12] This is bringing a 'post-modem' fragmentation of power, decentring of authority and lack of coherence.[13]

This is indeed why the EU is so infuriatingly difficult for European citizens to get a handle on. It is a world, as Marks and McAdam describe it, of "diverse policy networks made up of member state executives, their civil services, national courts and other state agencies, including subnational governments at various levels, interacting with diverse private or semi-public groups and European Union institutions".[14]

In Northern Ireland, however, political perspectives on Europe - as on so much else - have very little to do with such complex realities and everything to do with how the issue is 'read' internally. Thus, nationalists (though not, initially, republicans) have tended to assume Europe is indeed set on a supranational trajectory, spiriting away the border (true) and detaching Northern Ireland from the rest of its member state (untrue) in the process.[15] Unionists, by contrast, have lined up with the intergovernmentalists-indeed the Ulster Unionists have opted to join Sir James Goldsmith's faction in the European Parliament[16] - in the (illusory) hope that what might be called a 'Fortress UK' model will prevail for Northern Ireland.[17]

The reality is likely to be more prosaic than either these grandiose hopes or paranoid fears. For what has been characteristic of recent debate on the future of the EU is that a third position has emerged. On the one hand, as Michael O'Neill argues, the supranationalist paradigm, with its "faith in narrow technocratic solutions to what are clearly complicated political problems", missed "the abiding sense of cultural and political differences, and the enduring impact of particularistic historical identities".[18] On the other, the intergovernmentalist perspective could not come to terms with change: "The notion of a 'picket fence' raised around the legitimate prerogatives of statehood against all comers is increasingly meaningless in an interdependent world.[19] The resonances of these criticisms for unionist and nationalist perspectives in Ireland should need no spelling out.

Rather than anticipating a one-dimensional scenario, whether based on federal institutions or the existing member states, in this view what is emerging is a more complex structure of relationships between regional administrations, 'nation' states[20] and EU institutions-in Euro-speak it is called 'multi-level governance'. As Charlie Jeffery explains,

Multi-Level Governance has been presented as an alternative conceptualisation of decision-making in the EU. It is seen as an attempt to drag the preoccupations of European integration away from the long-running, and perhaps somewhat sterile debate between the different variants of the functionalist/supranational and realist/intergovernmental 'schools'. Despite obvious divergences in assumptions and analysis, these two time-honoured 'schools' share an image of the European decision-making process as a political arena whose features are defined by the relative, and uncontested, roles of national vs. supranational institutions.[21]
Supranationalists don't like multi-level governance: it's too untidy, compared to their rationalist dreams. Intergovernmentalists don't like it either: it's too uncertain-who knows where it might lead? But they both look set to be discomfited - just like advocates of a united Ireland or untrammelled British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. In that sense, the EU is "well on the way to becoming something new - and that will have major implications for the actors, the processes and the outcomes of policy-making at all levels in Europe: supranational, national and subnational".[22]

In fact, there is yet another level - the transnational - of networking across the union by a range of social actors: "Environmental groups, women's groups and networks of 'carers' and anti-poverty groups serve to reduce the gatekeeper role of national governments and to create horizontal linkages among West European polities. The EU arena of politics can be a source of additional influence for these groups and may aid them in their domestic environments by enhancing their information and giving them access to the strategies of their counterparts in other countries."[23]

Indeed, matters are more complicated still. The supranationalist and intergovernmentalist models of European integration both started from the assumption, whether in terms of the union as a whole or its member states, that the apparatus moved forward together. But it became gradually apparent that a 'multi-speed' Europe was emerging, with different member states proceeding at different rates down the integrationist path - for example, as to when they joined the 'Schengen' group of states with a common approach to security matters.

Yet even this does not now fully grasp the complexity of the matter. For the prospect of enlargement to the east, incorporating highly dissimilar states from the former Communist bloc, and the tensions aroused by the EMU debate imply a union where there is not even agreement as to where - never mind at what speed - each state is going in the European project. Hence the recent talk of 'differentiated integration' - happily translated as 'flexibility'.

As Michael Keating summarises,

the prospects for the future are for a highly differentiated state order in which the traditional categories, unitary state, federation, confederation, sovereignty, separatism, are transcended. There will not be a tidy hierarchical order of continental, national, regional and local authorities. Instead there will be in Europe ... a variable geometry state order.[24]
This may all be read - like so much else about politics in the 1990s - as very unsettling. Nothing is stable, nothing sure. But it can also be read as an opportunity rather than a threat. If the future of the EU, and so of Northern Ireland within it, is "neither teleologically induced or fixed",[25] then there is much politically to play for, whether from the standpoint of regions, citizens or social groups. In this much more fluid and contingent context, new possibilities emerge. As Udo Bullman puts it,
The European Union after Maastricht thus provides the framework for a new and different political order in which authority is scattered and sovereignty shared. In consequence a new type of politics has arisen in which institutions and competencies overlap. New modes of exchange and representation have come into existence which emphasise the role of sub-national political arenas as spheres for action and dialogue.[26]
In particular, as Marks et al argue, multilevel governance implies that 'subnational actors' - whether interest groups or administrations - can deal directly with their supranational counterparts in Brussels , a scenario the former may find particularly attractive "in response to differences in interest or identity that may exist between the regions they represent and the states of which they are a part".[27]

Sounds familiar?


1Treaty on European Union, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 1992
2P C Schmitter, 'Imagining the future of the European polity with the help of new concepts, in G Marks, F W Scharpf, Schmitter and W Streeck, Governance in the European Union, Sage, London, 1996, p122
3Brigid Laffan, introduction to Laffan ed, Constitution-building in the European Union, Institute of European Affairs, Dublin, 1996, pp 10-11
4A useful layperson's guide to the institutions of the European Union, what they do and the relationships between them, is provided by Kieran Bradley, 'The union and its institutions', in Laffan ed, op cit, pp 93-123.
5Paul Gillespie, 'Models of integration', in Laffan ed, op cit, p161
6 Laffan, conclusion, in ibid, p215
7 See Ian Davidson's review of Denman, 'A long tale of woe', Financial Times, April 17th 1996.
8Sarah Helm, 'German warning over EU expansion', Independent, October 23rd 1996
9Davidson, 'Showdown time', Financial Times, September 18th 1996
10'A share of autonomous power for the united peoples', Guardian, January 21st 1995
11James Caporaso, 'The European Union and forms of state: Westphalian, regulatory or post-modern?', Journal of Common Market Studies, vol 34, no 1, March 1996
12 James Anderson, 'Territorial sovereignty and political identity: national problems, transnational solutions?', in Brian Graham ed, In Search of Ireland, Routledge, London, forthcoming
13Caporaso, op cit, p49
14Gary Marks and Doug McAdam, 'Social movements and the changing structure of political opportunity in the European Union', West European Politics, vol 19, no 2, April 1996
15"A divided Ireland makes no sense in a united Europe," the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey, told a Friends of Fianna Fail dinner in New York in 1990 - 'Haughey in plea for Irish unity in EC', Irish Press, September 29th 1990.
16 Rachel Donnelly, 'Ulster Unionists to announce alliance with Goldsmith party', Irish Times, December 23rd 1996
17"A curious body calling itself the European Community-no longer the Common Market nor the EEC -is taking onto itself powers which properly belong to the queen," the then Ulster Unionist leader, James Molyneaux, told a Royal Black Preceptory demonstration in 1992 - 'Molyneaux criticises EC on North', Irish Times, July 15th 1992.
18 Michael O'Neill, The Politics of European Integration: A Reader, Routledge, London, 1996, pp 33, 62
19 ibid, p69
20 The inverted commas are inserted to remind that the UK, Spain and Belgium are effectively multi-national states.
21 Charlie Jeffery, 'Regional information offices in Brussels and multi-level governance in the EU', Regional and Federal Studies, vol 6, no 2, summer 1996, p184
22 Schmitter, 'Examining the present European polity with the help of past theories', in Marks et al, op cit, p14
23Laffan, op cit, pl9
24 Michael Keating, Regional autonomy in the changing state order: a framework of analysis', Regional Politics and Policy, vol 2, no 2, 1992, p60
25 O'Neill, op cit, p5
26 Udo Bullman, 'The politics of the third level', Regional and Federal Studies, vol 6, no 2, summer 1996, p11
27 Marks et al, 'Competencies, cracks and conflicts: regional mobilisation in the European Union', in Marks et al, op cit, p42

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