Populism and unrest are sweeping the continent, because the European Union and its constituent governments are as undemocratic and unresponsive as the monarchs and aristocrats who lost their power and heads during the succession of uprisings bookended by the American and Russian revolutions.
The goal of the EU’s antecedent, the European Economic Community (1957), was to prevent a third World War by integrating the defense industries and broader national markets for goods, services, capital and labor of historical rivals — Germany and France.
The process created a politically unaccountable bureaucracy that supervises internal free trade and a common external tariff, joint systems of agricultural and fisheries management, subsidies to industry and an antitrust regime to crack down on the cartelization of national commerce that could block the benefits of a single market.
Over time, Brussels has been hijacked by left-leaning national politicians and civil society activists bent on imposing a United States of Europe and their socialist agenda.
Through a succession of treaties and agreements, national leaders “pooled sovereignty” to empower the European Commission to issue edicts that member states must directly obey or implement by conforming national laws and regulations in areas such as social policy and human rights, consumer protection and product standards, transportation and immigration. The EU has courts to enforce these mandates, and 19 of the 28 states have ceded monetary policy to the European Central Bank by adopting the single currency.
Endemically, national politicians have statist impulses — consider that George W. Bush pushed out the frontiers of the welfare state with Medicare prescription drug coverage and the recent Republican-controlled Congress refused to roll back entitlements or repeal Obamacare.
In Europe, national leaders have empowered the commission to impose the pain from globalization, the climate change conspiracy and widening state constraints on private freedoms. Then they can point to Brussels and alibi they are just advancing national commitments to a stronger European Union.
And that’s the point. Pan European government and regulation, free trade within Europe and with other nations, and open immigration have become ends in themselves. Not whether they best serve the wellbeing, security and values of the great mass of native-born Europeans.
As Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy puts it, the “priority of our work will be to strengthen a global network of partnerships for multilateralism.” Not ensuring prosperity, safeguarding freedom or securing borders for polities besieged by Russian aggression and a refugee crisis.
Free trade always creates winners and losers as do mandates regarding the status of women and minorities, farm subsidies, fishing quotas and immigration. While professionals in big cities prosper, ordinary folks in the suburbs, smaller cities and rural communities languish under the yoke of low-paying jobs and unemployment, high taxes and inadequate transportation, police and other public services.
In recent decades, the arrogance of the commission, burdens of regulation and taxation and mismanagement of the euro have virtually extinguished growth, pulverized much of southern Europe into poverty, driven governments in Spain, Ireland, Greece and elsewhere into near or complete bankruptcy, and inspired the British working class to vote for Brexit.
The EU Commission has acquired the sovereign powers of a federal government without politicians who must seek re-election and hence broker tradeoffs among conflicting constituent interests. In particular, among those who benefit and those who bear the costs imposed by Brussels’ decrees.
President Emmanuel Macron tried to defuse the yellow vest rebellion by backing off his gas tax, raising the minimum wage and advancing other proposals to increase worker and pensioner incomes but those are as effective as prescribing Tylenol for a serious systemic infection.
Across Europe, populists are rising up against center-left parties that have controlled national politics throughout the EU era, but the commission has cracked down on their agendas when they win control of governments in the most biased and cynical manner. For example, on Italy’s budget for violating EU deficit rules but not on Mr. Macron’s spending plans which violate the same strictures, against Hungary for building a border fence and Poland for reforming its judiciary to national values.
Ordinary Europeans are as helpless to dispose of the EU’s tyranny as were the starving peasants under the reign of Louis XVI and noblemen who their fed dogs better than their workers — until the peasants rolled out the guillotine.
• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.
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