The European Union And Why Legalism Destroys Multilateralism

By Christina Hambleton, Denison University

The Brexit debate in the United Kingdom is only the most recent of a number of threats to the European Union’s integrity. Commenters increasingly frame these threats as xenophobia brought on by economic distress, phobic reactions to terrorism, and refugee flows. In the case of the UK, they also frame the threat as a hubristic demand to return to more nationalistically oriented state policies, isolating the UK from its most lucrative trade partners and plunging it into economic and political oblivion. Discontent with the EU is, at any rate, caricaturized as the backward desire to return to the “anarchy” suffered by protectionist and “unreformed” nations without basic respect for international norms (EU and NATO members invoke disrespect for international norms a great deal these days, in light of Russia’s expansionism). The EU is a safe, law-governed island in a “lawless world,” they claim. However, this rhetorical gambit fails to note that even those at the “heart” of the EU have begun to critique the institution, and that the so-called deviants outside Western-dominated institutions such as the EU are not the only or indeed the principle threat to multilateralism. On this, conservatives and leftists are in agreement: the legalistic orientation of the EU makes it ineffective and oppressive. The symbol of successful, democratic regional and multilateral institutions is the forum, not the court. The EU fails at successful multilateralism for three reasons:

1. Laws per se tackle anarchy in much the same way as a hegemon—they impose it by means of hard and soft power that don’t have the capacity to invite consensual, norm-governed behavior.

The first, and perhaps most important, fact of the European Union’s founding is that from its nascent stages subsequent to World War II it was constituted by a coalition of countries with relatively similar interests (presenting a united front against the Soviet Union and achieving post-War recovery) and domestic characters (even Italy had recently converted to a republic). The Copenhagen Criteria, the often selective stringency with which members must adopt EU laws, and the economic policies it adopts reflect nothing so much as the interest of these initial founders in inducing other countries in the region to play by rules that will perpetuate their advantage. In the Brexit discussion we can see that the most realistic proponents are talking about the EU as though it were an exclusive benefits club. They describe it as a rallying point for Western unity, despite the fact that Europe and prospective EU members are far from exclusively Western. Indeed, some commenters argue that Britain needs to stay “in” for all Europeans, because it is one of few countries powerful enough to halt the French and German domination of EU institutions that Brits feel so disadvantaged by. Such criticisms can be heard from the “Inner Six”, as well. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, has recently attacked uses of the EU budget that he implies most members signed on for—namely, agricultural and other trade protections and cohesion spending resembling entitlements diverted from the global economy’s resources. Instead, Schäuble emphasized the need to restructure the budget to deal with real regional problems. As such, for the EU to extend membership to a new state reflects less a desire to create an accommodating legal and economic structure that can address regional challenges and more the desire to leverage an alluring benefits package coercively to induce behavior in accord with present members political and economic goals from other states. This is why the Ukraine crisis began with Russia rejecting moves by Ukrainian President Yanukovych toward Brussels; Russian history is filled with proofs that participating in Western institutions like the EU means becoming the West.

2. The European Union is Insufficiently Democratic.

Even Jürgen Habermas, by all means, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the EU, has complained that the organization has yet to live up to the 2007 Lisbon Treaty mandating that it operate democratically. Only the EU’s least powerful institution, the Parliament, truly enfranchises all members. The real power, Habermas argues, belongs to a “Brussels-based technocracy” that tells members what is good for them and for Europe, largely in accord with the status quo. Its failure to innovate and the disenfranchisement of smaller EU members was put on clearest display during Greece’s debt crisis. Greece argued against restrictive “reforms” proposed to it by the EU in favor of reforming Europe’s trade system (which was actually penalizing Greece for economic growth) and adopting more left-oriented policies at home. It was lambasted by fellow EU members. Furthermore, little attempt has been made by the EU to empower populations in its territories who direly need voice—namely, stateless populations such as the Roma (routinely and brutally evicted from such nations as France; which has engendered accusations that the Schengen Agreement is an exercise in hypocrisy), Eastern European economic migrants, and more recently, refugees from the Middle East.

3. The EU is an Ineffective Institution for Representing its Constituents Internationally.

Finally, it is notable that the European Union is supposed to serve as a valuable spokes-agency for the region. It holds a seat at the WTO, the UN, the largely defunct G-8, and the G-20. Yet its policies and members’ political fragmentation do not allow the EU or its representatives to constructively engage other actors in the international arena. EU protectionism is alive and well, despite the market reforms it demands of members intraregionally, and the European block has continually thwarted trade negotiations with developing countries due to its damaging agricultural subsidies. Diplomatically, the EU deploys sanctions against “deviant” states largely in accord with traditional Western alliances, and that even this unity tends to crumble in the face of conflicting domestic economic interests. There are also tremendous rifts, likely owing to a lack of overarching regional mechanisms to deal with situations like the refugee crisis or forge common interests, in member states’ policies and degrees of hawkishness in theaters such as Syria and Iraq.

In summary, while it is true that multilateral forums encouraging collective responsibility in the international arena are a dire necessity in an increasingly interdependent world, it is unclear that the European Union is acting as such a forum. Instead, it resembles an exclusive enclave designed to award tenants special privileges in exchange for maintaining the status quo. It is not particularly representative nor responsive to the diverse landscape of political and socioeconomic challenges faced by a broader European constituency. As such, before condemning Eurosceptics and right-wingers badgering their national governments for more autonomy, it may be wise to consider what merits the curses they’re flinging at the “bureaucracy” really have. A legalistic EU is elitist and insufficient for the purpose of adapting to a changing international arena or generating consensus for its projects. “Deviants” from its institutions may be more a symptom than a cause of the organization’s ills.

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