European integration is boring, even when it is exciting. Over the past eighteen months, crisis has piled upon crisis in the European Union’s single-currency area, the so-called eurozone. The European project of creating an ever closer union among its member states may be about to crash, crippling America’s economy as well as Europe’s. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has argued that Europe’s decisions over the coming weeks will probably determine President Obama’s re-election chances. Even so, it is hard to read about EU politics without wanting to fall asleep.
One of the many virtues of David Marquand’s The End of the West, a book that carefully documents the gap between the EU’s ambitions and its achievements, is that it explains exactly why EU politics are so tedious. Dullness sometimes has political uses. This is not an insight unique to European bureaucrats—Keynes thought in the 1940s that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank would be shielded from public criticism because they tackled such “boring” subjects. But Europeans have taken boredom to an extraordinary extreme.
Over the past several decades, appointees and anonymous technocrats have made decisions that have reconfigured European markets and upended European politics. These decisions were made through procedures such as “comitology” and “codecision” that are completely opaque to ordinary Europeans. They result in rules such as the Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals, with names that ooze tedium but carry wide-reaching consequences. For example, the regulation on chemicals requires improved testing procedures that will cost US firms billions of dollars. A more recent EU technical directive requires all airlines flying into the EU to reduce emissions that may lead to global warming, changing the international regulatory debate at one stroke.
European voters pay little attention to these regulations, even if they sometimes have important effects. Decisions cloaked in technicality are hard to understand. What is hard to understand is boring, and what is boring does not get sustained political attention. Hence, Europe has been transformed by processes that are incomprehensible to all except a tiny coterie of insiders and experts.
It is tempting to see the procedures of the EU as a long-term conspiracy to bore the public into submission. The truth is more mundane. Europe’s leaders fell into technocracy by accident rather than design. As Marquand discusses, the founders of the EU’s ancestor-organization, the European Economic Community, had been scarred by World War II, and had strong and immediate reasons to prefer integration over a resurgence of revanchist nationalism. They built institutions from above to modernize the European economy and foster closer relations among its members. As integration normalized relations among states, making war inconceivable, the sense of urgency gradually leaked away, and concerns about integration that were nontechnical were postponed. Incomprehensible bargains on technical-seeming issues became the default mode of EU policy-making.
Marquand shows how this was reinforced by European integration’s beginnings in technical-issue areas (such as agricultural subsidies and the removal of trade barriers). Disputes over these issues did not arouse the deeper passions of most citizens, and were usually resolved by complicated trade-offs and side deals. This zeal for kludges extends beyond regulation. Most notoriously, the European Parliament moves back and forth between Brussels in Belgium and Strasbourg in northern France, while its secretariat resides in Luxembourg. This arrangement is ugly, cumbersome and extremely expensive, but it is the product of complicated bargains that cannot be unraveled.