The European Union and Values

The European Union (EU) was founded on a fine set of values: liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law, respect for human dignity and respect for human rights, including the rights of minorities. These values, explicit in Article I-2 of the Constitution, are supposed to be acknowledged by all member states. They’re characterised by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and gender equality. The Constitution also guarantees the “four freedoms” – free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the Union – and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

Two years ago an anonymous satirist declared that the real European values were appeasement, bureaucracy, anti-democracy, group-think, indecisiveness, impunity for corrupt leaders and subjugation to global capitalism. The satirist spoke for many who consider the EU a failed experiment and argue (not least in the UK) for withdrawal. At about the same time, Pope Francis – while not echoing the satirist – upbraided Europe’s leaders for their loss of moral compass and purpose and lack of global moral leadership.

What’s gone wrong? Something has. The Roma (to take an obvious example) are reviled and mistreated throughout the continent from Bucharest to Dublin, and Western Europeans feel so little kinship with their Eastern counterparts that they seek to limit their right to work in their countries. So much, it seems, for tolerance, non-discrimination and the “four freedoms”. The recent migration crisis has further weakened member states’ adherence to the Constitution. There has been a public upsurge of intolerance, and a serious lack of collective and effective decision-making in high places. The free movement of people has been explicitly restricted.

The EU’s record on adherence to its values is not impressive and its future prospects in this regard seem dubious. Here are some prominent examples.

Corruption in high places

Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor for sixteen years, accepted two million euros in illegal donations. He refused to reveal the donors’ names lest the favours they’d bought be revealed.

Gerhard Schröder guaranteed a billion-euro loan to Gazprom for building a Baltic pipeline. Soon after he left government he was working for Gazprom at a salary bigger than the one he received as Chancellor.

Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest.

Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly accepted some $20 million from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya for the electoral campaign that won him the presidency. Christine Lagarde, a prominent member of the IMF, has been questioned in connection with the award of €420 million in “compensation” to Bernard Tapi – who has a prison record and is a friend of Sarkozy.

The socialist minister for the French budget, Jérôme Cahuzac, had €15 million in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore.

In Britain, Tony Blair misled Parliament about £1 million paid into Labour Party funds by Bernie Ecclestone, the racing car magnate, who was later tried in Bavaria for bribes of €33 million. Currently, Blair undertakes PR for the Nazarbaev dictatorship in Kazakhstan, whose human rights record is below EU standards.

In Ireland, the Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern channelled more than €400,000 in unexplained payments into his bank account before becoming Taoiseach. Even after he was disgraced he wangled a handsome pension and generous expenses for himself.

But leading politicians, like bankers, seldom go to prison. They’re elites who enrich themselves with impunity. Markets have become the gauge of value, so money is the only real value in political life. What price the values in the EU constitution?

When the wheels come off, the public pays by bailing out the banks and the state – and enduring austerity measures. And what are the morals of austerity policies? Thrift is widely considered morally virtuous, but austerity is not. Austerity benefits those who’re already very wealthy because they can buy assets at depressed prices and sell them later for handsome profits.

European values?

Extraordinary Rendition

Many EU states helped US President GW Bush to abduct people whom he decided should be subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. In 2013 the Open Society published a report entitled Globalizing Torture: CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition. According to this report, only France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands among the pre-2004 EU states failed to cooperate with President Bush’s programme. Finland, Denmark and Ireland allowed US agents to transfer terror suspects secretly at their airports. Sweden arranged for suspects to be flown to soundproof cells in Mubarak’s Egypt. The UK government helped with every aspect of rendition, from arresting suspects to submitting questions for interrogation.

The report concluded: “By enlisting the participation of dozens of foreign governments in these violations, the United States further undermined longstanding human rights protections enshrined in international law—including, in particular, the norm against torture.”

In this regard, many EU states showed flagrant disregard for the values of the Constitution.

The EU and Democracy

Many of the electorate in almost all European states consider it futile to vote in elections for the European Parliament because the European Council (EC) makes the real decisions. (The EC comprises heads of state and governing ministers from member nations.) Since the first European election in 1979, turnout at the polls has fallen steadily. It’s now less than 45% on average, and in the UK it’s considerably lower (about 34%). At the 2009 election, 50% of people over 55 voted, but only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds did so. Low voter turnout weakens democratic legitimacy. Given the demographic profile at the polls, the prospects for democracy are poor.

The treaties and conventions that hold modern Europe together are less and less widely trusted. The percentage of Greeks approving the EU leadership decreased from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013, and there were similar declines in Spain and elsewhere. And the replacement of democratically-elected national leaders by austerity proponents appointed from Brussels and by the European Central Bank, as happened in Greece and Italy during the euro crisis, indicates how democratic legitimacy has been eroded in practice.

Given this background, it’s hardly surprising that recent elections have voted several members of right-wing parties with little or no representation in national governments into the EP. By and large, these parties are nationalistic, often anti-European, and in many cases anti-Semitic and Islamophobic. A significant percentage of seats in the current EP are occupied by representatives of these “Populist Radical Right Parties”, who explicitly distance themselves from many core EU values and the principles of the Constitution. However, as recent reports show, these MEPs face a conflict. Their ideology commits them to being highly critical of the EU, in some cases to the extent of national separation, but they also benefit from the EU (obtaining money, representation, legitimacy and contacts) and belong to one of its core institutions, the EP. Heterogeneity of ideologies (conflicting nationalisms) weakens them, and they’re inclined not to participate in EP activities; so they’re better at gaining publicity for themselves than making policy.

But can the EP – let alone the EU as a whole – ever be truly democratic? In a true representative democracy, the legislature initiates and amends laws; but in the EU, unelected technocrats devise directives behind closed doors, and they’re inclined to make decisions in favour of banks. Most of the €1 trillion that the ECB lent to banks at the height of the euro crisis, in order to “stimulate national economies”, has been repaid. As a result of European banks paying money back to the ECB, they’ve starved companies and individuals of credit, especially in France, Spain, Greece, Italy and Ireland. So far, the EP, even its right-wing members, has failed to curb this tendency among the technocrats, and it shows no sign of doing so.

European values?

It’s easy to see why so many people in the UK (and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Europe) argue in favour of withdrawal from the EU. But this might be seen as a counsel of despair. The EU’s institutions are defective when measured against the values enshrined in its Constitution, and in many respects – as outlined in this blog – its track record testifies to this defectiveness. But the values themselves remain admirable. Isn’t it possible that despite its less than admirable history, and despite its current crises, the EU’s institutions can be reformed sufficiently to put those values into practice?

And for those who back ‘Brexit’ – withdrawal of the UK from EU membership: do you think we’d reclaim those lost values if we were on our own, free from corruption in high places and subjugation to the interests of global capitalism, resistant to involvement in enhanced interrogation methods, and welcoming to the lost and vulnerable of all nations?

No. Nor do I.

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