February 22, 2013

Small States in the European Union

From the perspective of a small state, the EU is much less a competitive arena than an instrument for amplifying its power.

Let us start philosophically. Or, to be more precise, with a dictum that caught my eye in an interview and that seems to reveal on further reflection something fundamental about the topic of ‘small states in the European Union’. The gist of it was, at least partially, as follows: ‘Freedom is cultural awareness of [existing] possibilities.’ There are two ideas essentially superimposed in the quote. First, the limits of freedom are defined by cultural awareness. They cannot extend beyond it—each attempt to expand them will by definition first push forward the limits of cultural awareness. Second, freedom is contingent on familiarity with intra-cultural opportunities. It is always possible that there are more opportunities for self-realisation for an individual, society or state than imagined.
What has all this got to do with the European Union? One option for understanding the European Union is to treat it as an attempt to add a new dimension to our post-Westphalian perception of international affairs. Or, if you prefer, as an attempt to add a new floor or a loft to one’s house. Within such new space, there is more room and also more opportunities for self-positioning and association with others.
To compress it all in a telescopic form, let us put it this way: before the EU, the scene was dominated by ‘great powers’. As the Concert of Europe, these states defined and implemented international law after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Eventually, this Congress System literally translated Clausewitz’s famous statement that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ into real life.  In other words, the same arrangement applied in international diplomacy from the time of its birth until the end of World War II. (This might be a suitable moment to recall that we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the written history of Estonian diplomacy in 2008. “The Estonians,” wrote Henry of Livonia, “sent /…/ their delegates to Latgale.” As we all know, this led to a war.)
The European Union (obviously by partially building on the foundation already laid by the UN) has, in hindsight, turned out to be an entity that has successfully and with only a few Realpolitik-driven compromises equalised its inherently unequal member states. Having so far uneasily cohabited with the principle of the sovereign equality of states (as posited by Neumann and Gstöhl in a working paper, ‘Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World?’, Reykjavik, 2004), international law transformed in the EU into a phenomenon that levelled the playing field both in theory and in practice for its historically disparate member states. Most specifically, this made it possible to solve the security issue of small states (although NATO’s existence was obviously a precondition for this success). But much more importantly, the EU built something unprecedented on this essentially non-positive precondition (in any case, the elimination of the threat of war would have been a sine qua non in order to uphold international law)—it established a space for sovereignty-sharing, i.e. borders were gradually opened for new forms of cooperation (see e.g. Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations) and mechanisms were set up that could be described in philosophical parlance as approximations of procedural justice. In other words, law (or justice) was prioritised above all else and transparent procedures that applied to everyone in equal measure were defined to exercise national will. Size (or other forms of brute force) does not matter in today’s Europe. Or, to be more precise, it is not the only or the key thing that matters—of course, size comes with a range of more or less internalised expectations.
Other dimensions of size (power) have emerged besides force. As pointed out in specialist literature on political science, the most popular categories include material (primarily economic) power, ‘ideational’ power (i.e. the capability to produce ideas) and institutional resources (i.e. the representation of states via their language and perceptions in EU institutions). There is also the power of voting (proportional—though nonlinearly—to population size) and expert power (for example, let us take the mini-state of Luxembourg and its Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker who was president of the Eurogroup for eight years). It is also worthwhile to mention moral power (of which Greece currently has very little) and—why not?—cultural power (once again, using the example of Greece, although the Greeks joke that for the time being democracy and logic have left their country).
As a result, size has become a relative phenomenon. Let us, once again, turn to the example of Luxembourg—one of the smallest EU member states and one that has produced leaders at all levels and in such numbers that it has outperformed some larger states (besides Juncker we should not forget Jacques Santer, despite the fact that his term of office as the President of the European Commission ended in disgrace). What is the secret of Luxembourg’s success? Undoubtedly, in addition to everything else, it is its strategic geographic and linguistic position. The state is located between Germany and France, so its politicians are at least trilingual, speaking French and German. Thus linguistic power could also be highlighted, but it too has more than one dimension: the Anglophone power of the English and the Irish is completely different from the ability of the Luxembourgers to serve as a compromise standpoint between two linguistic and cultural rivals—Germany and France.
Of course, Luxembourg is an exception; it is not exactly pertinent to Malta or Estonia, but it does neatly illustrate one of the EU’s core principles—size is in your head. Despite having 60 million Italians to back him up, Berlusconi was never taken as seriously as Juncker. Or as a prime minister of a smaller state before Lisbon when the presidency still fully rotated. This is also an interesting subject, definitely worth being addressed in a separate article. Let us not forget the role played by Denmark and by Sweden in the EU enlargement process which led to the accession of Estonia, among other countries, in 2004. The two Scandinavian states were at the helm of the EU during the decisive years at the beginning of the previous decade. At the 2002 Copenhagen Summit where the final decision on enlargement was taken, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had to threaten his reluctant Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende with history’s condemnation if the latter allowed financial considerations to bog down the process of opening Europe’s door for at least eight East European countries.
Having chronicled the era in his book, The Making of the New Europe (Brussels: Eurocomment, 2004), Peter Ludlow has a few times pointed to the combination of public opinion, history’s weight and state leaders’ fear of being collectively humiliated as the key mechanism that made it possible to push through the enlargement agenda in increasingly sceptical capitals in continental Europe. “Public opinion, articulated through the media, had come to see enlargement as the Union’s destiny and opposition to it as mindless resistance to the spirit of the age.” Could the exploitation of this sentiment for the common good of the Continent be called something else than the use of moral power?
However, if you want to use moral power effectively, you must be familiar with European history, philosophy, politics and culture. All have their roots in ancient times, far away from modern Europe. This reveals a paradoxical advantage for large states encoded in the EU: everything the EU is today stems from the principles that emerged when the word of great powers was absolute. So, if you want to talk about Europe’s destiny and future—especially if you represent a small state—you must know the history of large powers by heart. On the other hand, this enables the former to capitalise on a hidden resource: what matters about history is how you interpret it. The more skilful interpreters can thus use the power of rhetoric to their advantage.
Of course, the structure of the EU incorporates a sufficient number of additional aspects that confer—one way or another—advantages on large states. The division of votes in the Council of the European Union and the division of mandates in the European Parliament take into account population size. The principle of qualified majority voting is also, at least theoretically, detrimental to small states as it strips them of veto power. Although in theory the European Commission should act as the guardian of supranational common interests, it tends to favour the wishes of large states in its objectives. Large states usually pay more than small ones and thus have more right to speak at decisive moments like the ongoing preparations for the EU’s new budget for 2014–2020.
It is not only a matter of solvency: although Poland is one of the poorest countries in the EU, it would still stand on much firmer ground with threats to sabotage negotiations than, for example, Denmark (despite the fact that Copenhagen is a net contributor). The same applies to foreign policy where the tendency is less institutionalised but no less real: the more ad hoc an issue is, the smaller the impact of small states. International crises provide fine examples of ad hoc problems: the bigger a crisis, the more ad hoc an EU response to it.
It is clear that one of the greatest losses for small states was the downgrading of the principle of the rotating presidency. The presidency still rotates, but the country that holds it has a much more difficult time dictating EU objectives. If it tries to do so, it must command great moral, institutional and expert powers (for example, to take advantage of the direct input-to-summits option open to the General Affairs Council, which continues to be chaired by the country holding the presidency). A good (or bad, depending on one’s perspective) example here is Cyprus, which was almost completely isolated during EU budget negotiations.
Obviously, self-realisation through the presidency had not always been a walk in the park for small states in previous years either. For example, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, representing the EU Presidency at a G7 summit, was the target of a humiliating remark from George W. Bush who, upon having entered the meeting room, audibly asked those around him “Who’s this guy?”
More seriously speaking, what makes the EU unique in the history of international relations is its consensual culture. It involves an unprecedented concept of power that has large states exercising self-restraint for the greater good. This means the finding of a common denominator—it was initially a utilitarian consideration with the objective of preventing a new war, but today it has transformed into a habit and political art, the mastering of which is perceived as a separate goal that produces additional value. This is not an exaggeration: leaders of even large EU member states go down in history primarily for the reason of having been able to appreciate and reconcile different points of view.
One of the less publicised aspects about this consensus-based culture is the fact that the continuing extension of the qualified majority voting system (which is accurately seen as a sign of federalisation) is not accompanied by a hike in the use of majority voting. The Council resorts to majority voting in rare and exceptional cases: there are a few instances a year at best (or at worst); some years go by without any majority voting at all. Why? Because voting is divisive; it draws a line between winners and losers. The same applies to vetoing. Or to put it slightly paradoxically: you must have immense power to be able to veto something. Vetoing is an option of very last resort, especially for small states. (At this point, Greece suggests one more dimension of power—let us call it the ‘none-of-your-business power’. In this context, it has been exploited for a long time already, to the detriment of poor Macedonia.)
Now, if we are to look at the bigger picture, it reveals something that is all too often overlooked in academic literature when attempting to analyse and define the EU. Political analysts and others typically tend to discuss the power commanded by EU member states from the perspective of their ability to ‘guide processes’ by differentiating between ‘material’, ‘ideational’ and similar aspects of power as if these formed part of a zero-sum game. This is a mistake, a potentially fatal mistake, in an analysis that strives to comprehend what makes the EU ‘tick’. In the EU, power—if we are to define it in a nutshell—is the ability to appeal to its sense of unity. The content of the long-suffering solidarity principle is especially pertinent if viewed from the security perspective of small and marginal East European states: for member states, the EU has a point if it provides additional value. You cannot derive additional value from it against your will; you cannot be united against your will. This is an inherent feature of any international organisation, regardless of how developed or enlightened it is.
So, from the perspective of a small state, the EU is much less a competitive arena than an instrument for amplifying its power via the creation of additional value. How this instrument is used depends on how skilful a small state is, i.e. on some combination of its moral, linguistic, institutional, etc. power. The freedom of a small state is only limited by its imagination, initiative and tenacity.
The greatest ally a small state can have is procedural justice, a concept which—as interpreted by philosophers from Kant to Rawls—forms an integral part of the EU. This means that the same rules apply to everyone and should be rationally accepted by everyone as such. If there is someone who has to prove or explain something, it is the state requiring exceptional treatment (yet another principle that has ‘Kant’ written all over it).
The second great ally for small states is the EU’s increasingly more autonomous legal system. ‘European citizens’ have guarantees with ever more real backing from EU member states, despite the fact that history has not been too kind to them. Any act of aggression against a ‘European citizen’ constitutes by definition aggression against Europe. The stronger the definition of Europe, the more these acts of aggression are transformed into attacks against Germany, against France and against others for whom Europeanness means added value without which they can hardly imagine their existence anymore.
At the moment, the greatest challenge for small states (and Europe as well) is to defend all these dimensions of power that do not involve brute force against permanent damage or disintegration. In order to do so, we have to learn to interpret the concept of ‘Europe’ from a much higher vantage point than we have done so far. The European Union is a culture that has extended the limits of freedom of small states. Small states have not exhausted it—and they can only hope that it will not exhaust itself.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.