Courtesy Reuters

Despotism In Brussels? Misreading the European Union

In This Review

Democracy in Europe

by Larry Siedentop
Columbia University Press, 2001
272 pp. $27.50
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The process of European integration that has produced the European Union (EU) is the most ambitious and most successful example of peaceful international cooperation in world history. In the last half-century, Europe has liberalized trade, coordinated macroeconomic policies, and centralized regulatory decision-making. The single market and single currency mean that most new western European laws and regulations covering commercial and financial matters now originate in Brussels rather than in national capitals. A majority of Europe's leaders, businesspeople, and citizens believe the EU has contributed to the spread of unprecedented prosperity, peace, and democracy throughout the region.

But Larry Siedentop, an American-born lecturer on political philosophy at Oxford University, believes that all is not well in Brussels. In Democracy in Europe, he argues that the specter of "bureaucratic despotism" haunts the continent. "The rapid accumulation of power in Brussels," he warns, is transforming the EU into a centralized "tyranny." Economic liberalization has produced an ironic consequence: the triumph of the French dirigiste model of a centralized, autonomous state bureaucracy. The EU is becoming an alien "government of strangers" imposed from a remote capital -- akin to an early-modern absolutist state. Regulation by the Brussels bureaucracy erodes local self-government and corrupts individual Europeans by breeding "fear, sycophancy, and resentment" in place of traditional civic virtues such as "emulation, self-reliance, and humility." If nothing is done to reverse the trend, European citizens will rise up against the EU in war or revolution. In sum, "the prospects for Europe are bleaker than they have been since 1945."

Only one solution, Siedentop maintains, can now save Europeans from the tyranny that befell their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forebears: a written federal constitution that unambiguously defines the rights and responsibilities of the EU and of national and local governments. This constitution must eschew existing European models and take its cue from eighteenth-century America -- James Madison's "compound republic" -- with its complex separation of powers, split both horizontally (among branches of the EU) and vertically (among Brussels, the member

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