Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

A European Federation of the Trifles

Adelina Marini, October 18, 2013

Recently, around the time of the tragic accident near the Italian island of Lampedusa, the European Commission was subjected to a relentless attack of questions during one of the regular press briefings in Brussels. An Italian colleague was persistently asking a spokesperson whether, indeed, the Commission had no powers to intervene to prevent such accidents in the future and is, really, everything entirely in the hands of the member states. His question was provoked by the fact that in Italy, a few years ago, a law was adopted incriminating fishermen who rescue refugees at sea. But the Commission exhaustedly explains that it works with competences granted by the member states. If you want a change, then it should come from the capitals and, most of all, from their unanimous decision, is the main message.

But it is exactly among the capitals that the proposed by the Commission changes in the Dublin regulation were stuck, according to which the first country where refugees arrive should take care of them and process their asylum applications. This regulation subjects to a huge financial and political pressure the border countries which are also the first destination of refugees from the already too broad conflict zone around the EU - from the Arab spring which infected the entire southern Mediterranean, to the escalating tensions and conflicts in the Middle East (mainly Syria). However, the proposed by Brussels system for relief of pressures in the border countries was rejected by many member states. In this way, the border countries most strongly subjected to refugee and migrant pressures are forced to solve their problems the way they see best and depending on the current political atmosphere. And in a growing number of countries that atmosphere is poisoned by nationalistic and purely xenophobic attitudes.

Italy is a destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers in the past years, after the dictatorship regimes fell, with whom the government in Rome had agreements to restrict the flows yet at the exit points. Spain, Malta and Greece, too, are targets. Malta has complained for years of the lack of assistance on behalf of Brussels and the other member states which only shrug off being grateful that they are not an external border. However, they are very vigilant in how do the countries in question do with their security. And Bulgaria, recently, faced the same challenge. Sofia emerged unprepared not only technically but also psychologically to accept a few thousand (less than 10K) refugees, mainly Syrians. The things that can be read in the most mass circulating press are scary, especially given the fact what are the attitudes against Bulgarians in richer member states, especially the United Kingdom where a full scale anti-Bulgarian campaign is taking place because of the forthcoming expiration of the labour restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians as of January 1st.

But for the Bulgarians this is different. More important is that the Syrians are coming to take, literally, the last bite from the mouths of the poorest Europeans in EU. The situation deteriorates further with the fact that Bulgaria failed to show it is worth for membership in Schengen, in spite of the visibly fulfilled technical criteria. The country is right between the hammer and the anvil in the complex relations between EU and Turkey, as the latter refuses to sign the readmission agreement, thus turning into the first destination for asylum and migration. This is how Bulgaria has become an attractive entry point for those who flee the terrors of war in Syria. But after the initial attraction the refugees realise they find themselves in a not less hostile environment.

The EU cannot do anything more than providing money to the Bulgarian government to increase the capacity of the refugee centres and improve the conditions there, which can be compared to concentration camps. If requested, Brussels can also send a Frontex mission for a joint protection of the borders. For now solid Bulgarian accusations and question attacks addressed to Brussels and its inability to intervene on such a crucial issue are not being heard, but this does not make the situation less frightening.

The issue of refugees and the way EU as a subject reacts again revealed the multilayer controversy of the very construction of the Union - hated for imposing rules about the size of cucumbers and stopping to love it for its inability to secure a common energy policy or a common foreign and defence policy. As the Dutch writer Geert Mak wrote recently in the Dutch daily Trouw, there are symptoms of a European federation which, however, focus on the small things, like, for instance, cheese and chocolate, centrally governed by Brussels. In the same time, though, too many policies, like for instance in the financial sector, foreign and defence policies, are still governed by national capitals.

A federation of the straight cucumbers

Last year another Dutch newspaper - De Groene Amsterdamer - published a series of articles about the EU myths in which it defends the need of central governance. Do we need such a central governance at the level of the trifles, asks the newspaper. "If you want a free internal market: yes", it answers, because "the freer you want the market to be, the more rules you need. Yes it's a paradox, but there is a reason why the EU regulates what at first instance appear to be minutiae". The newspaper justifies that need by telling the story with a Kinder Surprise egg, which was also a subject of regulation - the size of the inner egg was fixated and its two halves had to be connected by tiny hinges. The reason is that several years ago a baby choked with a toy from a chocolate egg.

Some countries demanded these products to be banned, while others disagreed. "Then you have a problem on one European market", the newspaper writes. However, this is not how things stand with far more broad-scale issues than chocolate eggs. If federativity is possible in the area of toy safety, food safety and protection from low quality goods imported from third countries, why then is it not possible in areas that affect the European citizens even more? Let's take again Bulgaria for example, which literally went out in the winter of 2009 because of the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine. In the minus temperatures Bulgarian kindergartens, schools, universities, homes were left without heating, while the economy literally died.

Nonetheless, Bulgaria is among the few EU member states that pays the highest prices for delivery of natural gas from Russia. A bit worse are only the Baltic states (a few euro cents more) - former soviet republics. And although the Commission is trying to help in the negotiations of the Bulgarian government with Gazprom, this is rather an exception than a rule. The member states here have the word and the stronger ones agree good deals with Putin's Russia, while others are not that lucky and are doomed to cure their poverty with high prices of key raw materials. The problem in that case, though, is not only economic but political as well, because the lack of a strong European shoulder creates wonderful conditions for the reigning of oligarchic structures related to Russia, which already is a fact in Bulgaria.

Let us take another example - Cyprus. The country was on the brink of a default for several years, but the need to comply with Brussels's conditions in order to get financial assistance, forced the then communist government to choose Russia with all the consequences that stemmed from this not only for Cyprus, but for the EU too and its position vis-a-vis Russia.

As telling was also France's behaviour which, practically, took on its own the decision for invasion in Libya to put an end to the mass killings ordered by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Paris pursued entirely its own domestic political interests and did not take into account the arguments of its partners from the EU, some of whom were direct "victims" of the consequences.

The examples are tens or even hundreds that the member states weaken themselves a union they had the ambition to be able to protect them from the challenges of globalisation. Currently, intensive talks are under way on the construction of a banking union, the need for which emerged as a result from the deepening of the eurozone crisis, itself possible because of compromises with federalism in its construction. The pulling of the national rug between Brussels and the capitals is an essential element of the functioning of the EU, although lately we can rather call it dysfunctioning since all reproaches, expectations, questions are addressed to the Commission, while the answers, actually, are in the 28 capitals.

Not how much, but whether a federation

At the moment, EU's politics is based on the question "how much federation". This question is in the foundation of all the negotiations on new legislation the purpose of which is to resolve another problem that had emerged. However, for quite some time this is the wrong question. The right one is whether at all we should have a federation. And it is high time the member states to answer it, preferably via referenda because patchwork is a beautiful thing, but, alas, dysfunctional. The fact that journalists are holding Brussels accountable for its actions or inactions in specific cases shows pretty clearly that there is something very wrong with the construction. And it is that we have a federation of the trifles and a loose union of the essentials