EU in Focus Spring 2017: What Point Are We At?

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The anthem for the European Union has no words. It’s an empty, wordless, instrumental hymn, a blank canvas upon which each nation and each ethnicity can paint their own words in their own language. The actual tune is “Ode to Joy,” by Beethoven, a symbol of pan-Europeanism, but the anthem does not have any official lyrics, which means each country can add its own. To call the European Union a multi-colored patchwork of cultures would be to understate exactly how much of it is essentially a cultural Frankenstein’s monster. The EU has 24 official languages, 5 semi-official languages, 42 minority languages and another 8 main immigrant languages. It’s not exactly a single, unified entity, and yet it exists. There is a European Union, where representatives from 28 countries will come together to hammer out deals involving one of the largest common markets in the world, with 500 million people accessible in one go.

In the first two talks of the EU in Focus series, Professors Nicolò Conti and Davide Lombardo attempted to address the inner workings of this complex marketplace. Conti discussed the structure of the European Union. The EU government can be divided into three main parts: the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. It also has a European Council, composed of the political heads of each member state and not to be confused with the Council of the EU. The European Council sets the general political direction and goals of the European Union as a whole.

The members of the European Parliament are elected locally throughout the European Union, while the members of the Council of the EU are appointed technocrats from the 28 member states and rotate depending on the issue at stake. For example, if an agricultural bill is being put forward, then the Council of the EU (not the European Council) will mostly be composed of ministers who work specifically with the laws relating to the agricultural sector.

Then there is the European Commission, which serves a similar function as an executive body. The members of the Commission are chosen by the 28 member states, with each member state appointing its own commissioner.

The way legislation passes is thus: the European Commission will submit a proposal to the Council of the European Union, usually following the advice of the European Council. If the Council of the European Union (not the European Council) approves the legislation, it then goes to the European Parliament. However, if the European Parliament does not approve the legislation, it goes back to the Council of the European Union, which must then revise the legislation and compromise until the European Parliament passes it.

The second talk, held by Professor Lombardo, explored the history of the European Union. While the official beginning of the Union dates to 1993 with the Maastricht Treaty, the economic union within Europe actually predates that to 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC was in turn preceded by the European Coal and Steel Community, which was a trade union between France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Even before that, the cosmopolitan ideas and pan-Europeanism that formed the ideological bedrock of the EU have existed amongst Europe’s elites for centuries. These ideas were given new life following World War II, as France and Germany began to look for a way to ensure continued peace and make an act of aggression or war between the two not only morally unthinkable, but also economically unfeasible. It was for this reason that the first trade community included coal and steel–two vital resources a country would need if it wanted to start a war.

The third talk, with Asli Selin Okyay and Jonathan Zaragoza Cristiani, both of the European University Institute, discussed EU foreign policy in  relation to its neighbours, especially around the Mediterranean. Okyay and Cristiani emphasized the soft-power component to EU foreign policy: the EU doesn’t have a standing army, so the only influence it can exert is economic and cultural. The EU dangles membership and access to its common market as a way to influence neighbouring states, especially with regard to migration. The EU also uses the possibility of access to funding for neighbouring countries, especially in North Africa, as another incentive. Ultimately, the EU primarily uses the carrot method to affect policy in neighbouring countries, while the stick part of the method would have to follow the carrot part, involving mostly cutting the aforementioned funding or access to the common market.

The EU, while going through trying times at the moment, is still a magnificent, not to mention audacious experiment in the power of the common market as a political institution. While some might be quick to dismiss it as a passing and irrelevant institution, we would do well to still examine it carefully for clues as to the power of economics in the political world.

The EU in Focus series will continue with one final talk on Europe’s asylum system on March 2nd with Professor Evangelia Tsourdi.

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