The “State of the European Union Address” is pronounced annually by the (Commission) President. We have just had the latest, and the very name gives its hubris away. Valery Giscard D’Estaing had high pretensions for ‘his’ EU constitution rivalling that of the United States, seeing himself as a Jefferson, albeit a non-Jeffersonian one. The EU’s pseudo-embassy to the US highjacked the American Revolutionary flag and supplanted its own 12 stars onto it, to use as its local logo. And now since the Lisbon Treaty, the SoTEU Address has given the Commission a grandiose stage, and MEPs to play along with the pantomime of continental federal greatness.
The symbolism counts, betraying the intent of the players. But the script itself is far more important, since it flags up the Commission’s more immediate ambitions. This year the text, supplied for the first time by Ursula von der Leyen, is no different.
The European Commission knows how to exploit a crisis.
The European Commission knows how to exploit a crisis. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came Maastricht. After 9/11, it made a successful power grab on JHA. Now we witness the full claim formally being staked on the “European Health Union”. Von der Leyen began tellingly by complementing MEPs for overriding national governments in the Council, backing her push for bigger budgets. Next she called for more to be done at EU level via the European Medicines Agency and the ECDC, quangoing up continental healthcare policy. Then, a new bid for a European BARDA – copying the US federal government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority; the existing treaty justification here being the Disaster Clause, Eurozone watchers will be alert as to how such emergency powers have already been abused.
The EU also wants to be allowed to strategically stockpile. There may be a strong argument for that being done by national governments, but centralising it at Brussels carries inevitable consequences. The EU already has some limited warehousing to allow for speedy humanitarian interventions, but this approach risks not just new Andrex mountains and hand-sanitiser lakes, but also central control over the parcelling out of strategic resources. That means not just who gets dibs on rare earths for cell phone manufacturing, but ultimately a greater competency claim over energy supplies.
Predictably, the Commission intends to achieve this by putting the issue on the agenda for the new EU Convention. The gathering is already on the horizon, and its format supplies an established prop for federalisation. With this demand, what this now means is that a significant new EU treaty is in the offing, transferring more power to the centre inevitably not just in this field but in whatever pet projects individual delegates take with them in their suitcases. This speech may have just doomed the EU to another ratification crisis.
Associated with and justified through COVID19 is also a new proposal to “protect workers and businesses from external shocks”. The Commission has already set up a €90bn emergency bailout fund, the SURE programme. Expansion of this has been highly controversial as it triggered demands for huge sovereign EU COVID loans, underwritten by the very member states least benefiting from them. The Commission’s EU Recovery Instrument has now received a backhanded boost with a pledge to continue with pushing “to its final completion” development of the Capital Markets Union and the Banking Union. This might usefully be put in the context of trying (however forlornly) to insulate the EU from the UK’s dominance in capital management through trying to build up its own counterparts, over the period where – itself tellingly – the Commission has been forced into a unilateral 18 month extension of permitted access rights.
The Commission will additionally now put forward a proposal on minimum wages. The legal force of this sounds as if it may be non-binding, but it is nevertheless of potential relevance to Brexit. It suggests a future point of contention for the Commission to raise as an issue of purported unfair advantage for the UK, because of its domestic employment law or gig economy practicalities. Judging from the speech, that risk has also increased in relation to Industrial and personal data, and also from the EU’s Green policies.
Environmentally, the Commission is looking at accelerating its emissions-cutting targets from 40% to 55% by 2030, which was previously an aspiration. These are, characteristically, uncosted, covered by a vague pledge of a cost-benefit analysis having at some point taken place and a claim that unspecified business lobbyists had latterly been asking for it. There is also formal conformation that the EU intends to raise 30% of its €750bn recovery funding through Green Bonds, which might be good news for climate activists but may not generate the best of returns. From the examples subsequently raised it does appear that the Commission is looking at expanding into supporting Grands Projets Verts.
It also seems that somewhere in the Commission is a fan of the speeches of Sir Roger Scruton and Sir John Hayes. The Commission intends though not simply to encourage the beautification of society through its buildings, but to subsidise an entire architectural and cultural wave. An EU “Bauhaus” will, in an unspecified manner, bring together various architects and designers as part of “Next Generation EU”. It remains uncertain how Star Trekky the result will be and what form it will take, but since the EU already has its own Institute in Florence perhaps the intent is to generate a new Caprice des Dieux building there. Hopefully they will do a better design job than the deliberately inoffensive stereotypes put on Euro banknotes.
Less obvious are the long term consequences of the Commission’s continuing ambitions in Information Sovereignty. With the development of an EU-wide information-sharing network we can also see more claims being staked around human rights aspects of stored data, plus new assertions of consumer, educational and business rights for those lacking competitive broadband. It looks like we will hear more about a ‘Connectivity Union’ within the next few years; there’s already a bid for an IT one as the EU will be funding research into supercomputers, with a strange hybrid committee- generated target of data use being “energy efficient and secure”. The Commission has also now stated its intent to propose a global digital tax early next year; the due share presumably would then go into its own coffers.
In international affairs, the Commission chief seeks to remove the member state brake. Von de Leyen called for QMV in the field, though subsequently caveating it with an “at least for human rights and sanctions implementation”. On migration, there is a range of proposals for greater policy and funding activity from sea to social integration. On the rule of law, the Commission will now more proactively police the activities of member states: remember there is a membership suspension clause and precedent of sitting on a Government whose make up it did not like (Austria, in 2000).
On Diversity, the EU is to start to engage heavily. The Commission is to propose “to extend the list of EU crimes”. Clearly the Commission President is referring to the competencies of Europol, but the choice of wording is striking; her Commissioner for Equality herself in turn tweeted them as “Eurocrimes”. In any case, it would extend to “all forms of hate crime and hate speech whether because of race, religion, gender, or sexuality”. As with so much of the EU, the intent of course is noble but it is in the application where we might anticipate serious problems and risk epic injustices. The EU member states have very different laws and back history over the thresholds of free speech (for instance over whether to outlaw Nazi emblems), and very different legal traditions over the limits of freedom of expression, for example in comedy or over the French droit à l’oubli.
Given the hyperintensity and unadulterated aggression of some Trans and BLM social revolutionaries, this is very much one to watch; the more so as the Commission now declares itself ready to spend money on exploring the historical narrative of racism. This has significant potential implications for anyone applying for its very considerable educational and research grants. I wonder if any of the statues around the EU buildings will end up being pulled down in sympathy for oppressed mythical Europa.
At least there is in amidst all this a pledge, notably repeated, to tackle EU fraud.
Such ambitions provide, as Von der Leyen noted at the outset, only a partial wish list. A fuller package of proposals has been set out in a letter to Angela Merkel and to the Italian Government. Yet as we know too well with this cyclical process, even if Santa’s list only ever ends up getting partially delivered, Ever-Closer Union marches duly on.
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