Tough questions about Europe’s big experiment

Quick: name (a) the European Commission president, (b) the European Central Bank head, and (c) the country currently holding the European Union presidency. Many readers would be hard-pressed to get even one or two right. Such dim awareness, however understandable, may typify the identity and leadership problems that continue to dog the EU, an organization now intricately involved in Europeans’ everyday lives yet which remains politically marginalized. This gap also forms the central theme of Loukas Tsoukalis’s most recent book «What Kind of Europe?» (Oxford University Press, May 2003). Non-fiction titles containing a question mark suggest open-ended discussions, unaddressed problems, and even unanswerable dilemmas. And Europe – especially its core body the EU – is rich in all three. Tsoukalis, a noted expert on European matters, has performed an admirable service with this medium-length text that is substantively fulfilling and can appeal to the non-specialist. Not least, he steers clear of the subsidiarity-principle and spillover-effect jargon that animates (if that is the right word) the academic debate and provides grist for the scholarly mill. While hailing from that tradition, Tsoukalis cheekily likens the EU to an elephant, so big and unwieldy that most have resigned themselves «to study its toenails, generally with a great deal of precision and the correct methodology.» Wit aside, his work poses important, even awkward questions about Europe’s future, questions too rarely and obliquely asked of the EU, «a political system without a state,» whose sole elections (for the European Parliament) end up posing as substitute battlegrounds for national politics. Never too late This book is, in part, a learned warning that basic issues need addressing – by everyday citizens, no less than elites – especially with the European (constitutional) Convention at a delicate stage and 10 states poised to join the bloc on May 1 in a long-awaited «big bang» enlargement that will launch an EU of 25 onto uncertain seas. What kind of market model do Europeans want? Can «social Europe» survive? How much diversity can be tolerated under one roof? Is democracy workable at the supranational level? What are Europe’s outer limits? He is far from being the first author to ask such important and sometimes obvious questions, but he does so effectively and with style. Last week’s Madrid bombings and recent Franco-German-British efforts to refashion a European triumvirate show that foreign policy and «high politics» may grab headlines, but to Tsoukalis, the key choices for Europe revolve around economic and social issues, long the EU’s meat and potatoes. What Europe needs to deal effectively with them, he insists, is «a strong dose of political oxygen to breathe properly.» Political debate is risky, but avoiding it is riskier given a growing membership, a stagnant economy, and a widening array of obligations. The fledgling Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) remains rather peripheral to his discussion, because without a responsive institutional basis, more accountability and a stronger European political identity, a CSFP is meaningless or, worse, damaging in its overreach. Common concerns The two main parts of the eight-chapter work come under blessedly self-explanatory headings, «Taking Stock» and «The Main Challenges Ahead.» Topped and tailed by an introduction and conclusion, the work covers about 220 pages of text, plus a bibliographic essay. From the opening chapter, he weaves a half-century of European integration into a wider discussion of political and economic trade-offs now pressing for attention. This broad agenda is not a function of European failure; the EU is, after all, «very much alive and delivering the goods.» Otherwise, reform would come a lot easier. An expanding postwar economic pie long sustained comfortable assumptions by European elites that their push for integration enjoyed a latent legitimacy which, in turn, tended to shove awkward questions under the rug – at least until Margaret Thatcher and her famous handbag crashed the party. The questions are no longer about «more» or «less» Europe; the debate has moved (or needs to move) on, and push it along he does. While a Greek now at the University of Athens, Tsoukalis does not belabor the Greek position; the book reflects his experiences at centers of European study like Oxford, London, Bruges, and Florence. Yet the issues are as relevant in Greece – increasingly the subject, not just the object, of European diplomacy – as anywhere. In these parts, EU enlargement may boil down to «Cyprus Plus,» but we are reminded that the new eastern members pose prickly questions, not just complicating decision-making but also its implementation in transitional societies with a strong, post-1989 attachment to sovereignty. The fate of key distributional policies like the structural and Cohesion funds is also in balance. Euroskepticism in Poland, for example, and that country’s tough bargaining over its entry conditions testifies to the new realities. These and other issues pertaining to Europe’s «near abroad» (the Balkans, Turkey), are covered expertly in his chapter «Pax Europea.» A question of money With Economic and Monetary Union «now the main policy» of the EU, the overall stakes have been raised. Whereas the old exchange-rate mechanism could fall apart and be rebuilt, a collapse of EMU would have huge implications, for (how) could Europe manage a return to old national currencies? Three of the EU 15 (Britain, Denmark, and Sweden) have kept their currencies; how they resolve their euro opt-outs will be crucial. As a preventive, he argues, economic governance of the euro, via the central bank, should be matched by political authority to speak for the bloc in economic forums. Without it, EMU remains a high-risk strategy, which the euro’s recent rise, ostensibly a sign of strength, could strain further. Though written by a European «insider,» the book by no means pushes a federalist agenda; indeed, he is critical of Euro-speak and of «abbreviations usually invented by the Europeans in lieu of real policies.» Smoke and mirrors too often pose for progress, particularly in summit communiques. Europe’s failures in the Balkans are all too apparent. Quibbles about this typically excellent OUP production are minor. In light of 9/11 (not to mention Madrid), it is a pity there is not more discussion of Europe vis-a-vis world security imperatives, though taken too far this would be to criticize him for not writing a different book. He paints the Scandinavians as Euroskeptics, which they are, but overlooks their important cooperative roots (a Nordic passport union pre-dated the EEC). In this sense, he might have looked more closely at sub-regional cooperation under the EU umbrella as an alternative to a two-speed (or sclerotic) Europe of 25 or 30 members. With skepticism about Europe likely to grow, Tsoukalis makes a compelling case that a lively debate about Europe’s future is needed even if far from inevitable. And this debate needs to be built upon a frank admission that development involves losers as well as winners; the process is more a zero-sum game than ever. Above all, the «conspiracy of silence» that long gave free rein to stealthy pursuers of this unique integration experiment must change. With a velvet glove and a nuanced study, Tsoukalis wields an effective hammer.

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