European Union

Without reform, the EU is too unstable to be worth £40 billion

BY Bruce Newsome   /  22 November 2017

 The EU (European Union) is unstable. Brexit is not a cause of this instability, it is a symptom. The indicators of stability are not in the EU’s favour: increasing centralization, democratic deficit, unfair implementation of the rule of law.

On the current trajectory, Britain would be bankrolling instability in the region – according to recent reports the British government is raising its prospective leaving payment to more than £40 billion, and is willing to allow for continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, the government has told the public little of what it will or won’t accept, probably because it doesn’t know itself.

Britain should be demanding that the EU commits to stabilizing reforms before Britain pays for the privilege of leaving. Tilting the balance back to national sovereignty, democracy, and rule of law would both stabilize the EU, and meet the goals of ordinary Brexit voters.

The EU is in denial. It is not exposed to the constantly bubbling instability of a true democracy, so pretends that it is stable. When the EU encounters resistance, it hypocritically mis-characterizes this resistance as anti-democratic or illiberal.

Reductionists have criticized Brexiteers as anti-democratic, anti-liberal and destabilizing, but they have got everything the wrong way around.

The EU’s administrators are much less democratically accountable. Consequently, they prioritize the EU’s central stability over national stability, democratization, or liberalization. Thus, the EU promises “ever-closer union”, turns a blind eye to eastern Europe’s descent into authoritarianism, and is accelerating Turkey’s prospective membership despite Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, in return for half-hearted cooperation in managing the flow of migrants.

The EU’s centralization and weak representativeness explain its remote, simplistic, and destabilizing policies. The EU makes decisions in the name of its own stability, while imposing destabilizing policies on its members (such as uncontrolled migration), as if its ideals have no disadvantages (such as the free movement of criminals, traffickers, and malpracticing healthcarers).

Ironically, this is promoting the central administration’s stability only in the short term, while undermining everybody’s stability in the long term.
For 20 years, the British government’s guidebook to the symptoms of instability has been normative: coups, illegal political succession, breakdown of institutions, systemic corruption, organized crime, loss of territorial control, economic crisis, public unrest, displacement, violations of human rights, and conflict.

Consistently, evidence-based researchers have identified the following symptoms of instability: “concentrated decision-making systems” (think of the European Commission and Court), “economic specialization” (think of the EU’s favour for agriculture), high debt and high leverage (think of the EU’s sponsorship of Airbus), insensitivity to political change (think of the European Parliament’s infrequent and low-turnout elections), and incapacity to learn from shocks (think of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement that Brexit would not change EU policies).

What did the British government prescribe back then and since as “stabilizers”? Security, fair development of society and economy, governance and rule of law, congruence between society and institutions, and just and peaceful political settlements – all of which the EU has been damaging at the national level by imposing unsympathetic integration at the supranational level.

The EU has the features of both a long-lived strong autocracy (its executive and courts) and a short-lived weak democracy (its Parliament and the European Council). It’s a terrible combination that has more capacity for imposing change on its members than itself. Predictably, since Brexit, its defenders have promised more centralization, integration, and incorporation of less democratic states.

While autocracies can be stable despite unpopularity for long periods of time, they accrue grievances that, once unleashed, are more destructive than democratic change, and are usually revolutionary and separatist (think of the former Yugoslavia since the 1990s).

Autocracies tend to be stable but unpopular – their citizens can resent their lack of political franchise but are prevented from change, or worry too much about the alternatives, until their desire for change runs far ahead of the autocracy’s capacity to change.

As the former Yugoslavia illustrates, a strong autocratic federal executive and weak democratic council of member states can deny the unhappiness of its citizens for decades, while pretending that national and local interests are old-fashioned opponents of enlightened centralized government, but the conflict is only uglier when eventually unleashed. Autocracies are more stable for a longer chunk of time, but change more dramatically when they do change.

The EU has been around for a long time, but longevity is circular evidence for permanency, and suffers the induction fallacy (assuming the future will always conform with the past).

Given that the British government has already scheduled for years to pass between the vote and the actual separation, it should not feel any urgency to conclude a deal: let the EU further demonstrate its weaknesses first. Every time Britain walks away from a bad deal, it gives more time for the EU’s instability to develop.

Britain is exiting the EU as a stronger democracy (the referendum itself was a form of direct democracy), with more liberal policies (such as free-er trade with the world outside the EU), and more stability (such that sovereign borders are not overruled by foreign interests). The EU is heading in the other direction.

Since we know that concentrated decision-making, economic distortion, insensitivity to political change, and injustice are destabilizing, we certainly should not be allowing for the European Court of Justice to continue to have a role in British justice, as the British government is reportedly allowing. We should also demand that the EU redress its democratic deficit, or permit bilateral agreements between Britain and other fully-democratic national governments.

The British government should be demanding EU reforms in return for British money. After all, regional stability is in everybody’s interest, whether within or without the EU.

Otherwise, the EU won’t last long enough for post-Brexit ties to be worth 40 billion quid.

Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California, Berkeley