Crisis, What Crisis? The EU in Historical Perspective

This post was contributed by Professor Kiran Klaus Patel, writer for Birkbeck’s Reluctant Internationalists project. This first appeared on the project’s blog on 27 November 2015

European crisis (copyright www.eurocrisisexplained.co.uk)

European crisis (copyright www.eurocrisisexplained.co.uk)

Once again, the European Union is mired in crisis. First the debt crisis and the desperate attempts to keep Greece within the Eurozone; then the high number of refugees landing on European shores; and now the security threats of Islamist terrorism: in none of these cases does the EU cut a fine figure.

Intelligence cooperation between its member states remains inadequate. Fences and nation-centered solutions seem to dominate responses to the rising number of refugees and migrants. And before that, Greece already showcased the lack of European consensus on values such as solidarity and reliability. In all these (and other) instances, the EU is accused of not delivering. Many observers feel that the Union is on the verge of collapse, and history time and again features prominently to support such claims. In a recent article, for instance, Brendan Simms and Timothy Less invoke the situation in Austria-Hungary in 1918, and in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1990, to explain where the EU stands today. Against this backdrop, they predict the “disintegration of the European project” unless draconian measures are taken.[1]

History does not repeat itself

Of course, nobody knows what the future will bring. Still, many scenarios and historical analogies seem rather far-fetched. They tend to neglect the complexities of the past (and the present), as a problem that has already been critiqued in earlier essays, for instance by Jessica Reinisch and Dora Vargha in their blog posts on questions of migration. History does not repeat itself. And if history has a lesson, then it is that the EU (including its predecessors) is surprisingly resilient.

Doom-and-gloom talk has accompanied the integration process since it began in the first postwar decade. In fact, many of its deepest crises eventually led to an expansion of activities and competences. Already the EU’s founding fathers highlighted this phenomenon. In his memoirs, Jean Monnet argued that Europe would be built on crises.[2] For him, “crisis” did not rhyme with “collapse,” but with further integration steps. And, indeed, the 1970s and early 1980s – at the time characterized as a period of stagnation and “Eurosclerosis” – witnessed the European Communities’ first enlargement rounds and advances in several new fields, including foreign and monetary policies.

This does not mean that times were rosy for Brussels. But it certainly did not let a serious crisis go to waste. Similar dynamics also characterize the ongoing debates on the Eurozone, for instance. In a strictly institutional sense, the EU has grown stronger in the past few years by creating a series of new instruments such as the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Beyond instituting new measures, the more active role of the European Central Bank is another example of how the European Union has become a more important player during and due to the crisis.

This does not mean that all of this is good. Most EU reforms of this kind are built on unstable compromises, prone to lead to new problems later. Moreover, such dynamics do not imply that integration is progressing steadily. The EU’s founding fathers would be frustrated if they saw the direction in which their project has developed. The prospects of a full-fledged federal union – as the ultimate goal of many of those who stood at the EU’s cradle – seem rather dim today. Moreover, there have been major defeats in the course of the past decades—some real, others mainly symbolic. While the plans to create a European Defense Community that failed in 1954 belong in the first of these categories, the non-ratification of the 2004 Constitutional Treaty is more part of the latter. Crisis talk loomed large in both these moments, but their wider context is telling: 1954 ultimately sparked new efforts to deepen integration, clearing the route to the Treaties of Rome less than three years later. Fifty years on, the EU also quickly identified an alternative, leading to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. The dogs bark, the caravan passes on.

Strength in flexibility

Even if the EU continues to exist, everything about it has changed massively over time. The heavy-handed form of economic intervention characteristic of the early Common Agricultural Policy of the 1960s has found few successors. Over and over, the institutional balances have been readjusted; supranational tendencies have been challenged by a more intergovernmental approach, creating a highly hybrid creature. From a somewhat Keynesian orientation, the EU has long made a swing to a more neoliberal economic approach. And these are just a few examples. It is easy to criticize these alterations as opportunistic. Its very flexibility, however, has also made the EU particularly resilient. In many ways, it operates much more as a platform that allows (groups of) its member states to take initiatives, than as a federal state.

This also makes historical analogies problematic. Today’s EU is remarkably different from entities and the periods Simms, Less, and others compare it to. Nobody knows exactly what the EU is—but it is certainly not a state or an empire. Admittedly, it has far-reaching sovereignty rights in monetary matters, along with regulatory competences in many policy domains, including energy, consumer protection, and transport. This multi-dimensional character makes it less likely to fall into dysfunction – a failure in one field can be compensated by an active role in other policy domains. Coal and steel are the obvious examples: from being the starting point of the process leading to today’s EU, they have now become marginal. But despite its role in so many policy fields, the EU has never acquired full federal or state-like qualities. With its hybrid nature, it still shares some characteristics with International Organizations and other forms of regional integration. And while empires and states dissolve and fail, International Organizations (almost) never die, as Gottfried Haberler, Susan Strange, and others argued already decades ago.[3]They might change their names or functions, but they tend to live and linger on. The worst that could happen to the EU is to be reduced to a rather technical International Organization, a fate it would then share with many other IOs.

But even that is unlikely, mainly because of the world the EU operates in. Globalization and the rise of a dense web of institutionalized connections between states and societies shape today’s Europe. The EU cooperates with other institutions to an extent unforeseen in the nineteenth century or Socialist nation-states and empires. Today, states and organizations such as the EU are all embedded in a dense web of more or less formalized linkages. And often, the European Union is only one of several players, and one of several cards that its member states have up their sleeves. Witness the sudden reappearance of the Western European Union at the end of the Cold War or, more recently, the close cooperation of the IMF with the EU’s institutions in Greece and the role of the OSCE in the war in Ukraine. All this demonstrates that globalization and geopolitical constellations induce states to cooperate, and to do so, they regularly fall back on the institutions at hand.

Read the original post on The Reluctant Internationalists project site

Read the original post on The Reluctant Internationalists project site

In our times, European nation-states therefore rarely opt for either national sovereignty or the EU. Most frequently, they choose between various formats and forms of international cooperation. Together, these diverse organizations contribute to a robust and resilient architecture of cooperation, which also stabilizes the EU’s position in the world. Seen from this vantage point, even a Brexit would not lead to an automatic unwinding of the system. In fact, the first two things the United Kingdom would do after leaving is to try to rejoin EFTA, actually its own brainchild but carelessly abandoned in the 1960s, when it started to flirt with the EC and even more so in 1973, after joining the European Communities. And, secondly, to renegotiate its relationship to the EU – but this time from the weak position of an outsider.

All this does not mean that the EU is perfect, quite the contrary. It’s just very likely to stay. There is life in the old dog yet.

Kiran Klaus Patel is Jean Monnet professor of European and global history at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His next book The New Deal: A Global History is published by Princeton University Press in January. He is presently writing a history of European cooperation and integration during the twentieth century.

[1] Brendan Simms and Timothy Less, “A Crisis without End,” New Statesman, 9 November 2015.

[2] Jean Monnet, Memoirs (London: Collins, 1978).

[3] Susan Strange, “Why Do International Organizations Never Die?”Autonomous Policy Making By International Organizations, ed. Bob Reinalda and Bertjan Verbeek (London: Routledge, 1998), 213–220; Gottfried Haberler,Economic Growth and Stability: An Analysis of Economic Change and Policies(Los Angeles: Nash Publ., 1974), 156.

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy, Uncategorized . Tags: , ,

Current Affairs – Calling all Applied Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

In a previous blog, I wrote about the determination of the origin of migrants through linguistic analysis. Since then, the refugee influx has become more significant by the day, now reaching major crisis proportions. Unfortunately it is no sort of solution to anything, but a few further reflections on linguistic aspects of this crisis come to mind.

English speakers

First, there has been much misinformation as to why so many migrants who have been camping in Calais wish to enter Britain rather than staying in France. Although the government would have us believe that it is because of our “over-generous” benefits system, in fact it is largely for other reasons, notably the fact that many of them speak English and not French.

Britain has benefited hugely in the past from English being a world language (although this is largely due to the power and influence of the US rather than that of Britain itself). Now, the status and ubiquity of English have, as it were, come back to hit us in the face.

Language lessons

Secondly, you may have read recently that the German government is offering 600 hours of German language lessons to the migrants settling in Germany. Scandinavian governments also have been offering language lessons to newly arrived settlers for many decades. This is a highly effective measure: learning a language is probably the best method for understanding the relevant culture as well as allowing suitable adaptation and integration in the host country. As an added bonus, it provides work for an army of language teachers, a fact which people reading this blog should appreciate.

IELTS exams

A third recent news item also provides food for (linguistic) thought. The Home Secretary Theresa May, desperate to cut down the number of migrants to the UK in order to fulfil election promises, plans to impose a higher IELTS English language requirement on prospective students from non-EU countries than the one demanded at the moment.

As someone who teaches students of many different mother-tongues, I agree that insufficient English language skills can be a problem. But on the whole our international students can express themselves quite adequately in oral discussion.

The problems arise with academic essay-writing, on the basis of which their university performance is graded. The difficulties there are less to do with incorrect English as such, and more to do with understanding what type of discourse is expected in such an essay – a complex linguistic and cultural question, though one which can of course be taught.

The IELTS language exams are not designed to measure these types of academic skills, so the university itself has to try to fill the gap by providing academic English and study skills training. But this is often too little and too late.

In fact, the proposal by Theresa May has nothing to do with academic motives – nobody really even pretends that it does. It is purely a way to legitimate the exclusion of one cohort of migrants and so make the overall immigration figures look better.

Excluding university students is, to put it mildly, a strange choice, since the government has elsewhere explicitly committed itself to accepting skilled, as opposed to unskilled, migrants. In purely financial terms, it means that the UK will benefit less from the overseas students’ fees – never mind the loss of goodwill which will result if we no longer allow overseas students to be educated in the UK.

In each of these news items, the linguistic issues are only part of the picture and political solutions are by far the most pressing. Still, the part played by language in day-to-day problems is evident. Applied Linguistics may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but it is important as the discipline which allows the related linguistic issues to be addressed in a scientific and well-informed manner.

Read the BBC’s recent article on “the battle over the words used to describe migrants”

Find out more

Share
. Read all 2 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , ,

Insomnia and Interpreters – Linguistic Aspects of the Greek negotiations

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

An interpreter at work during the EU - South Korea free trade agreementLast month, you may remember, while Mr Cameron was giving his views in the news on the crucial matter of fox hunting, Greece was on the brink of financial meltdown.

I was in Greece and with the banks closed and the prospect of worse to come, the sentence I kept hearing from friends and relatives was ‘I can’t sleep’. The local baker, who was lucky enough to be selling his bread to hotels, did not have the liquidity to pay his flour supplier, a small farmer. As a tourist, when you paid your bills with cash, people were abnormally grateful, though much too proud to say why. It seemed that a whole country was holding its breath while a roomful of people in Brussels decided their fate.

Such momentous decisions depend, like so much else in our lives, on language – on a group of people talking, in an airless conference room. How do their minds – and their meanings – meet? Sometimes with difficulty.

You need only read the pronouncements of the – now disgraced – Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, to realize how culturally inappropriate rhetoric can exacerbate a crisis. It was not so much Greek bravado in his case – though that was present too. His upfront Australian – trained braggadocio went down like the proverbial bag of sick with the Brussels bureaucrats.

He should perhaps have taken lessons in how to imply things without spelling them out in enormous capital letters from Christine Lagarde, who went on record for saying that the negotiations could only get anywhere if there were adults in the room. Hmmmm…

Relay interpreting

Greece-and-Austria-webSpare a thought also for the fact that these meetings would have been conducted with what is known as a ‘full regime’. This means that each country had interpretation from and into their own language – there are 23 languages.

So while some people would have been speaking and listening to, say, English, the majority would have been speaking another language and having their words translated into 22 languages. They would also, of course, have been listening to the words of the main protagonists through interpreters.

Furthermore, when there is no interpreter who is able to translate from Greek directly into, say, Italian, the Italian interpreter listens to, for example, the English interpreter, and then translates the English into Italian. This system is known as ‘relay interpreting’.

Occasionally, double relay has to be used: for example if the Dutch interpreter does not speak French, she or he has to listen to someone in another booth, say German, who is themselves getting the Greek translated by someone in the French booth. It does not take much imagination to appreciate the inevitable loss of accuracy, of nuance, and of metaphorical ‘tone of voice’ – three things which really matter in such delicate negotiations.

Cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosAs a former interpreter, I wonder how the interpreters coped with the German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble telling the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, that he was ‘not an idiot’. They would have been caught between the ostensible need to be accurate and the need to avoid being the cause of a diplomatic incident – the latter concern being part of their DNA, if not a specific part of their professional training.

And what of the order by the Head of the European Council, after 14 hours of unsuccessful talking, ‘Sorry, but there is no way you are leaving the room’. How did that come out in Finnish, in Slovakian, in Spanish, in Danish…and in Greek?

The cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk in that room would truly be worthy of analysis – what a PhD that could make! For the time being though, I am just glad that the messages got across well enough, and tactfully enough, so that my baker can pay for his flour again.

Find out more

Read the BBC’s recent round-up of some of the greatest mistranslations throughout history

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy, Uncategorized . Tags: , , , ,

European poll shows democracy still needs a bit of work

Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck's Department of ManagementThis article was contributed by Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. It was originally published on The Conversation

Every year, the UN celebrates its International Day of Democracy, even if it often feels like there is little to smile about on this front. Research to be presented at the Italian parliament to mark the occasion shows that while Europeans across the continent share a powerful faith in democracy, they think their countries are lacking some of its most fundamental components.

The research, carried out by the European Social Survey is an attempt to quantify the difference between Democratic ideals and reality.

The results confirm that the overwhelming majority of Europeans share the democratic faith. In most countries, citizens strongly believe that they should be governed by elected representatives. In countries like Cyprus, Sweden, Germany and Israel, respondents rated the importance of living in a democratic country as a nine or above on a scale of zero to ten. And in almost every other country in a survey of 29 – including 21 EU member states – it was rated at least seven or above.

But Europe is vast and brings together a huge array of nations and cultures. It seems we can’t be sure that the word democracy means the same thing to them all.

Digging inside the ballot box, the survey reveals that in northern Europe, there is a greater focus on the rule of law, while in southern countries there is a stronger desire to obtain social justice. Scandinavians fall somewhere in the middle.

Eastern Europeans appear to be something of a special case. Citizens in many former soviet states only got the right to vote in proper elections around a quarter of a century ago and continue to expect the social protection that was once guaranteed by the old communist regimes while also demanding that the rule of law is enforced. Russian respondents attached the least importance to being run by a democratic government.

The basic definition of democracy is what is known as liberal democracy. This is a government chosen in free and competitive elections, with checks and balances in place and a free media and opposition in operation. Liberal democracy was considered to be operating in only around half of the 29 countries surveyed.

People in eastern European nations do not believe their countries hold free and fair elections and they do not consider their media free. And in southern Europe, citizens feel they lack equality before the law.

Asked about the social components of democracy – such as income equality and protection from poverty – citizens gave a harsh assessment. In 26 of the 29 countries, this side of democracy was considered insufficient.

In Scandinavia the gap between what people expect from democracy and what they think is actually delivered is smaller than in any other country. But even in these countries, there is the clear perception that the social dimension of democracy lags behind the liberal.

The political class should take this survey very seriously. It shows that the public has an increasingly broad idea of what it is to be a democracy but also that they are well informed. When expectations are not met, substantial resentment can build and that is reflected at the ballot box. Voters either back new entrants to the political sphere – like UKIP – or they stay at home on polling day.

An increasingly qualified and demanding public can’t simply be administered from above. New forms of participation need to be invented. If people are asked to participate in the delivery of public goods – through direct democracy and social involvement – they will have the opportunity to improve what is provided by elected representatives only. Or, at least, they will realise that everyone should implement their own dreams, democratic dreams included.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , ,

Britain in the EU

This blog post was written by Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the MSc programme in European Politics and Policy. It summarises parts of the lecture he gave to British diplomats at the Foreign Office on 18 February 2013.

Britain has been described as an ‘awkward partner’ (George, 1994) within the EU but the chequered history of her membership is even more complex. Although it is true that until 1997 there were only two major episodes of positive engagement (the establishment of the single European market in the second half of the 1980s and John Major’s short-lived attempt, upon his arrival at 10 Downing Street, to place the UK ‘at the heart of Europe’) a more thorough understanding of Britain’s 40-year history as a member of the EC/EU ought to be couched not only in contemporary debates on the future of European integration but also Britain’s own past, present and future.

For a start, Britain’s accession to the then European Communities was a sign of an undeclared defeat. As Hugo Young appositely notes,

‘For the makers of the original “Europe”, beginning to fulfil Victor Hugo’s dream, their creation was a triumph.  Out of defeat they produced a new kind of victory.  For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a kind of defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climactic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe’ (Young, 1998, 2).

Indeed, not only did Britain’s governments shun the opportunity to participate in this process from the beginning – in the 1950s – but their pronouncements were matched by further concrete action: Britain played a major role in the establishment of the European Free Trade Association which was meant to be a counter-weight to the emerging European Communities, and was devoid of a common external tariff and a common trade negotiator vis-à-vis third countries, i.e. two ‘state-building’ features of the EEC. Britain was initially joined by Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, nearly all of which [i] subsequently became full members of the EC/EU (as did Finland that became a full member of EFTA in 1986 but joined the EU only nine years later).  In addition, far from its usual position as a leading decision shaper in international affairs, Britain has had to apply three times in order to join the European Communities.

Since then, by and large Britain’s membership has been marked by a number of paradoxes or even contradictions: a sceptical member state but also one whose basic preferences are often (though not always) congruent with key developments in the process of integration as indicated by the single market project, successive enlargements, market-based approaches to a series of policy issues, including employment.

More recently, the terms of the domestic debate on Britain’s membership have not only returned to the themes of the late 1980s and early 1990s but can be seen as evidence of the British political elite beginning to catch up with the continental European debate on the future and the finalité politique of European integration – a debate essentially launched by Joschka Fischer’s famous speech at Humboldt University in May 2000. This involves a struggle between the supporters and opponents of essentially two quite different options for the future of Europe, namely neoliberalism and regulated capitalism. Indeed, on the one hand, David Cameron’s recent speech at Bloomberg and other pronouncements made by senior Tories place them firmly on the side of those who support unfettered markets, a neoliberal Europe – that is arguably the essence of contemporary Tory Euroscepticism for they see the EU as an actual or even just potential source of intervention in the economy. As the emerging debate on the UK’s membership of the EU is bound to reveal, when Mr Cameron refers to ‘flexibility’ he actually has in mind what many on the Continent as well as the UK call ‘social dumping’. In that sense, the recent developments in the debate in the UK mark a return to the early 1990s, when the late John Smith, then Labour leader, was castigating the Major-led government for trying to turn the UK into the sweatshop of Europe, trying to compete with Taiwan on low wages, rather than with Germany on skills, as he put in a speech in the House of Commons. The fact that Mr Cameron has singled out the EU’s Working Time Directive makes him particularly vulnerable to that line of attack because that directive (like others in the socio-economic and environmental domains) actually allows individual member states to pursue higher standards. So, if Mr Cameron wants flexibility, this is bound to mean the dilution of standards, not their improvement.

The Labour Party’s response was largely couched in Ed Miliband and his team’s preference for ‘responsible capitalism’ which has a clear social democratic ‘flavour’. This is good news for those who want to have real choices not only in national electoral contests but also the forthcoming European elections for, ultimately, the kind of Europe that we want is inextricably linked to the kind of Britain we want.

References cited

George, S. (1994) An Awkward Partner.  Britain in the European Community. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, H. (1998) This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. London: Macmillan.


[i] Norway and Switzerland are the two exceptions.

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,