Why the European Union is not the United States of Europe


There are many different visions of the economic and political future of Europe – different from each other, some related but distinct from each other, others incompatible.

One vision is of a federal European Union, in which European institutions gaining power and authority exercise many of the functions of government.  A new sense of European identity would displace the nationalist values which caused so much death and destruction in the twentieth century.

Another vision is of a continent which, viewed as a whole, deploys the military resources and international influence appropriate to a global superpower.

And another is a vision of a constitutional settlement which not only regulates the roles of nation states and Europe’s central institutions, but which defines the fundamental rights of all its citizens and advances an agenda of liberal reform. Such a constitution might protect, not only freedom of speech and the rule of law, but economic rights to employment, housing and financial security.  A club of democratic societies that seeks to promote the virtues of openness and pluralism globally and embraces those who commit to these ideals.

There is also the vision of a dynamic, deregulated economy, characterised by free trade and liberal capital markets.  Here, the excessively generous welfare systems that have impeded growth in European economies for a generation are reorganised by a process of structural reform.

All these visions have one common element.  Their vision of Europe is of a Europe which might rival the United States of America.  Some of those who seek this result do so because they love the United States, others because they loathe it.   But the shadow of the US example is omnipresent.

The concept of a United States of Europe is also attractive to many thoughtful commentators in America itself. No-one imagines that military confrontation between the continents remains possible.  Economic competition between America and Europe offers opportunities as well as threats and  prospects of cooperation are as important as prospects of conflict.  A friendly rival superpower, with a familiar structure, might be welcome in the United States of America.  At last there would be an answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous, or notorious, question ‘if I want to talk to Europe, whom do I call?’

Business people have mostly been enthusiastic supporters of European integration, and some favour a United States of Europe.  European companies and their leaders admired the freedoms and opportunities associated with the large internal market of the United States of America.  But this enthusiasm has diminished, especially in the UK. A few eccentric businessmen have bankrolled hostile campaigns, with effects disproportionate to their number.  But the decline in support for European ideals among those who run large international corporations has been far more significant.

These managers have lived through a decade in which they have heard repeatedly unfavourable comparisons between the economic performance of the United States and that of Western Europe. They have grown more sceptical of the institutions of the European Union. They have been warned of a European future characterised by an aging population and relative economic decline.  They are increasingly inclined to think that economic prospects are rosier elsewhere.  More rapid growth, and perhaps a more favourable business climate, are to be found in the states of eastern Europe, some of which have recently joined the European Union, and in China and India.   The United States remains the largest market in the world and will continue to hold that place for decades to come.  The economic future, they perceive, lies outside old Europe.

Nevertheless, the concept of a United States of Europe remains attractive to many European politicians and government officials. In the fifty years since the European Union was established, a class of professional Europeans has come into being.  This class extends far beyond those who actually work for the European Union.   It includes people in think tanks, lobbyists, academics, regulators, individuals with specialist roles in corporations and financial institutions.  Their skills and expertise are bound up with familiarity with European institutions.  Every strengthening of the role of these institutions enhances their career prospects and status.

For politicians and officials from smaller member states a European platform offers a role in international affairs as emissaries of Europe that Danes or Luxembourgers could never previously achieve as emissaries of Denmark or Luxembourg.   For French  politicians and officials, a European platform gives an opportunity to regain a role in international affairs which the country once enjoyed, but no longer holds.   For German politicians and officials, a European platform offers an opportunity to bury the past by submerging German nationalism in a broader identity.

The debate amongst professional Europeans is peppered with acronyms – ECOFIN, PHARE and CFSP – and words pregnant with specialist meaning – acquis, cohesion, pillars.  Other terms of art recall agreeable places where leaders bickered as they enjoyed the lavish hospitality of the state which then the rotating presidency of the Union – the Luxembourg accords, the Maastricht criteria, the Lisbon agenda.

The accords, principles and agenda are mostly concerned with the institutions of Europe: the relationship between the Council of Ministers and the European Commission, the character of the European Presidency, and the structure of qualified majority voting.  These issues are of burning concern to professional Europeans and of almost no interest to a wider public.

The vision of a United States of Europe has never enjoyed much support among its putative citizens.  The people of Europe hold European institutions in low regard.   They do not much want deregulation of markets and they offer strong resistance to the erosion of the European welfare state.   They are apathetic, or even actively hostile, towards foreign policy interventions, national or European.    In 2005, the electorates of France and the Netherlands showed their contempt for both European and national political institutions by voting against the proposed European constitution.   These results were greeted with silent relief in London, where an unwise commitment to hold a referendum had exposed Britain to the risk of being the only EU member to reject the plan, and with frustration in most other European capitals.

In 2007 the document was resurrected, with cosmetic changes, and the leaders of Europe took the view that it was inappropriate, or at least unwise, to submit the new treaty to the verdict of the European public.  Except in Ireland, whose constitution required a referendum:  the Irish electorate, among the most pro-European of all, took the opportunity to throw the constitution out again.  Commentators protested that the voters mostly did not understand what was in the treaty, and this was true (the Irish premier did not help the case by admitting that he had not read it).  But their verdict was the product of a well-founded sense that there was something wrong with the procedure, and there is not much doubt that many other countries would have produced a similar result if the issue had it been put to a popular vote.

Yet the surveys that show this disdain for European institutions also show enthusiasm for the practical consequences of integration.  Modern European citizens benefit from trains, buses and planes which ignore national frontiers; from the ability to buy goods or property in another country without there being anything risky or abnormal about the transaction; by not having to change currency or show a passport; and, above everything else, from their confidence that there will never be a repetition of the disastrous wars which engulfed the continent for ten years of the last century, and coloured not just its politics but everyday life, for much longer.  Almost all these measures of substantive integration are the result of specific measures initiated in Brussels.  The Schengen agreement has eliminated the need for passports, and the Maastricht Treaty closed the currency exchange booths.

This tension between the approval of the results and disapproval of the means by which they were achieved, was well described by Peter Sutherland, the outstanding Irish commissioner who became an international figure through his successful development of the competition portfolio.  ‘Whenever electorates of the member states are required actually to vote, they have shown that the generalised goodwill and enthusiasm displayed by the Eurobarometer surveys cannot be translated into support for the European Union’.   The problem is often described as Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’.  This expression is almost always a prelude to a proposal for some complex reform of the structure of European institutions.

But, as the voting on the constitution revealed, more democracy would expose the problem rather than resolve it.  As Sutherland went on to explain, the fundamental issue arises from obscurity, even deception, about the real nature of the European project.  Although the aspiration of many professional Europeans is that Europe should acquire many or all of the attributes of the nation state, such an outcome is neither feasible nor widely desired.  Yet the European Union is more than an association of member states – like the United Nations or NATO.  But then what is the status of the Union to be?   In 1972, on the verge of Britain’s entry to the EU, Andrew Shonfield delivered a series of lectures describing the European project as ‘a journey to an unknown destination’.  Forty years later, greater clarity about the destination should have emerged, but it has not.   And without some better articulated vision, the tension between the institutions of the Union and its grumpy citizens can only increase.

Such a vision cannot be based on simple emulation of the United States.  There are fundamental differences between the EU and US:

  • The judiciary is a significant policy-making body in the United States of America. Probably the most important political decision of the last fifty years – to eliminate racial segregation – was taken, not by President or Congress, but by the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education and subsequent judgments. In 2000, with voters more or less equally divided, the Court selected George Bush as President.
  • Abortion is a centrally divisive – perhaps the most divisive – political issue in the United States of America, with conflicting assertions of the Right to Life and the Right to Choose. The Right to Choose is today secured by a 1973 Supreme Court decision.  The appointment of new Supreme Court justices is eagerly anticipated by both sides which hope, or fear, that a different Court would rescind that verdict.
  • The United States of America has weak gun controls, a prison population which is, per capita, seven times that of Western Europe. Most states have the death penalty amongst their statutes and many use it. All EU states have strict gun regulation and the abolition of capital punishment is a de facto requirement of EU membership.
  • The USA is unique among developed countries in having no universal healthcare system.

The remarkable feature of these comparisons is not simply the magnitude of the differences in process or outcome: it is that there is no likelihood at all that the policies and constitutional arrangements maintained on one continent will be adopted on the other.

Behind these comparisons lies a central historical fact.  The United States was populated by immigrants who had either rejected the culture of the society from which they came, or taken substantial personal risks in order to secure a better economic future for themselves and their children.  Europe is the continent from which a majority of these immigrants, and an overwhelming majority of those who were influential in determining the culture of the new society, had come.  These historic differences are reflected to this day in different assessments of the nature and balance of rights and obligations and in differences in the role of individual action versus social solidarity.

These differences translate into different demands on political institutions.  They explain how the EU requires new kinds of institutions, not paralleled in other parts of the world.  To understand the European Union, and to begin to perceive the shape of its future, it is necessary to move outside the categories defined by the nation state.  In the words of the American commentator Philip Bobbitt in his magisterial survey of centuries of European history:

‘It is a failure of imagination, however, to assume that the only thing that will replace the nation-state is another structure with nation-state-like characteristics.  It is in some ways rather pathetic that the visionaries in Brussels can imagine nothing more forward-looking than the equipping of the EU with the trappings of the nation state.’

The European Union has no analogue among existing institutions.  Its evolution is the development of what some commentators, such as Robert Cooper, have described as the postmodern state.

A postmodern European state emphasises the social identity of the individual, and celebrates that identity in communities, but is anxious to divorce those shared social values from aggressive nationalism.  Postmodern European society is liberal and tolerant, but its liberalism and tolerance result from the liberal and tolerant attitudes of its citizens rather than from constitutional guarantees.  This Europe is generous to the indigent and unfortunate, recognises the contributions of the elderly, is compassionate to the sick, and supportive of the unemployed, but bases such generosity on social solidarity from the giver rather than an assertion of the rights of the recipient.

The postmodern European state is a representative democracy, and its ideal leader is an honest man or woman striving for the public good, not a representative of a coalition of interest groups assembled for no more uplifting, or united, purpose than to achieve a bare majority of the vote and  take home goodies for the constituents that  elected them.  Postmodern European democracy is consensual rather than majoritarian. Views cannot be disregarded merely because they have been outvoted, but minorities do not enjoy an indefinite right to block what most people want. The postmodern European state is a market economy, but one which recognises that market institutions function effectively and legitimately only in a social context.  The postmodern European state is a society whose social and economic regulation is largely internalised rather than imposed by rules and laws and enforced by adversarial legal proceedings.

The postmodern state is not a nation state; it is very different from the entities envisaged since the Peace of Westphalia. It is one and it is many. It is Denmark, it is London, it is France, it is Catalonia, it is Bavaria, it is Luxembourg, it is Germany, it is Malta, it is the Eurozone, the European Union and the European Economic Area. European institutions are then the places where all these governments interact and jostle for authority. And each of these governments will seek to expand its own power at the expense of the others.

It should hardly need stating that this inevitable desire to gain power is better, if sometimes less satisfyingly or conclusively,  resolved in council rooms in Brussels than by dropping bombs on each other’s capitals. More than two centuries of European history were characterised by a division of the continent into three or four groupings which made fragile and temporary alliances against others and rather too frequently sent their armies trampling through the territories of states such as Belgium and Poland which were not clearly part of larger groupings.  Almost all Europeans hope that this history ended in the ruins of Berlin in 1945. And yet one only has  to listen to the inflammatory rhetoric, much of it directed against anonymous others, which is today heard across the European continent and in the United States  to realise that the tribal aggression which has been part of human nature since humans evolved is never far below the surface.

Within that historical context, complaints of unjustifiable interference in the admissible curvature of bananas or the use of balloons by children are risible –  the complaints of people who have nothing significant to complain about. Part of the reason the European Parliament and Commission appear greedy for power is that they have so little. They have no role, or a very minor one, in collecting taxes and distributing benefits, in providing education, health or defence, in delivering social care – and these are the principal things that modern government does. A European entity is best placed to negotiate trade agreements, reduce barriers to the movement of goods, people and capital, regulate aviation and atmospheric emissions – and these are the areas which have in practice been assigned to European institutions. Arguments over the precise distributions of powers will continue indefinitely – as they should, now that we have in place mechanisms for their peaceful resolution.

The vision of Europe I describe is  one which welcomes European integration, sees a European identity as a complement to national identity, not a substitute for it, and does not equate ‘ever closer union’ with additional powers for supra-national institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg.

That vision of Europe starts from a recognition of the strengths of European traditions and values – its public culture, its pluralism, rationalism and tolerance, its political and economic freedoms.  But such a vision is founded in recognition of the key lessons of twentieth-century European history – the dangers of totalitarian leadership, the costs of nationalist wars, and the economic damage done by centralised control. The vision is not a picture of a known destination. But it prescribes a direction of travel.




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