Lawrence Solomon: European Dis-Union

(February 24, 2014) Hostility to immigrants, a two-tier Euro and a remote bureaucracy are unravelling the EU.

By Lawrence Solomon, published by the National Post on February 24, 2014

Since 1990, countries in Europe have held 34 referenda to determine whether they should adhere to different treaties of the European Union. In the future, the referenda will more often deal with whether countries should extricate themselves from their treaties.

Why so many past referenda? Because the idea of throwing their lot in with the EU juggernaut was so distasteful to so many citizenries that the pro-EU governments sometimes needed repeated tries to get citizens to agree. Even so, because citizens balked at giving up their nation’s sovereignty to a supra-national bureaucracy, governments often cancelled or indefinitely postponed referenda to spare themselves the embarrassment of a loss.

Or governments simply ratified treaties without giving their citizens a say. In signing onto the Lisbon Treaty of 2008, for example, promoted as making the EU “more democratic, more transparent and more efficient,” the governments of 26 of the 27 EU states decided democracy was best served by denying their citizens a vote. The 27th country, Ireland, held a referendum only because its constitution required it, and even then it took two votes and concessions to pass. To add to the egregiousness of the Lisbon Treaty, it was a do-over of the EU’s proposed constitution of 2005, an EU power grab so unpopular that most countries failed to follow through on their commitment to hold a referendum. The French and Dutch, who were given a vote, soundly rejected it.

Some citizenries, valuing the EU, voted in nation-specific referenda to join it in overwhelming margins. These citizens, who tend to come from relatively poor former East Bloc countries such as Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and others in eastern and central Europe, relish the chance to identify with a modern Europe and to leave their lacklustre economies for employment — or welfare — in high-paying countries such as Germany and Denmark.

And herein lies one major reason for dissatisfaction with the EU — the migrants are unwelcome among many in Europe’s rich countries. The Swiss by referendum this month effectively tore up an agreement allowing EU citizens free rein to immigrate to Switzerland. The vote in Switzerland, which is not an EU member, resonated with the widespread anti-immigrant feeling within affluent countries that are EU members, leading to calls for similar referenda by parties in Austria, Denmark, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

Economics also drives anti-EU sentiment. The Netherlands’ leading party in public opinion polls, The Party for Freedom, recently released a study by Capital Economics, a U.K. consultancy, showing that the average Dutch household would be better off by between €7,100 and €9,800 a year over two decades under a “NExit” — a Netherlands exit from the EU. The Netherlands would save “a minimum of €20 billion annually by 2035 through ‘renationalizing’ regulations in areas currently in the jurisdiction of Brussels institutions,” the study estimated, and GDP would be 10% and 13% higher than it would be under the EU by 2035.

Most Dutch harbour resentment toward the EU — two-thirds feel their 2005 vote against the constitution was ignored. If leaving the EU meant more jobs and growth, a recent poll found, the Dutch are for leaving.

In the U.K., despite overwhelming support for the EU among the elites, the public has consistently wanted to leave, according to YouGov’s Eurotrack polls. As a result, the U.K.’s pro-EU prime minister, David Cameron, agreed to an U.K.-exit vote to take place by 2017, giving him enough time, he believes, to reform the EU to “get a better deal for Britain.” His strategy: “Let’s put the question, ‘Stay in a reformed European Union or take the choice to leave.’ I think that would be a much easier argument to win than the argument if we had an in-out referendum today.”

Eurotrack polls show wide disenchantment with the EU among its affluent countries. Apart from Germans and Danes, the public in all of the countries polled — Britain, France, Sweden, Finland and Norway — express alienation, saying that they aren’t “influential in European affairs.” The public in all of the countries, including Germany, express dismay when asked: “Would you say that you are very optimistic, fairly optimistic, fairly pessimistic or very pessimistic about the future of the European Union?”

The more that the European Union has tried to accumulate powers, the more that its coherence has slipped away. As it is, the EU has a cafeteria quality to it, with some countries adopting the Euro, some not, some allowing unlimited migration, some not, some being fiscally responsible, some not. Soon the UK will begin agitating for special status as the price of staying in. And a two-tier Euro for a two-tier Europe that is widely expected — some EU countries are now deflating while others are inflating — further mocks the notion of a united Europe. Polls show that the French and the Swedes, if given a chance, could also vote to leave.

The EU — widely seen as a cabal of remote fat-cats — stirs distaste across the ideological spectrum. Those on the right rail against the welfare culture of immigrants, those on the left against German austerity. Right and left join the centre, which despairs at the democratic deficit of an out-of-control bureaucracy. Just 30% now express satisfaction with the EU, down from 50% in 2007. An unravelling European Union has become the European Dis-Union.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.

Related Reading:

Where Confusion Over Ukraine Begins

Why Ukraine Should Break Up


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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