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Is the EU a Union of values?

31 Jan 2019 - 12:29
Source: European Parliament/flickr

The original Dutch language version of this opinion first appeared on the website of NRC on 22 January 2019.

The promise of a Union with shared European values only leads to disappointment and division. The EU is first of all a pragmatic 'polder' Union.

In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, in May, ‘our European values’ will be one of the main topics. When it comes to the European ‘union of values’, we can expect references from, for example, Frans Timmermans, European Commissioner for the Rule of Law and social-democratic Spitzenkandidat, to the Second World War and to populists wanting to destroy the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron even went as far as calling the fight for European values  “our European civil war against selfish nationalism”. The value debate is buzzing with ambition and (war-)symbolism. 

One explanation of the importance attached to this issue is that the quality of the rule of law in EU countries is poor or even deteriorating. Corruption in Member States remains a serious challenge, and Poland and Hungary are seeking confrontation with Brussels by interfering in the media and the judiciary. They are also not inclined to accept refugees or take them in from other Member States. In short, there is something fundamentally wrong with ‘our’ values. 

A second explanation is that there is not much else in terms of concrete topics to focus the election campaigns on. Strengthening of the eurozone or the pursuit of a social Europe are such sensitive issues that little progress is to be expected on that front. Even the European parties are internally divided over the deepening of European integration. The Dutch liberals of the party of Prime-Minister Rutte (VVD) are thinking quite differently about many topics than, for instance, Guy Verhofstadt, their Belgian colleague in the liberal Alde group. A third explanation is that politicians like Macron can use ‘our values’ to distance themselves from the populists in their own country. 

Of course, discussions about European values are essential. However, presenting the EU as a ‘union of values’ does not do justice to what the EU actually is: a pragmatic consultation system for solving problems and aligning interests by means of (at times poor) compromises and coalitions of the willing. This step-by-step pragmatic approach is clashing with the need for change that politicians want to demonstrate during the election campaign. The Spitzenkandidaten will not win the hearts of voters with stories about ‘small steps’ and pragmatism. 

However, this gradual approach to change is crucial to the EU. Changes in policy and in Member States come about in an evolutionary, not a revolutionary manner. Whenever negotiations are getting tough, the Leitmotiv is ‘keep everyone on board’. The value debate, however, is about drastic changes. 

"The Spitzenkandidaten will not win the hearts of voters with stories about ‘small steps’ and pragmatism."

Timmermans’ passion for good and bad may be well intended, but as future Commission President he will wish to protect the unity of the EU. A Commission President does not want to go down in history as the leader who drove Member States to the exit. 

Even if the EU had hard instruments to punish countries on politically sensitive issues, these would still be used with great caution. The promise of a ‘Europe of values’ is an ambitious vision of the future which is sure to disappoint, comparable to the rules of the eurozone, which have hardly induced Member States to reform.
 
The promise of a Union of values will not only lead to further, EU-wide disappointment. There is a real danger that it will drive a wedge between the Union and the Member States. Macron’s metaphor of a European civil war ignores the fact that he and his colleagues in the European Council still need to win the fight against ‘selfish nationalism’ also at their national levels. 

The value debate is moreover feeding the antagonism between East and West, although we do not even know wat those European values are. When interpreting Article 2 of the European Treaty differences are quick to emerge. Southern European countries want solidarity in the form of sharing of debt, while Northern Member States believe solidarity involves taking painful measures. And should the EU really dictate that men and women have six weeks of paid parental leave, or that at least thirty per cent of top positions go to women? 

Grey areas are also emerging between liberal countries and countries with a preference for state intervention, as well as between social models. The paradox in the value debate is that there are few legal rules governing the rule of law. Political Fingerspitzengefühl is needed to understand why the European Commission now aimed to tackle Salvini’s Italy on its public debt while Macron in France could again count on leniency. 

"(...) should the EU really dictate that men and women have six weeks of paid parental leave, or that at least thirty per cent of top positions go to women?"

The EU should be careful with ambitious new projects if there are major differences between and within Member States, and if the necessary instruments and required administrative capacities in the countries are lacking. In such a situation it continues to be important to criticise each other on concrete matters such as the curtailing of the freedom of press, but by proclaiming a Union of Values the EU is overplaying its hand and is causing division and mutual incomprehension. 

Countries should have sufficient space to develop. We are apprehensive about the rapprochement between the Italian populist Salvini and Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Orbán. But the French are alarmed by Dutch initiatives to forge a ‘new Hanseatic League’ of Northern countries. However troubling this may be, such dynamics are part of our Union. The Union of Values promises more than the EU can deliver. The EU is mainly a, reasonably successful, event-driven pragmatic ‘polder’ community.