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Why Europe Must Decentralize

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When Sweden abandoned its open border with the rest of the Schengen Area, and started checking passports, that created a bottleneck in Denmark. Migrants and refugees were traveling through Denmark in large numbers, but when Sweden closed its border, many of those migrants stopped and stayed in Denmark.

Consequently, Denmark has now ended its open border policy as well, and is now turning people away at the Danish-German border. In response, the Swedes, Germans, and Danes have entered into "emergency talks" in Brussels in an attempt to save the open-border zone known as the Schengen Area from becoming a thing of the past.

The Schengen Area first splintered following the terrorist attacks in Paris late last year, and the French border controls remain in place to this day. Nicolas Sarkozy has declared "Schengen is dead."

De Facto Decentralization at Work

The result has been a de facto decentralization of border control in Europe — and thus greater overall decentralization in practice. Predictably, to counter this threat, the EU has attempted to impose more centralized government control on Europe in the form of a centralized bureaucracy and police force that will oversee border control.

This means politicians in Brussels will regulate how the border is administered in faraway Hungary and Poland. Naturally, member states have expressed concerns. "Don't worry," the head of the new border force has assured them. “[local] sovereignty is not at stake.” By which they mean, "local control." 

But the attempt to "Euro-ize" the border merely illustrates the fact that the EU project is greatly concerned with further centralizing political power in Europe.

Freedom Doesn't Need a Centralized State

The EU's latest moves belie the EU's oft-repeated claim that it is about open borders, free trade, and other principles behind genuinely liberal government.

And yet, a central European state has never been necessary to achieve this goal, and the states that control the EU — namely Germany and France — have always been free to enact unilateral open borders, just as they are free to enact unilateral free trade.

However, the welfare state, government centralization, and bureaucratic control are so ingrained in the DNA of modern European elites that it would never occur to them to do much of anything nowadays without imposing a central bureaucratic state on the affairs of member states in the name of "freedom," "unity," or "human rights."

Nevertheless, if one really is in favor of greater freedom for people and trade, attempts at entering into international agreements to regulate the flow of people, capital, or goods is counterproductive to the stated goals.  This is why most early liberals, including Vilfredo Pareto, J.B. Say, and early Richard Cobden all opposed international agreements.

But, never content with genuine laissez faire treatment of their neighbors, the architects of the EU instead created a means of imposing the will of the dominant states within the EU on the other member states.

For decades, they have managed to buy the support of the less powerful regimes with cash extracted from the hapless taxpayers of the more powerful EU nations. The result has been a large government-forced transfer of wealth from taxpayers in Germany, France, and the UK, to poorer states like Poland, Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

The poorer states were happy for the "free" money, but some have remained protective of local control. Just as with the US, once the less powerful member states become dependent on money from the central government, they're much more easily convinced when it comes to surrendering local control to the central state.

In recent years, though, even this method of control has started to come up short.

Brussels Gets Aggressive

The reaction to the failure of the Schengen Area offers one example of the centralist impulse within the EU, but for another illustration of of how the EU works, we need look no further than the EU's reaction to Poland's recent elections.

In response to Poland's election of an allegedly "far right" party, German politicians, among others, have responded by calling for sanctions against Poland's government for supposed violations of the EU's requirements for freedom of speech.

Soon after, "Brussels...launched an unprecedented probe ... into whether Poland was breaching the EU’s democratic principles."

So, we get down to what the EU is really about. It's not about free trade or free movement. It's about controlling member states and dictating how member states will hold elections or conduct internal affairs. 

This latest controversy comes on the heels of resistance from Hungary over border controls, and it was unsurprising when Hungary came to Poland's defense against what Hungarian PM Viktor Orban called "groundless measures from the rather pompous older democracies."

Moreover, Poland's latest conflict with the Germans comes after long-simmering annoyance with the fact that the Western Europeans control the European Pariament thanks to their larger populations.

In fact, back in 2007, Polish PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski violated one of the great taboos of European politics when he mentioned World War II and the fact that Poland too would have a very large population had the Germans not killed so many of them. Specifically, Kaczynski noted: "We are merely demanding what was taken from us ... If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939-45, Poland would be today looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million [a population roughly equal to France today]."

This earned much condemnation from other states that are influential in Brussels (states mostly of Teutonic extraction) who said Poland was being unfair to Germany, although the Czech PM (perhaps unsurprisingly) was rather more understanding of Poland's position. 

Poland has been repeatedly told to just "get over it" by EU politicians, but Poland (and the Eastern Europeans) are not simply reacting to some one-time calamity of the past, but a pattern of behavior in which large economic and political interests (including those of Western Europe) enthusiastically take advantage of their size and political influence to get what they want from less powerful states. 

Universal Rights, Locally Enforced 

The whole situation illustrates that in the EU, the endgame is political unity in which officials of the central government will be able to bring everyone in Europe under the rule of Brussels and its elites. 

Free movement of workers, free trade, and free speech are all good things, but "freedom" imposed by far off politicians — who are ultimately unaccountable to the people who will be ruled by them — is hardly the way to ensure actual freedom in practice.

If the Poles make the mistake of limiting freedom of the press (for example), having a "remedy" imposed by EU agents would be a cure worse than the disease, and would invite far greater violations of civil liberties from a far more empowered EU state in the future. This is the perennial irony behind imposing a respect for universal rights from above, and was the reason that Murray Rothbard's position was that "rights may be universal, but their enforcement must be local,"

Some will dispute the wisdom of this position and claim that a common government will prevent violence, and allow for a working out of conflicts in a parliamentary forum instead of on the battlefield.

If that were true, civil wars, rebellions, police states, massacres, and the whole gamut of violent conflicts that occur within the borders of a nation-state would not exist. Replacing interstate wars with intrastate wars is hardly "progress," and the answer lies not in centralization but in further decentralization and in regimes staying out of the internal affairs of its neighbors, especially in cases so minor and utterly irrelevant to the affairs of neighbors as in the case of Poland's recent elections.  

Indeed, if common government is necessary for peace, why have Canada and the US been at peace with each other since 1815? Why have Mexico and the US been at peace since 1916? Why has there been no interstate wars beyond small border disputes between South American states for more than a century? (There have, of course, been multiple civil wars in South America during that time.)

As Ludwig von Mises pointed out many times, the reason for peace in these cases is not because of some government imposed from far-off elites, but because a widely-held desire for peaceful commerce has overcome the desire for military conquest. Only an ideological change can overcome the problems of military conflict. 

Those who control the EU, however, want to take the shortcut in which "peace" is imposed by force from Brussels. But, if the regimes of Western Europe are so concerned about freedom of speech, or open borders, or free trade, let them set the example by embracing such things.

We shouldn't hold our breath. To do this would require these states to scale back their welfare states (as open borders are incompatible with welfare states), to embrace free speech which France and Germany reject, and to allow true free trade, which of course is a non-starter among the European elites of today. 

But, this doesn't stop the EU from lecturing its less powerful member states about what freedom means. It's doubtful they see the irony, though. 


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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