A paradox of standards

Hubert Beusmans

European cooperation is constantly evolving. At the beginning, after the Second World War, the ideal of peace prevailed which resulted in the drafting of the treaties of Rome. Never war again. European institutions with specific defined competences had been established. But during the 1960s and ’70s, when the founding treaties were put into practice, the cross-border nature of European policy was increasingly lacking. More and more European integration influenced national constitutions; for example, equal rights in the workplace and equal rights for men and women. It concerned policy arising from shared European values, but it only affected national systems. Democratic accountability of these expanding powers and ever-increasing cooperation was necessary in order not to derail the European project.

The democratic solidarity of the European peoples, through the directly elected European Parliament (since 1979), paved the way for free movement within the European space, resulting in the realization of the internal market in 1992. The solidarity of the European countries was sealed in the 1990s with the gradual introduction of the single currency. This raises the question what legitimizes such far-reaching European cooperation and to what extent this monetary union corresponds to the original ideas behind European cooperation. Therefore, we need to investigate how each time this cooperation has been provided with new legitimacy. In general, how do shared values legitimize cooperation without damaging the great diversity of Europe?

Values ​​are the timeless connecting force between the European peoples. Norms form the guarantee of the identity and individuality of regions, adapted to the wishes of a certain Zeitgeist. Because the context in which we rely on values ​​constantly changes, the translation of values ​​into concrete policy always has to be adapted. Where values ​​serve as an indisputable foundation, norms, the guideline for the actions of European citizens, provide room for this translation. The translation of values ​​into standards thus offers room for shared principles and responds to the call to respect traditions, local customs, and the individuality of regions. Politicians should not stand on one side, but in the middle of this bridge between European values ​​and national norms.

There is an essential difference between values ​​and norms. Values ​​are generally applicable starting points. Standards are more concrete, offer less room for interpretation and are therefore subject of political debate. For example, we will never question democracy, but constantly discuss how we want to shape it. In all member states government is formed on the basis of an electoral mandate, but member states vary in the way they shape this mandate. The question is how we interpret general principles on the basis of our own traditions and customs. The distinction between values ​​and norms therefore offers room to ensure nuanced differences between common starting points and thus the individuality of a member state. National parliaments play a crucial role in the translation of values in​to national standards. Politicians must demonstrate how, where and why shared European values ​​are converted into recognizable standards.

The European treaty states in article I-3 “the Union aims to promote peace, its values ​​and the welfare of its peoples“. The preamble makes a note of which values ​​are leading in achieving this goal. In addition, the subsidiarity principle must always be taken into account when drafting policy. This triplet – the aim of European cooperation, the values ​​attached, and the implementation through the principle of subsidiarity – constitutes the foundation for the European community. The treaty distinguishes the following universal values: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Values ​​are thus the guidelines of the ‘European spirit’; they are always present in and a reminder of a shared European history. It is therefore values ​​that bring about cohesion within Europe; pluralism can be found in the different actions based on these values.

At the moment, for European citizens it is no longer as clear how to act because they often can’t identify with the standards which are set. This is mainly due to the increasing degree to which the European Union seems to be setting standards independently. As a result, the scope of the individual interpretation of values ​​has been reduced. Standards are increasingly being set at the European level, while the legitimacy of standards seems to lie precisely at the national level. The agreements between customs and traditions at member state level must first be accepted before common standards can be set. Understanding each other’s diversity is a gradual process towards unity. This process is now happening far too quickly. The push towards harmonization from the community level, in particular by the European Commission, awakens a rebellious population instead of a participating population.

The problem, however, is that it is necessary to set and keep standards at the European level. For example, because member states do not comply with budget agreements, or because the abuse of the free movement of persons is not addressed by member states. The result is alienation between the population and the European administrative layer. European standards should embody a valid consensus based on common values. But citizens rightly wonder whether this consensus is there. This creates a legitimacy problem because norms can be set better at the national level, where the nuance in the differences between traditions can be guaranteed. Norms normally are founded in national and regional traditions, so that they are better anchored among the population.

Where the shared values ​​are self-evident, this does not apply to norms. European standards must be democratically legitimized at the European level. This means further integration, while standard setting at the national level does not require this further integration at all. The paradox is therefore that these European norms make visible the differences between the member states, but do not leave room for these differences. This creates the impression that the national level must act as the anchor of the individuality of member states, whereas the opposite is true for European standards.

European standards therefore put the motto of European cooperation “Unity in diversity” under heavy pressure. There is a need for an increasing number of European standards, in particular due to globalization. There is an important task for national politicians to ensure greater awareness among Europeans about our norms, how they came about, and what these mean. For example take European fiscal rules and international trade agreements. But as long as there is insufficient democratic legitimacy, European cooperation must first and foremost translate European values ​​into national level norms in order to ensure coherence within the diversity of European society.

Hubert Beusmans is policy advisor in the Dutch parliament.

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