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Revitalizing the European Idea

THE HAGUE: The idea of European unity used to appeal to the hearts and minds of Europeans. But its reality, the way the Union actually works, is far less inspiring. What is the cause of this malaise and is there an idea that can mobilize future generations and revitalize the European vision of the past fifty years?

Europe’s failures are often blamed on the fact that the Union is an association of states which tend to put their own interests ahead of the common weal. This is certainly true, but there is also a deeper, less obvious cause of Europe’s troubles. The EU is a rules-based government. This may sound like the rule of law, implying transparency and impartiality. In fact, the EU’s rule-making process, reflecting backroom deals among conflicting national interests, is anything but transparent. Decisions of the Council of Ministers are just like treaties: difficult to reach and difficult to alter. The rules that emerge are often too detailed, too rigid, and inappropriate to changing circumstances.

But the real problem lies with the very idea that social, economic, and political reality can be mastered by general norms. Life is far too complex and changeable to be governed by fixed rules. The Maastricht Treaty, for example, detailed the conditions to be met and timetable to be followed in introducing a single currency. During the treaty negotiations, few foresaw that Europe would suffer a prolonged period of high unemployment. Reducing government spending, as Maastricht demanded, is not the right policy in a recession. Admittedly, Europe’s economies need to make structural adjustments, but emphasizing reduced budget deficits probably prolonged the recession.

The flaws of Maastricht epitomize the belief that all problems can be managed if you enact enough rules. To have an independent central bank that determines the common monetary policy and then have a stability pact that imposes rigid rules on fiscal policy deprives governments of the tools for macroeconomic management. What worries me most is that I don't see mechanisms for correcting error.