Dusnieuws Review: The European Union: A Critical Guide

A book review by Dusnieuws, the magazine of the anarchist collective EuroDusnie which is based in Leiden, The Netherlands.

In the conclusion to his “critical guide” to the European Union McGiffen gets quite vehement. In the preceding chapters he limits himself in large measure to the facts, and gives a clear and compact oversight of the working of the different policy areas of the European Union. In addition he offers a short history of European unification, with a summary of the various treaties so far adopted. Text books and standard works concerning the European Union have as a rule the disadvantage that they are extremely thick and boring, written in an academic, distant style.  McGiffen’s short book is a pleasing exception, a combination between a concise reference work and a critique of the EU.

Steve McGiffen, an Englishman, knows what he is talking about, having worked since 1986 for the European Union, or more precisely for the United Left group of members in the European Parliament. In addition, he is an advisor to the Socialist Party of the Netherlands and editor of the left internet magazine Spectre. McGiffen explains that opponents and supporters of the EU come from both left and right of the political spectrum. Right-wing supporters of the EU value the strengthening of the neoliberal tendencies in the European project and the advantages it offers to business. Right-wing critics aim their darts at the loss of national sovereignty and the undermining of national values. In England this current is notably strong, and McGiffen subjects it moreover to particular scorn.

Left-wing supporters (in the Netherlands are represented by the Green Left and Labour Party) espouse the idea of federalism and see the Union as a political counterweight to balance the capitalism of the US. Left opponents assert that it is precisely capitalism which the EU serves and strengthens and point to the undermining of democratic norms.

McGiffen belongs to this last group. He believes that citizens should be able, to the greatest possible extent,  to exercise an influence on policy, and asserts that with the growth in the power of the European institutions the possibility of such influence is increasingly limited.  While most criticism of the EU, coming from NGOs and interest groups, consists of partial criticisms, a clear unifying theme runs through McGiffen’s critique: in each section he points to the systematic undermining of democratic norms and mechanisms of control.   He emphasises the fact that the policies of the European institutions seems above all to be directed in the interests of European business, something which has been somewhat reflected in the content of the recent European treaties  (Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice). Policy development is conducted far from the citizens, and development and application is by unelected technocrats. The EU implies, in short, a general weakening of democratic norms in Europe. The recently adopted European Charter for Citizens’ Rights is derided by McGiffen as a worthless document full of vague statements, platitudes and shortcomings, and one moreover which adds nothing to the rights enjoyed by citizens in their own countries. He sees it as a propaganda stunt carried out to give Europe a democratic image.

The emphasis of McGiffen’s critical guide lies on the economic aspects of the EU: the internal market, the euro, agricultural policy, economic relations, transport, employment. Topics such as judicial cooperation or refugee policy are little dealt with, or mentioned in passing. The closing chapter of the book, where he summarises his criticisms of the EU and defends a firmly anti-nationalistic standpoint, is the most interesting.  He takes pains to distinguish himself from the loudmouthed “Eurosceptics” of his native land, whilst at the same time rejecting a rising European nationalism.

The further European integration goes, the more power accedes to institutions which are less easily subjected to democratic control. What then can be done? McGiffen argues for an entirely different form of international cooperation, with truly democratic international institutions. How this “true internationalism” would work McGiffen does not explain, as this falls outside the scope of his book. He does, however, make it clear that the EU would have no role to play. He sees the European Union, just as institutions such as the WTO and the IMF, as an obstacle to a democratic internationalisation capable of crossing barriers of culture, history and language.

Dusnieuws is available on-line at http://squat.net/eurodusnie/ The site contains some material in English.

See Steve McGiffen's introduction to the book