When Boris Johnson arrived in Brussels in 1989 as correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, he was presented with a great story to cover. He saw that Jacques Delors was constructing, with Napoleonic energy and ingenuity, a united Europe which posed, as Margaret Thatcher realised, a deadly threat to the nation state. In Boris’s words,
“It was a wonderful time to be there. The Berlin Wall fell and the French and the Germans had to decide how they were going to respond to this event, and what was Europe going to become, and there was this fantastic pressure to create a single polity, to create an answer to the historic German problem, and this produced the most fantastic strains in the Conservative Party, so everything I wrote from Brussels, I found I was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.”
A generation later, what do we find in Brussels? The European Commission, which under Delors’ leadership had seized the initiative, is a shadow of its former self. It grapples with the refugee crisis, made worse by the misplaced generosity of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.
Schengen, the system of free movement across borders, is in even greater danger since the attacks on 13th November in Paris, which appear to have been committed by terrorists with close links to Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels.
And the Commission is grappling with the euro crisis. But that is in large part a German responsibility, for German taxpayers will have to provide the money to keep it going. The Commission is no longer in the driving seat, and is not always represented at the crucial negotiations when Greece teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.
At a technical level, the Commission possesses more powers than ever. It is supposed to monitor the budgets of the euro’s members. But it lacks the political clout which it wielded in under Delors, and it infuriates the Germans, who consider it a soggy, compromising body, which fails to enforce budget discipline.
When policy-makers in Berlin contemplate the scandalous laxity shown by the Commission, they become even more pessimistic about the way the EU is going.
The European Parliament has become more powerful. It was the biggest winner of the Lisbon Treaty, and has powers of veto over many subjects, including the TTIP treaty, which is supposed to bring free trade between the EU and the United States.
The main groups in the Parliament unexpectedly produced Spitzenkandidaten - leading candidates – for the post of President of the European Commission, once occupied by Delors. This system helped produce victory for Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate from Luxembourg: an infuriating outcome for David Cameron, who wrongly imagined he could block Juncker.
But who is Juncker? He is a compromise candidate, which suits the member states, and especially Germany, who do not want a powerful figure like Delors who is capable of taking the initiative.
The member states, who are represented in the Council of Ministers, tend to be hostile to the Commission, which they see as the creature of the Parliament. France is dismayed by the way the Commission has developed.
For it used to be an essentially French institution: a grand bureaucracy, which thought it knew best about everything, and did not shrink from ordering everyone else around.
Boris Johnson admired the ruthlessness of Delors’ henchman, Pascal Lamy: “With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.”
Here was one reason why a quarter of a century ago the French were so keen on Brussels: they saw it as an extension of their own bureaucracy. Now that this is no longer so, France finds the whole thing very much more suspect.
The Commission has turned into an advocate of Anglo-Saxon economics. It pushes for trade liberalisation and for cuts in red tape, and no longer speaks French. As a Berlin-based journalist pointed out:
“When I started covering EU events in Brussels under the Delors administration, if you asked a question in English you practically had to apologise. Now it’s the opposite for asking in French. The EU enlargement to the north and the east has totally cemented the dominance of English.”
Delors fought against enlargement: in order to avert it, he invented the European Economic Area. But after his time, enlargement went ahead anyhow, and has greatly diluted French influence in Brussels.
No wonder Cameron is concentrating on the Germans as the key to his renegotiation. The Commission remains the guardian of the EU treaties, so will need to be satisfied that whatever settlement is reached is consistent with the letter of EU law.
But how weak Brussels has become. There have long been, at least in theory, three different ways in which the EU could develop. It could become a centralising, French-style bureaucracy: but that option has already withered, because so few people apart from the French actually want it.
The second option is a federal system, as seen in modern Germany. This is more realistic, except that European national feeling does not exist. When the Americans set up their federal government after breaking away from Great Britain, they had previously been united under the British Crown, so in that sense they were replacing something which had just been lost, not creating something entirely new.
And if federalism comes, as the most logical way of providing the political underpinning needed to save the euro, it may look too obviously like an economic expedient, and command no real loyalty among European voters. As Larry Siedentop observed in Democracy in Europe, published in the year 2000:
“the public case for Europe is now being made almost exclusively in economic terms. In their pronouncements, the elites of Europe have fallen victims to the tyranny of economic language at the expense of political values such as the dispersal of power and democratic accountability. Increasingly, we find ourselves worshipping at the altar of economic growth rather than citizenship.”
The third option would be a Europe of nation states, as advocated by Charles de Gaulle and by many British eurosceptics. But there is no sign that the Germans would countenance such a development.
This uncertainty about the future affects the atmosphere is Brussels. No one really knows where the EU is going: they are just trying to keep the show on the road.
Britain must be kept in, because to lose such a prominent member would amount to a devastating vote of no confidence. But what rule changes can be devised which will make the EU a comfortable rather than a constraining club to belong to?
David Cameron is criticised, with some justice, for the lack of ambition he brings to that question. But the European Commission seems pretty unambitious too. It would be far harder for a young Boris Johnson to make his name in the Brussels of 2015, by reporting that Juncker is planning to take over Europe.