Globalization and the European Union
Green Institute Publications
by Dean Myerson
Many progressives in the United States are not
familiar with the European Union (EU). Many on the left in Europe have
opposed having their own countries join it. It has the smell of
globalization and a huge centralized bureaucracy, and citizen
participation is virtually impossible. It has terrible positions in
trade talks with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is developing a
On the other hand, the EU has improved
environmental regulations in many European countries and has a social
rights platform that makes our Bill of Rights seem tame by comparison.
It is credited with changing a continent that started two devastating
world wars in the twentieth century to one of the most peaceful
continents on the globe, even considering the violence in the Balkans
of the past decade.
So what should progressives think of the EU?
A comparison with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) might help to give us norteamericanos some perspective.
NAFTA is primarily an economic agreement. Its
supporters maintain that other issues of importance, such as the
environment and workers' issues, should not be addressed in NAFTA but
in other organizations, like the International Labor Organization.
There are grave disparities between wage levels in the United States
and Canada on the one hand and Mexico on the other. But while NAFTA
supporters claim that in due course economic development will correct
them (though it clearly hasn't so far), NAFTA itself makes no direct
effort to deal with these disparities, nor with any other political or
The EU started out as a solely economic entity. Its
first incarnation was the European Coal and Steel Community, after
which the European Community was created. But as European integration
has deepened, its political and social roles are undeniable. Countries
must abolish the death penalty before they join the EU, and they may
not extradite suspects to a country where they might be executed.
Member countries have surrendered a small (or some feel not so small)
degree of sovereignty to the EU.
More to the point, the EU spends a lot of money on
its poorer members, with the explicit goal of bringing their prosperity
closer to that of the wealthier members. Interestingly, these funds are
called "cohesion funds" because Europeans know that a society with too
great a disparity of income will not be cohesive. The EU spends tens of
billions of dollars every year on poorer member countries, primarily on
infrastructure projects. It also spends a lot to support French
agriculture, but that is a story for another article.
And, most amazing to Americans, EU members have had
free and open borders for almost twenty years. This provision is known
as "Schengen," for the city in which it was established in 1985. At
that time, Schengen applied to a subset of EU countries and was not a
formal part of EU law, but it has since been adopted by the EU. There
are no border controls between EU countries, and citizens can work and
can even vote and run for EU office in any EU country. There is an
exception now in that there are temporary limits on worker emigration
from most of the ten new EU members, mostly former communist countries.
This exception is supposed to end in seven years.
At anti-globalization protests in the United States
and elsewhere, the phrase "globalize democracy" is often heard. That is
what the EU does. It also globalizes environmental rules and many other
good things. It is far more socially responsible than NAFTA. But it is
not perfect. I already mentioned its trade positions,(see related
article) and there are other less than desirable aspects.
So what do progressives and Greens in Europe think?
Opinions are very mixed. In the core countries of Western Continental
Europe, as well as in the recently communist countries, they tend to be
supportive in varying degrees. The opposite is true in the United
Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries. In fact, opinions generally
follow those of people from other parts of the political spectrum
within the same country, as residents of Scandinavia and Great Britain
are generally more skeptical of the EU.
We Americans tend to view the EU as a global actor
and evaluate it based on its overall impact and its effects on U.S.
policy. Some support it because it seems to be the best counter to
neoconservative unilateralism, or because of its social policies, some
of which have a real impact on U.S. policies.
But opposition to the EU in Europe generally deals
with its impact on one's country of residence. Scandinavian countries
are among the wealthiest in Europe, and as such will pay more than they
receive for cohesion projects. Their social policies are still ahead of
most in the EU, so EU policies will not improve their quality of life.
And since their overall populations and economies are not huge in the
European context, their membership does not have a huge impact on EU
policies. We must also remember that Scandinavia and the United Kingdom
are physically separated from the core of Continental Europe.
But progressives in these countries have other
reasons for Euro-skepticism, as it is called. Many think that efforts
to spread positive values should go through the United Nations rather
than the EU, and they greatly fear that any effort to make the EU a
counterpoint to the United States will effectively turn it into what
some want it to oppose. If it builds an effective military and a
stronger and more efficient leadership structure, will it then choose
to use its newfound power in less benign ways?
Many of these choices are based on pragmatism
versus idealism. I see no large entity on the globe that is advocating
for as many socially positive values as the EU. The structure of the
United Nations prevents it from advocating social goals the way the EU
does, and there is scant chance of any significant reform of that
structure. The United Nations simply does not have the influence on its
members that the EU does.
The EU has great potential, but it is far from
being a grassroots entity. Its most beneficial qualities are more
institutionally than democratically based. This is not an institution
that practices power for the people. It treats people better than the
U.S. government, but is less interested (or able?) to listen to people.
It thinks it knows best.
Some of the so-called democracy deficit of the EU
is a consequence of the euroskeptics' views as well as those of the
national governments that oppose empowering s the EU's relatively more
representative structures. The only democratically elected body in the
EU, the European Parliament, is also the weakest of its major
institutions. But even if that were not a problem, it does not seem
that grassroots democracy is high on EU agenda. The EU culture is
The EU has grown from 15 to 25 members in 2004,
with the addition of eight former communist countries and two island
nations in the Mediterranean. This change throws a huge wild card into
the EU's future, since the path of political and social development for
many of these countries is a matter of speculation.
But one thing is for sure: The EU is no NAFTA. It
is a unique political entity with many competing elements. The central
claim of progressive supporters of the EU is that economic
globalization is a train that we cannot stop, and we need political
integration in the form of the EU to regulate and control the ravages
of economic globalization, something which NAFTA does not offer.
It may be a bit simplistic to put it this way, but
the question may be whether the EU can offer to its regional economy
today what the Progressive movement offered to the U.S. economy at the
end of the Robber Baron era one hundred years ago: practical tools to
counter unregulated capitalism. It is hard to know whether it will
succeed, but it is possible. And that could never be said of NAFTA.
Dean Myerson is Executive Director of the Green Institute