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The EU Threat to Liberty


“Each year the [European Union] takes and spends more of our money without EU auditors being able to reliably confirm where much of this money has actually gone. The number of EU bureaucrats rises ever upwards. Ever more bureaucrats seem inevitably to lead to ever more rules and regulations, allowing the EU to expand its influence to almost every area of our lives…. Each time the EU produces one of its treaties, it seems to grab more power for itself, making our elected governments increasingly unable to oppose often costly EU legislation with which they may disagree. And whenever Europe’s citizens dare to vote against the EU’s growing power, the eurocrats derisively ignore public opinion and press on with their project regardless.”

Those words, from David Craig’s and Matthew Elliott’s 2009 book, The Great European Rip-Off: How the Corrupt, Wasteful EU Is Taking Control of Our Lives, represent an accurate British summary of both the process and results of half a century of European integration. One of its coauthors, Matthew Elliott, is chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, one of Britain’s leading anti-statist organizations, and that significant fact, as well as the findings presented in their well-documented study, helps to explain why most British libertarians and conservatives now oppose the project of European unification.

To understand the anti-democratic origins and illiberal character of the European project, Americans need to appreciate the traumatic psychological impact of the First and Second World Wars on the thinking of a significant section of the European elite. Horrified by the scale of the destruction they witnessed between 1914 and 1945, and by the rise of fascism and Nazism in the interwar period, the pioneers of European integration drew two erroneous lessons from those events. The first was that “nationalism” was an inherently evil force, which could not be contained and defeated unless the nations of Europe could be induced to sacrifice their national sovereignty in the interests of peace. The second was that democracy could not be relied on to build a better future, since millions of Germans and Italians had voted for Hitler and Mussolini, and millions of other Europeans had supported authoritarian nationalist movements in other parts of Europe, including Spain, Hungary, Romania, and even France. For those reasons, they concluded, the creation of a new European state was not only a necessary objective of civilized statesmanship; it was also a goal which, in its initial stages, would have to be approached by stealth, so as not to upset the national sensitivities of the unenlightened majority.

To quote just one of the pioneers of European integration, Peter (later Lord) Thorneycroft, a British Conservative politician who became chancellor of the exchequer in the late 1950s and Conservative Party chairman in 1975, “[It] is as well to state this bluntly at the outset — no government dependent upon a democratic vote could possibly agree in advance to the sacrifices any adequate plan [for European Union] must involve. The people must be led slowly and unconsciously into the abandonment of their traditional economic defences….” (From his pamphlet, “Design for Europe,” May/June 1947.)

Slow loss

The long and tortuous process by which this goal of European unification by stealth has been pursued, including a lengthy analysis of its historical and intellectual origins, and its chief protagonists, is described in compelling and scholarly detail by Christopher Booker and Richard North, in their widely acclaimed 2005 book, The Great Deception. Like Craig and Elliott, they show how the supranationalist project of the European Union’s founding fathers advanced by a gradual and indirect process of economic integration. The most important initial stage was the 1957 Treaty of Rome, establishing a protectionist European customs union (the European Economic Community, or EEC) consisting of West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Today, 56 years and five European treaties later, the European Union has ballooned into a supranational Leviathan comprising 28 countries and 24 official languages.

Whether they like it or not, Britons and other European nationals already live in an emergent European state with a common flag, passport, citizenship, anthem, supreme court, executive, parliament, bureaucracy, central bank, and currency (the euro) used by 17 of the member countries (but not by  Britain). The foundations have been laid for a future European army and police force, and the European Union now has its own official diplomatic corps.

As a result of all those changes and the development of common European policies in nearly every conceivable field, the British government, for example, has lost control of her agriculture, her fishing grounds, her external trade, decisions about the value-added tax, aspects of employment law, immigration, and internal trading standards — including weights and measures.

Most recently, under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which extended “Qualified Majority Voting” (abolishing national vetoes) into 63 new policy areas, the EU has been given new powers over external border controls and internal security, as well as a role in standardizing civil and criminal laws and procedures. It has, moreover, been allowed to appoint its own EU foreign minister, who will conduct the Union’s common foreign and security policy.

In 1992, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, (referring to the 1991 Maastricht Treaty) declared, “The European Union Treaty … within a few years will lead to the creation of what the founding fathers of modern Europe dreamed of after the war, the United States of Europe” (quoted in Treaty of Maastricht, Civitas, London, November 2005). American readers can judge for themselves how close the rolling bandwagon of European supranationalism has come to reaching that final destination.

A loss of democratic control previously enjoyed by national electorates over the laws and regulations governing people’s daily lives, has been an inevitable consequence of the centralizing supranationalist process of European unification. For instance, despite being one of the biggest EU member states, Britain’s decision-making power within EU institutions such as the Council of the European Union (representing national governments) and the European Parliament is extremely limited. British representatives control only about 8 percent of the total votes. As the European Union expands to include more countries, such a loss of democratic accountability through the dilution of national representation at the European level, only increases, a problem troubling other European nationals as well as many British observers.

To quote Germany’s former president Roman Herzog, writing in January 2007, “It is true that we are experiencing an ever greater, inappropriate centralization of powers away from the Member States and towards the EU. The German Ministry of Justice has compared the legal acts adopted by the Federal Republic of Germany between 1998 and 2004 with those adopted by the European Union in the same period. Results: 84% come from Brussels, with only 16% coming originally from Berlin….” (From an article on the 2004 EU Constitution, jointly written with Luder Gerken,Welt am Sonntag, January 14, 2007.)

Whilst popular disenchantment with the process of European integration has increased markedly in recent years, most of all in Britain, British subordination to supranational institutions has evoked less opposition than might otherwise have been expected, owing to its largely hidden nature. As Mark Leonard, of the Centre for European Reform, explained in 2005, “Europe’s power is easy to miss. Like an ‘invisible hand’ it operates through the shell of traditional political structures. The British House of Commons, British law courts and British civil servants are still here, but they have become agents of the European Union, implementing European law. This is no accident. By creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over countries without necessarily becoming a target for hostility.”

Resistance to the growing power of the European Union is not only undermined by its partially hidden character, but also by a deep-seated conviction, particularly strong in Germany, that the cause of peace is worth almost any sacrifice of national sovereignty, however initially unwelcome. The visitor center in the European Parliament building in Brussels, for instance, prominently displays the following quotation from Philip Kerr (later, Lord Lothian), a former British civil servant and one of the leading advocates of both European unification and world government during the 1930s: “National sovereignty is the root cause of the most crying evils of our time and of the steady march of humanity back to tragic disaster and barbarism…. The only final remedy for this supreme and catastrophic evil of our time is a federal union of the peoples.”

The cause of war and barbarism

There is, however, no basis either in history or logic for the belief that national sovereignty is “the root cause” of war and “barbarism.” Religious and ideological divisions, and the dynastic ambitions and family quarrels of emperors and kings caused plenty of wars in Europe (and elsewhere) long before the advent of the modern nation-state. If any one factor can be singled out as the primary cause of war and barbarism down the ages, it has not been national sovereignty, but tyrannical government and the lust for power of rulers and elites, as all the great classical liberals — notably Herbert Spencer — recognized. That has been even truer in the 20th century, the age of totalitarian socialism in all its variants — communist, Nazi, and fascist. Anyone who doubts that should read not only R. J. Rummel’s seminal studies, Death by Government and Power Kills, but also The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge.

Since illiberal political cultures are the real enemies of peace and freedom, the cause of progress is impeded by the movement towards supranationalism either at the European or at the global level. A Europe of independent self-governing nation-states, respecting human rights and engaged in free trade and mutual cooperation, decentralizes power and offers many opportunities for the free movement of goods, people, and ideas. As such, it represents the enduring internationalist vision of the great classical liberals of the 19th century, such as Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Frédéric Bastiat.

The supranationalist alternative of a single European state, by contrast, threatens both liberty and democracy because it creates a new and wholly unnecessary concentration of power that cannot be subject to effective democratic control within a multinational entity comprising 28 different electorates divided by 24 different languages and cultures. As American experience has shown, even the most carefully constructed federal system, buttressed by an originally homogeneous and libertarian political culture, has failed to prevent the growth and abuse of power by the federal government. How likely is it, then, that the European Union will avoid a much worse fate given the authoritarian and collectivist political traditions, and unfortunate history, of so many of its member countries?

The relevance of that question is underlined by what happened after May and June 2005, when the French and Dutch electorates rejected the newly negotiated 2004 European Constitution in their national referendums. The angry and contemptuous response of EU leaders, amply documented by Craig and Elliott, was to re-present the rejected Constitution, with some cosmetic changes, as the 2008 Lisbon Treaty, and then ram it through their national parliaments without any further referendums. As Czech President Vaclav Klaus noted with disquiet in his speech to the European Parliament on December 5, 2008, “I thought … that we live in a democracy, but it is post-democracy, really, which rules the EU.”

Post-democracy “rules the EU” because European unification has created new centralized supranational institutions offering increased power and more lucrative careers to the ruling political class. That is why it threatens liberty.

This article was originally published in the March 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Philip Vander Elst is a British freelance writer and lecturer whose many publications include Power against People: A Christian Critique of the State (IEA 2008) and Vindicated by History: Statism’s 19th Century Critics (Cobden Centre 2012).