Once upon a time I was a committed convert to the European project. Even long before leaving British shores for the continent, I strongly believed in the European dream, in the idea that Europe could overcome its almost prehistoric divisions by embracing a new era of unity.
But in the last five years my position has shifted somewhat. As I have learned more and more about the bleak reality of European integration, I have come to realise that British fears about the EU’s threat to national sovereignty and the institution of democracy itself — fears that my former adolescent self had dismissed as both childish and irrational — were wholly justified.
Here are a few salient points of interest regarding Europe’s ongoing experiment in political and economic centralisation, which is radically changing the lives of almost half a billion Europeans:
1. According to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of all laws passed by national European governments are mere rubber stamped edicts emanating from Brussels. And the scale of EU interference in national governance continues to grow by the day. Just last week, the Commission passed a raft of new regulations to control what varieties of seeds the continent’s agriculturists can and can’t trade, dealing a heavy blow to small farmers across the continent while further strengthening the power of seed industry corporations.
2. Contrary to what many Europeans believe, the European parliament has absolutely no law-making powers. Like a court eunuch, it was effectively neutered at birth, existing purely to approve or reject laws initiated by the unelected European Commission — though it can force the resignation of commissioners, which admittedly it once did, in 1999, following the leak of fraud allegations by commission-insider Paul Van Boetenin.
3. The EU hasn’t passed an audit since 1994. Indeed so opaque is the state of its finances that in 2002 Marta Andreasen, the first ever professional accountant to serve as the Commission’s Chief Accountant, refused to sign off the organization’s 2001 accounts, citing concerns that the EU’s accounting system was open to fraud. After taking her concerns public, Andreasen was suspended and then later sacked by the Commission.
4. The EU’s bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, introduced into EU law in late 2012, supersedes all national economic laws of all euro zone nations. And in time-honoured EU tradition, the new organization guarantees neither transparency nor accountability for its actions. On the contrary, the ESM — like the Federal Reserve Bank in the U.S. — has been set above all law (for more information, click here).
5. Since the crisis began in 2008, the European Commission — as one of the three members of the dreaded Troika, alongside the IMF and European Central Bank — has, at every turn, kowtowed to the demands of the banking lobby at the expense of European taxpayers and depositors. In its latest bail out program of Cyprus, the Troika betrayed its willingness to throw deposit holders under the bus in order to bail out (or as they so nicely put it, “bail in”) the continent’s bankrupt financial institutions.
Brussels: A Lobbyist’s Wonderland
One of the least-reported aspects of the EU is the towering influence powerful international lobby groups hold over the drafting of new regulations.
In the absence of any real public debate on policy, the European Commission primarily shapes and drafts legislation through secret closed-door deliberations with industry lobby groups like the European Roundtable of Industrialist (ERT) or neo-liberal think tanks like Friends of Europe.
The ERT represents 45 of the continent’s most powerful corporations including FIAT, BP, Nestle, Shell, Unilever and Siemens. Founded in the 1980s, obstensibly to help extricate Europe from its deep economic malaise, it was the first organization of its kind to bring together multinational companies at the European level.
As one of its founders and former European Commisioner Vicomte Etienne Davignon explained, its main goal was to build “closer ties between economic operators and those in charge of the European government machine.”
And boy did they pull it off! As the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) reported after coming into possession of confidential correspondence between members of the ERT and senior political figures both in the Commission and national governments, the scale of influence the ERT exerts over the European political process is truly breathtaking. (For more information on corporate lobbying in Brussels watch this video)
According to CEO, the European Commission’s 1985 Single Market White Paper, which paved the way for the completion of the single European market in 1993, was virtually a replica of the “Decker Plan” — so named after Wisse Decker, then CEO of Dutch industrial powerhouse Phillips.
The plan drawn up by Decker included proposals to pursue a monetary union; to fund large-scale infrastructure projects; to establish a flexible labour market; to free industry from regulations; to downsize public services; and to implement austerity measures during times of financial difficulty. Sound familiar? Well, they should since they have all become core EU policies in the intervening years.
More worrisome still is the fact that ERT is just one of 2,500 powerful industry lobby structures now based in Brussels, making the city the second biggest lobby industry in the world, just behind Washington. That’s not to mention the countless think tanks whose services companies hire to transmit their demands and objectives to senior eurocrats.
The Union Is Not For Turning
In a bid to clean up the massive conflicts of interests brewing in Brussels, EC Vice-President Sim Kallas launched a new EU initiative in 2004 aimed at providing greater transparency and checks and balances in the Commission’s frequent interactions with lobby groups. However, Kallas’ benighted efforts quickly came up against a Babelesque tower of resistance from both lobby groups and powerful eurocrats, no doubt fearful of losing some of their hard-earned perks.
After three years of ferocious horse trading, the eventual legislation, which provided for a voluntary-based lobbyist’s register, was so watered down as to prove meaningless.
As such, lobby groups continue to proliferate in Brussels, subverting what little exists of European-level democracy. For example, little more than a month after the financial crisis hit European shores, the European Commission assembled an “independent”, high-level group on financial supervision.
Its eight-member panel included people closely linked to powerful lobby groups, neoliberal think tanks and U.S. banks such as Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and City Group — a telling illustration, if ever one was needed, of what the word “independent” means to the Commission.
Given the lack of any meaningful accountability, transparency or democratic legitimacy at the very heart of its governance institutions, is it any surprise that the old continent is in such a sorry state of decline?
And like Margaret Thatcher, the EU is not for turning. It has no plan B, and why should it when life on the gravy train has never been better? The question is: if positive, meaningful change is not going to come from the top, what can we, the citizens of Europe, do to stop the biggest gravy train in modern history from flattening us all?