The Zollverein, or German customs union, was a scheme promoted by Prussia in the wake of the Napoleonic adventure, aimed at facilitating the greater economic integration of the patchwork or mosaic of sovereign kingdoms, States, principalities, duchies, independent City-States and archbishoprics which together had made up the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. Begun in 1818 initially on the basis of territories directly controlled by the Hohenzollerns, Prussia’s ruling dynasty, it expanded over the next 50 years to encompass the vast bulk of the German-speaking territories of Mitteleuropa, with the exception of Austria-Hungary. By 1871 this German Economic and Monetary Union had become a full political union, with the territories within the Zollverein (other than the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg) merging to form the German Reich.
In the aftermath of the devastation wreaked within Europe by World War II (or the ‘Second European Civil War’ as the enthusiastically communautaire would have it) it was proposed that there be established – at least, among the democratic-capitalist successor States of post-War Europe – a new 20th-century customs union or Zollverein. And it is this European customs union or Zollverein that remains the nucleus of what is now the European Union project. Moreover, it was within the context of creating and sustaining this European customs union that EU law was developed to ensure the protection of the four freedoms – of workers, goods, services and capital – throughout the new customs-free area serving also as a Cold War bulwark against the spread of communism in post-War Europe.
From one (perhaps paradoxical) perspective on what some might consider to be the ultimate capitalist venture, it might be said that the European Union project is based on a classic Marxian (Karl’s, not Groucho’s) analysis of human relations and society, in that it presupposes that economics will ultimately determine politics. Thus if one successfully creates a fully economically integrated cross-border customs union in Europe, national politics will eventually wither away, to be replaced by a new supra-national European polity. Where the single internal market leads, the people(s) will follow.
Given the (political) importance of the goal of economic integration, so much of the orthodox presentation of EU law focuses on its cross-border commercial aspects, creating the conditions for the free movement of goods, services, workers and capital across national borders, and ensuring the possibilities for undistorted competition within the single European market thereby created to take place.
But one of the purposes of this blog is to highlight that while such an analysis of EU law is necessary, it is most certainly not sufficient for a proper appreciation of the scope and ambitions of the EU project which – as is plain from the Preamble to and opening Articles of the post-Lisbon Treaty on European Union (TEU) – avowedly now seek to embody values greater than simply those of homo oeconomicus. Instead, in the words of Article 2 TEU, the EU is ‘founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’, seeking, as Article 3(1) TEU claims, to ‘promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples’.
Thus the economic model which the EU project promises to promote is not unbridled and unfeeling Anglo-Saxon capitalism – Nietzsche red in tooth and claw – but Euro-capitalism with a paternalist face, where the internal market which it establishes shall, in the words of Article 3(3) TFEU,
‘work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress ….’
It is against such a philosophical-economic background that the many EU law measures can best be understood. Provisions such as the Commercial Agents Directive or the Directive concerning the payment of Statutory Interest on Commercial Debts, seek, in the name of ‘fairness’ and ‘social protection’, to ameliorate the harshness of the commercial market by importing into its operation a regulatory bias in favour of those seen to be economically weaker and hence otherwise exploitable. The EU thereby seeks to create not a free market, but a commonly regulated one.