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The European Orchestra

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright reportedly once said that to understand the European Union you have to be either a genius or French. Yet even a F rench genius—a commodity with which European institutions have traditionally been well supplied—has difficulty explaining the EU today.

Applicant countries are faced with some 80,000 pages—the exact length depends on the language&#1 51;of the so-called acquis communautaire, described by the British EU specialist Timothy Bainbridge as “the whole range of principles, policies, laws, practices, obligations and objectives that have been agreed or that have developed within the Eur opean Union,” and including fifty years’ worth of treaties, with all their subsequent revisions, renumberings, and legal and bureaucratic elaborations.8 EU documents are peppered with acronyms and with sh orthand terms, often referring to the agreeable diplomatic watering hole where a particular deal was struck: “Gymnich meetings” and “Petersberg tasks” (after castles in Germany), “Villa Marlia procedure” (after a villa in Italy), and so on.

Any att empt to discern a clear division between executive, legislature, and judiciary, on the US model, is doomed. For example, the three central institutions of the original European Economic Community—the European Commission, whose members are nominated b y the EU governments and confirmed by the European Parliament; the Council of Ministers, which brings together political and diplomatic representatives of member states; and the directly elected European Parliament—are all essential parts of the comp lex process by which the EU produces European law that takes precedence over national legislation. In this sense, they are all the European legislature.

Equally, any attempt to characterize a single “Union method” is frustrated by the fact that, since the Maastricht treaty, the European Union (as it then became) has had two other so-called “pillars,” beside the “first pillar” of the old Economic Community. The second pillar, for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the third, for Justice and Home Affairs, both work by rather different methods, and generally rely on more direct cooperation between national governments—“intergovernmentalism” in the jargon.

The simile of “pillars” was supposed to conjure up the image of a classical Greek temple. However, when you notice that the pillars don’t match, and when you take into account all the other major buildings and outhouses—the Economic and Monetary Union (responsible for the euro currency, formally inside the first pillar, but with its own independent European Central Bank in Frankfurt), the Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, the Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, to name but a few—the result looks more like some higgledy-piggledy hilltop castle, with additions made in the style of the time by each succeeding generation: here a medieval wall, there a baroque tower, there again, a little gothick folly. Perhaps only Europe could have produced something so complex in just fifty years.

The traditional way to engage in “The European Debate” is to propose a set of changes to the “architecture” of this rambling castle, and crown the redesign with a catchy term or slogan. Thus Joschka Fischer advocates a “European Federation,” Jacques Chirac says we need “not a United States of Europe but a United Europe of States,” while Tony Blair’s motto is: “a superpower not a superstate.” There will be much more of this between now and 2004.

Instead, I shall make ten observations i n search of an argument.


The question of language is at once the most technical and the most fundamental. Today, the EU has eleven official languages. The formula for determining the resulting total of language combinations for interpr etation is ?so the present tally is 110. The European Parliament is already close to Babel. Even committee rooms have an amazing array of interpreters’ booths. About a quarter of the Parliament’s staff are in linguistic services, which include the transla tion of all documents. In 1999, a day’s full interpretation in the Council was estimated to cost 640,000 euros (about $500,000).

Making the optimistic assumption that the Czech Republic and Slovakia would agree that Czech does not need to be inter preted into Slovak, an EU of twenty-seven member states would have twenty-two languages, which, computing n2n, yields a combination total of 462. If interpretation were provided between them all, costs just in the Council would then be on the order of $1 million a day—and one should allow another $1 million for the Parliament. With thirty-five languages, there would be 1,090 permutations.

The obvious solution is to make English—currently spoken by at least 55 percent of EU-ropeans—the working language of the EU, like Latin in medieval Europe. The first difficulty with this is that the English (most inconsiderately) happen to speak English. Whereas medieval Latin was the language of nobody and everybody, the EU would be conferring a special privilege on the living, native language of one of its largest and most contrary member states. (I say “the English” advisedly. The English-speaking but less numerous and less Euroskeptic Scots, Welsh, and Irish woul d not, on their own, be such a problem.)

The second difficulty is that the French would anyway say “Non,” the Germans insist that German is the native tongue of the largest single group within the Union, and other European nations are prote ctive of their languages too. The bad reason for this linguistic protectionism is the defense of national prestige. The good reason is that it really is difficult to say exactly what you mean in another language. As Friedrich Schleiermacher observed, “Every language constitutes a partic-ular mode of thought, and what is thought in one language can never be repeated in another.”

Still more fundamental is the question whether you can conduct a participatory democracy in a foreign language and/or in twenty-two different languages. John Stuart Mill thought you could not. Countries like South Africa and India are trying. If the EU were just an international organization, then one might agree on, say, six working languages, as with the UN. We expect dip lomats to work in foreign languages. But elected politicians? Ordinary citizens? Democratic politics is not like business or diplomacy. It needs words with which people feel at home.


Meanwhile, what is “The European Debate”? It’s a dis cussion among a small group drawn from national elites. There is no European demos, or “We The People.” There are no truly European political parties. Existing attempts at trans-European newspapers, magazines, or television channels have little res onance. If I want to reach the widest European intellectual audience, the best way is to write an essay in The New York Review of Books. For a shorter commentary, it’s the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, or the painstaking placing of a piece in twenty different national papers; for TV, probably CNN or BBC World, rather than the consciously European Euronews or Arte.

The so-called European Debate takes a different form in different European countries, although one national debate can influence another. For example, Danish Euroskeptics are worried about the EU reducing their extremely generous social welfare provisions, while British Euroskeptics fear that the EU will impose Danish-s tyle welfare provisions on Britain’s deregulated economy. But British Euroskeptics still helped finance the Danish campaign to say “no” to the euro, in a referendum last autumn, and were heartened by its success.

Initiates of the European inner tem ple meet at conferences, read one another’s books and articles, correspond or e-mail, but this European “we” is a tiny proportion even of national elites. Officials working on a “white paper on European governance” for the European Commission are trying t o use the World Wide Web to generate wider debate on proposals for EU reform: a virtual Philadelphia. Some hope that the introduction of euro notes and coins across the entire eurozone in January 2002 will be a great spur to pan-European consciousness. We shall see. But for now, the question is whether we can even achieve a genuinely trans-European debate of elites.


Brussels—synonym for the EU, and self-styled capital of Europe—perfectly illustrates the gap between elites an d life “underneath, where the people are,” as Pope John Paul II once memorably put it.

Brussels is a place where highly sophisticated, multilingual men and women from the most diverse backgrounds—a French technocrat, a former governor of Hong Kong, a one-time student opponent of Franco—try to reconcile national interests and national ways of thinking with the pursuit of a larger, common interest. It is also the capital of a country that has almost fallen apart in the conflict between its French-speaking and Flemish (i.e., Dutch)-speaking parts, Wallonia and Flanders. French and Flemish schools and universities are entirely separate. French speakers in Flanders have no right to education in French, or to deal with the local administration in their native tongue. I was told of a case where the school bus taking French-speaking children across the frontier to school in Wallonia was not even allowed to stop in the Flemish village where the children lived. East European countries applying to join the EU would be severely criticized for such disregard of minority rights and—they would be told—European values.

Launching the “great debate” on the future of the European Union, in Brussels this March, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said that Belgium “might be considered as a model for Europe.”9 Indeed.


Whatever the trans-European elements in this debate, the nature of the “constitution al” treaty that emerges from the 2004 intergovernmental conference will depend on the balance of forces between national governments at that time. This will reflect everything from national leaders’ personal convictions and bilateral relations to domestic electoral calculations, pressure groups, backroom deals, and the competence or incompetence of their officials. Like the Nice Treaty, like all previous treaties in the history of the EU, the new one will be a snapshot of the balance between the contend-i ng parties on the night of the final agreement.

Traditionally, the argument has been swayed by France and Germany acting in concert. Now the Franco-German axis or “couple” is weakened: a fact conclusively confirmed by the frequency with which Frenc h and German leaders protest that it is not. Part of acknowledging what happened in 1989 is accepting that united Germany is bigger and richer than any other member state. At Nice, France succeeded in retaining formal parity with Germany in “weighted vote s” in the Council, despite the fact that Germany has 82 million inhabitants to France’s 59 million. But Germany’s larger population is reflected in another part of the complex voting formula10 and Germa ny has more seats than anyone else in the Parliament. It is often argued that the inclusion of Germany’s Central and East European neighbors in the EU will further strengthen Germany’s hand. Close economic ties and the political relationships that the Federal Republic has worked hard to develop with the countries to its east certainly point in this direction. Yet countries with painful memories of German domination will also be looking for other partners to counterbalance Germany’s strength. In any case, Germany is already primus inter pares.

  1. 8

    See Timothy Bainbridge’s excellent Penguin Companion to the European Union (Penguin, second edition, 1998).

  2. 9

    Le grand débat sur l’avenir de l’Union européenne a été lancé à Bruxelles,” Le Monde, March 9, 2001.

  3. 10

    These “weighted votes” affect the areas of policy (further increased in Nice) where decis ions are made in the Council of Ministers by so-called Qualified Majority Voting—meaning that individual states can be outvoted. After Nice, the complex formula is that a decision requires 169 weighted votes (of which Germany, like France, Britain, a nd Italy, now has 29), and two thirds of the member states, and 62 percent of the EU’s population—a figure increased, at Germany’s insistence, from the previous 58 percent. The crucial calculation here is the “blocking minority.” Germany on its own has more than half the required blocking minority of 38 percent of today’s Union population, although of course that proportion will decline as the Union grows.

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