The slogan ‘Take back control’ has played a vivid part in the debate about the UK’s future: it suggests an enfeebled Britain that should break free of ‘Brussels.’ It is a pernicious misrepresentation of the role of the EU. ‘Control’ is an illusion in a world of economic interdependence: unilateral State action lacks the necessary vigour to tackle the major problems that citizens expect to be addressed – climate change, economic reform, security, migration, and so on. States need to co-operate. That is what the EU is for.
The EU is founded on an institutional architecture that is not based on the model of a State, but which rather seeks to reflect the interests of States and of their peoples in an environment of deepening transnational activity, that tends to push the effective site for problem-solving in some areas (such as climate change, economic reform, security, migration) beyond the State. In such circumstances the legitimacy of the process must be somehow secured, albeit unavoidably not by the orthodox patterns of democracy and accountability that are familiar within a State.
The abiding thematic tension lies between designing institutions with sufficient autonomy to pursue effective problem-solving while also ensuring that those institutions are subject to adequate levels of accountability. Moreover, the EU is built on a constitutionalised legal order, which aims to sustain effective policing of agreed rules, not only at supra-State but also at national level, while also protecting individual rights. This is international treaty law, but it is more than international treaty law. Most of all the EU is a site to manage the interdependence of States. The EU could be abolished tomorrow but the problems to which it is an intended solution would not vanish, and would generate an urgent construction of bilateral and multilateral arrangements to address them (which would quite likely be a lot less effective and more intransparent than those found right now in the EU itself).
So States exercise their sovereignty through membership of the EU. States give up a degree of power to act unilaterally so that they may participate in the deployment of a collective problem-solving capacity that is a great deal more effective. Resources of power are not finite: acting through the EU expands the sum of State powers so it becomes greater than its parts. The EU ‘adds value’ to its Member States. Moreover, the EU also serves as a means to impose constraints on States, to ‘tame’ their historically toxic capacity to cause harm to each other. The EU’s rules and institutions do not replace, still less suppress, the several different locations of political authority to be found across Europe, but instead lock those locations into a credible set of reciprocally undertaken commitments designed to make real promises to solve problems their citizens expect to see solved, and by preventing them inflicting external harm.
The EU aims to supplement the claims of its Member States to be effective democratic and legitimate actors in an interdependent world. At the same time it does not and should not pretend to suppress the diversity that is Europe’s most cherished richness. The EU aims to accommodate that diversity within a managed framework. It seeks not to replace States, but rather to achieve a better management of their interdependence.
Featured image credit: Control Panel by Les Chatfield. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.