A Common Market of Sovereign Nations

Professor David Abulafia

Friday 30th May 2014: As the EU institutions regroup in Brussels in the wake of the European Parliamentary elections, Professor David Abulafia explains that a Common Market is one thing, whereas a United States of Europe is another.

The European elections have called into question the ‘European project’, or rather, they have shown how dangerous it is to speak of a grand project whose real aims are left in obscurity, and re-interpreted from moment to moment. We know there are people who dream of a United States of Europe. Only the other day, I was talking to an old friend, a much-respected historian, who launched into a passionate paean to a united Europe in which we will all see ourselves as the product of a common civilization. And the day before that, a colleague from a Cambridge college whose members are known for their ‘progressive’ views appeared not to understand what critics of the EU mean by ‘the democratic deficit’; in any case, prosperity, he thought, matters more than liberty. Looking far beyond the EU, a new Penguin book expresses the view that the Singaporean or even the Chinese political model may be better placed to provide long-term economic growth than western liberalism ever can be, while Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, despite telling criticisms of the author’s handling of statistics, questions the central assumptions of capitalist society.

So do the European elections restore faith in democracy? In Barcelona last autumn, the former head of government of a prosperous European state argued that there was little point in involving the wider electorate in the choosing of the senior office-holders in the EU, since by and large they were faceless figures not known in Europe (or at least outside Luxembourg and Belgium). The argument was not that there must therefore be something wrong with institutions that have removed themselves so far from the public, but that it continued to make sense for the President of the Commission (for example) be chosen by the sort of horse-trading that is going on at the moment.

The problem was brought home to me on the Tuesday before the European elections in Florence at a conference about Mediterranean islands at the Villa Schifanoia – meaning ‘chase away boredom’. The fifteenth-century palazzo stands in exceptionally spacious and well-manicured gardens, carefully tended at someone’s expense by the employees of the European University Institute, a postgraduate university funded by the EU. Of course, the idea of bringing academics and students together from all over Europe is very praiseworthy; but I was quickly made aware that I had left Italy for ‘Europe’: the university’s links to the EU were proudly proclaimed in a bookcase full of studies of European integration (what has been achieved and what should come next), displayed close to the reception desk. This did not seem to be the place where one should ask, ‘so what is this European project you all talk about?’ The students even claim, wrongly in fact, that the university enjoys extra-territorial status as sovereign EU land. So here is the opportunity for a TV series entitled EuroMorse, in which boring bureaucrats are murdered by students frustrated at the lack of jobs, and Europolice are flown in at no little cost to from Tallinn, Sofia and French Guiana to investigate.

Now the results of the elections show that voters, aware that they are not electing a government, have not surprisingly shown such interest in fringe parties hostile to the EU, whether the far-left Syriza party in Greece or the horrendous Golden Dawn party in the same country, or the racists of Jobbik in Hungary. The French, always sensitive to the loss of their nation’s cultural and political influence, voted in significant numbers for a party that has still to go a long way to prove that it has broken with its founder’s racist and anti-Semitic outlook. The good news is that extreme nationalists of this stripe are unlikely to be able to work together – the Bulgarian Far Right and the Front National making friends? I don’t think so.

And yet in Italy, Spain and Portugal the extremists did not seize the headlines. In Italy, the pro-EU moderates did rather well. Maybe this is because these are countries that just about kept their heads above water during the Eurocrisis, unlike Greece, though Portugal in particular had a tough struggle to rein in excessive spending. For the Mediterranean countries the Eurocrisis has been a tremendous political and economic shock, and yet it has made centrist governments in the Mediterranean more aware than ever that they depend on the lifeline to Brussels and indeed Frankfurt. And this makes one certain that the appetite for reform of the EU in those countries will be non-existent. For part of the process of renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU has to be insistence that the entire EU must reform itself radically. And part of that process has to be a recognition that a Common Market of sovereign nations is one thing, a United States of Europe with a single currency quite another – neither achievable nor desirable. Nor does one have to be an extremist to think that.

*David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History in Cambridge and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge. He is the author of The Great Sea: a Human History of the Mediterranean now published in the UK by Penguin Books, in the US, Korea and a number of European countries. He is a co-author of Politeia’s History in the Making: The New Curriculum, Right or Wrong?