The EU is an admirable organisation.

It is admirable that 6 states finally realised in the 1950s that war was uselessly destructive and had to be avoided – even at the cost of proud nation states having to lose part of their independence.

Lest it be forgotten, Europe was a continent of ceaseless and -in retrospect- senseless battles. I’ve counted 64 different wars since 1700 between two or more European states that now make up the EU (excluding colonial wars and those with Russia or Balkan states). For the 257 years preceding the foundation of the European integration project, two or more states from northern, southern, western and central Europe were at war with each other for 142 of those years, well over half the time.

The 20th century’s two world wars produced unimaginable loss of life, never seen before. WW1 left over 20m wounded, plus 11m military and 7m civilian deaths, totalling 38m casualties. WW2 started only 21 years later, leaving 61m- 85m deaths, including 40m-58m civilians expiring from genocide, massacres, disease and starvation. The killer fact is that both low and high estimates show the majority of the dead were civilians who were not even fighting.  

After this matchless destruction, six states -Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy- came together to create what is still today the most evolved state formation in the world, a collective of nations voluntarily pooling their sovereignty over certain areas of policy, after reaching an overall consensus.

This union has prevented war for nearly sixty years and grown to four and a half times its initial size. Other parts of the world have followed suit to unite in at least 16 regional associations devoted to overcoming state economic and political conflicts alone, and 9 more for defense and other purposes.

The EU is the world’s first and foremost cooperative collective of equal sovereign states. Its institutions mirror those of democratic states. All countries are present in all its bodies through their directly elected or governmental representatives. To reflect their different population sizes more democratically, the say of more populous countries counts for more than the smaller ones.

No entity takes precedence above the member-states acting jointly according to agreed rules, with the exception of the European Court of Justice acting in areas where the member-states have granted it jurisdiction over themselves, and to enforce laws already approved collectively. To ensure fair economic competition so that businesses can manage their trading and employment relations, the European Commission is charged with maintaining a level-playing field. Using its powers granted by the member-states, it can enforce a set of competition laws, and can penalise countries who try to gain an unfair advantage.

The EU’s goal is not just to keep the peace. It provided citizens with extensive  -though not comprehensive- guarantees of social security and social and work-based protection, and an area to reside in where discrimination of citizens on a wide set of grounds (gender, age, race or ethnic origin, ability, sexual or religious orientation, European nationality, etc) is banned, as enshrined by supranational enforceable laws.

New members joining are obliged to bring up their standards to the European norm, and receive funds to do so. Harmonisation of laws in the EU can only be upward, so we are guaranteed there can be no legal or unchallenged return to the nefarious living and working conditions of the past. New far right or far left governments coming to power can also be challenged if they stray away from European standards, whether these are low (eg job-protection from arbitrary dismissal) or high (health and safety at work).

The EU has been devoted to improving the weaker economies among in its midst, setting up large shared funds which members pay in to according to the principle of progressive taxation – the larger and stronger pay more – and aid is redistributed to the weaker regions of countries according to agreed criteria. The aim is eventual convergence of comparable living standards across all members.

In this context, the essence of the EU as a successful collective of independent states has been that:

  • Nations willingly pool a certain amount -but by no means all- their sovereignty in exchange for the notably enhanced security and prosperity of the last 60 years.
  • Members of the EU refrain to a considerable extent extent from competing for advantage or leadership and collaborate for an overall better result – putting the success of the collective project first as far as politically feasible.
  • Richer countries accept they have to contribute to the weaker members’ economies, as well as to all the weaker regions within the EU area.
  • No member-state expects to get its way all the time especially when in a small minority.

The outcome so far has been a considerably enhanced level of soft power in the rest of the world, and an accelerated rise in the average prosperity and wellbeing of citizens, as recorded in comparative statistics. It has all been achieved with a central management of 34,000 employees, a small workforce in comparison to the civil service of a sizeable democracy – the UK employs 430,000 people without counting the millions working in the NHS, education, local councils, armed services, public enterprises, etc, while Germany employs a total of 4.6million including them all.

This is the big picture. Seeing the enormous reach of the EU, it is understandable that the project will inevitably comprise member-state joshes for advantage, lobbies vying for favouritisms, political discontents and mismanagements, bureaucratic complexity, misappropriations by member-states, failings on delivery fronts and so on. It is equally clear that none of these shortcomings are sufficient to question the fundamental success of the European project, nor merit a refusal to contribute to its future.

The financial crisis – caused in the main by the dangerous practices of international banks – and the slow recovery of many economies have caused discontented publics to become more critical. Yet in a world of ongoing internationalization, the EU member-states together are better placed than any state on its own to learn to resist or manage the international human catastrophes that plague us: financial skulduggery, destruction of the environment, international crime, illegal trading in drugs and animals, modern slavery. Through better coordination of member-state foreign and aid policies, the EU could use its political prestige more effectively to mitigate the impact of political conflicts and wars outside its frontiers, and give succour to refugees.  

Strategically, no substantive advantage can be gained for any member-state to leave the Union, as the coming together of nations is the future. But the potentially benevolent use of EU power depends on the member-state governments to act cooperatively and to follow moral imperatives. Any state keen to improve the EU’s functioning would be incapable of doing so from outside the collective.

For individuals the urgent task is to get their own governments to improve their performance as members of the EU, and for civil society organisations to build resistance to any harmful measures they perceive. EU institutions are not impervious to the demands of citizen pressure groups, though they are hidebound by member-state preferences. The role of citizens in moving their governments forward is crucial; mass organisations can wield their counter-power effectively. Past improvements in the Treaties show this. The current one states “In all its activities, the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women.” (Art.7)

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