March 17, 2002
Making Enemies, Part I

On Friday I got my first really critical letter, from Martin Pratt of Amphetamine Logic. (I would have answered it sooner, but Friday was my birthday and the Ides of March, so I was too busy partying.) Pratt objects to my speculative post on The European Union, Where Will It All End? as follows:

The EU has no police powers to punish grocers who sell metric units, that is done under domestic law. Grocers are free to sell in pounds and ounces in Brussels if they label in metric units too. The grocers were arrested and tried under the (UK) Weights and Measures Act and tried in a British Magistrates court under English rules of procedure. In fact the EU has no police powers at all, except in very limited circumstances relating to breach of EU Anti-Trust laws.

Oh, and Norway was briefly a member of the EU (or EEC as it then was) but left after a referendum.

The whole "unselected bureaucrats" thing is a bit of a myth really. Largely engendered by Americans worried about their pre-eminent place in the world, or at best by ignorance and over reliance on the UK rightist press.

Since Pratt is apparently both British and a lawyer, I should probably take his word for it on the legal situation. However, his other remarks do not inspire confidence.

He is simply wrong about Norway, which has never been a member of the EEC or the EU. They have applied to join three or four times, but were either turned down or changed their minds after signing the accession treaty but before ratifying it. I am told by the Norwegian I consulted that, as in the U.S., treaties are not valid until ratified by the legislature. For such a divisive issue, the Norwegian parliament decided to hold referenda and follow the wishes of the people. The people narrowly voted against the EEC both times.

Of course, it would hardly affect my argument even if Norway has briefly been a member. An economic community is not the same as a 'union' with a legislature, currency, army (coming soon), and the other trappings of a state. The EEC was more like NAFTA than the EU, and I don't doubt that NAFTA members could leave if they wanted to. Even if countries can leave the EU now, as Lady Thatcher is urging Britain to do, they won't necessarily be able to leave later, when the panEuropean army, courts, legislature, and so on are all functional.

A historical example will illustrate the kind of thing that worries me. The Delian League was set up soon after the Persian War as a voluntary naval alliance of Greek cities against the Persians, headquartered on the island of Delos, though Athens was by far the most powerful member. It soon developed from a military alliance into an Athenian empire. Within 20 years the league was making war on members who tried to secede. Within 25 the treasury was moved from Delos to Athens. The way the change occurred is both interesting and instructive. Originally member cities had to contribute specific numbers of fully-equipped and manned ships to the League's navy, the exact number depending on each member's resources. Providing ships and crews was onerous and all except a few of the larger islands (Samos, Chios, Lesbos) soon arranged to send money instead, and let the Athenians spend it on their own ships. After that, it did not take long for the alliance to evolve into an empire. When Samos eventually revolted, the fighting was particularly bloody, because the Samians still had their own navy. (There is a detailed but execrably proofread account of the Delian League in the 1911 Britannica. Though old, it covers the main points. There is a picture of the actual stone-inscribed tribute list here.)

To return to the main subject, I still have a couple of questions:

1. If the European Parliament doesn't have the power to make laws that can be enforced, however indirectly, in member states, what do the members do all day? If they don't pass laws, they're not a parliament, and if the laws they pass are unenforceable, they are still not a parliament but some kind of model-U.N.-type pseudo-parliament for children. (Rather like the U.N. itself, come to think of it.) Perhaps I have misused the phrase 'police powers'. My point is not who does the enforcing, but whether citizens of member nations are being forced to do (or not do) things that they would not have been forced to do (or not do) if the EU had never been formed. I find it difficult to believe that the "rightist" press can be making it all up.

2. My hostility to the EU -- better suspicion of it -- has nothing to do with fear of losing American preeminence in the world (not likely, whatever the EU does), everything to do with my own familiarity with American bureaucrats, e.g. the kind who have made it impossible for Americans to buy toilets that flush properly, thus creating a cross-border traffic in bootleg Canadian toilets. Examples could be multiplied ad nauseam. It is not ill will but good will that makes me worry that Europeans are making a terrible mistake. Whether Pratt's comments about the U.S. are motivated by ill will or good will I will leave to him and possibly his confessor to sort out.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 17, 2002 10:30 PM