EU Leaders Begin to Doubt "More Europe"

Beginning pre-Brexit and ending post-Turkey coup, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a series of articles under the heading, Zerfaellt Europa? (Is Europe Crumbling?). Interesting stuff. Naturally it’s all in German and that be difficult speak. I’ll supply links upon request but you’ll have to trust my summaries and translations. Or ignore this and the next post.

Jointly and severally, the articles—authored for the most part by past and present politicians—suggest several conclusions. First, the idea that there might be something wrong with the EU that can’t be fixed with the demand for “more Europe” and “ever closer union” has begun to occur to responsible politicians. Good. Second, the available amount of realism and good sense is proportional to geographic distance from Berlin. Outside Germany, politicians across the centrist political spectrum are beginning to get it. Inside Germany, relative outsiders (e.g., Thilo Sarrazin), one of the FAZ contributors) gets a sensible word in edgewise. But as one approaches the Berlin Chancellery and its occupants and hangers-on, insight gives way to denial and incomprehension. That’s a bit of a problem inasmuch as post-Brexit, the entire EU consists of a Germany surrounded by pilot fish of varying stripes and sizes. Third, even the more astute critics don’t have a plausible reform program.  Fourth, (classical) liberals can’t seem to figure this out. In this and the next post, a few illustrations and further ruminations.

Start with Hubert Védrine, a French Socialist who served as the country’s foreign minister (1997-2002). He is distressed, as he ought to be, about the rise of populism on Europe; and he insists on asking, why the discontent?  “It is truly remarkable,” he writes, that the apostles of “more Europe” never ask that question or wonder whether their own performance might have something to do with it. Instead, they stigmatize dissenters; “invoke long-exhausted founding myths (“Europe is Peace”)”; and insist that ideas of nations, states, and sovereignty have become wholly irrelevant. Not so, Monsieur Védrine insists. Political sovereignty was “an extraordinary historical achievement.” It is not some scary ghost.

All that is right, and the beginning of insight. Then again it comes with a discount. Monsieur Védrine is a Socialist, so of course he is nervous about Madame Le Pen (as well as leftist crackpots). And he is French, so of course he likes sovereignty. (His riff is indistinguishable from Charles de Gaulle’s a half-century ago.) When it comes to responses and solutions, though, the author—who  negotiated the Nice Treaty—reverts to his EU apparatchik roots. He laments the creation of “a ‘judicial-bureaucratic complex’ consisting of the Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice, which sustains a machinery that grinds on. This machinery must at long last be brought to a halt, for a full two years.  “After that, we need a full accounting or stock-taking and a new founding.”

I can tell you exactly where that would end. It’s not clear what it means to “halt” the machinery (like, the ECJ will stop hearing cases?). That, as well as the subsequent stock-taking and renewal, must be figured out by an intergovernmental process and commission which, bien sur, will be chaired by and named after the French diplomat who proposed it. It always works that way. But at least the author has sidled up to the right questions.

For the right answers (sort of) to those questions, we turn to Brendan Simms and Lukas Schmelter of the Project for Democratic Union (PDU), “a political think-tank which makes the case for a full political union of the Eurozone.” The authors get two important things right. First, the EU has come to pose the problem it was meant to solve: “The German Question” (the title of their article). Germany dominates Europe by virtue of its sheer size and prosperity. In addition,

the Germans have imported a great deal of their pre-modern political culture into the EU, especially a tendency to the juridification of political disputes, to endless debates and to an emphasis on procedure—with the result that the EU increasingly resembles the old Holy Roman Empire.  

The EU first concentrates powers—“competences, as the Europeans say”—and then “atomizes” their exercise. That, Simms and Schmelter write—and this is their second important point—is a prescription for disaster. The authors identify a series of dangerous and, in combination, “potentially deadly” problems: the Euro crisis, the Russian menace, and the influx of migrants. The EU’s inability to cope with any of those problems, they say, springs from a common source: the insistence to address, with the means that are available to a confederation of states, problems that really demand a federal government and a political union—with a common parliament, a common army, and common and jointly protected external boundaries. Thus, “[t]he solution to Europe’s crisis is the adoption of a few lessons of Anglo-American history—foremost, a common parliament, which England and Scotland created in 1707 and the American colonies shortly after their independence, as the foundation for the common finances and defense.”

Bingo: that’s what I’ve called the Hamiltonian proposition. The authors elaborate and note, fairly enough, that it’s always been and remains an Anglo-American idea. You cannot have, they write,

a passport-free area without a common state… That thesis is no mere theory but has been proven true in practical experience, just as the common currency and the common defense, without a parliamentary union, are built on sand… The [passport-free] Schengen area is only as strong as its weakest link. The British recognized all that from the get-go. That is why they stayed away from the Euro, insisted on the sovereignty of parliament, rejected the idea of a European army and refused to join the Schengen area. When that idea first came up Margaret Thatcher notoriously remarked that she had no intention of having the British border guarded by some Greek officials—like so many British reservations, a rather prescient remark. 

Oh, Maggie: what do you do with or about a union that perennially drags you away from that? I suppose you could collect your books and go back to school or steal your daddy’s cue and make a living out of playing pool. You could Brexit. That’s a logical response. Never in a million years would Britain join the EU in its present state; the Brexit vote was just a question of weighing the costs and benefits of continued membership against the costs and benefits of disentanglement. Regardless of how one answers that question, though, it’s obviously not a reform program for the EU. So what of it? Simms and Schmelter have the courage of their convictions: they propose to “formulate the ideological project of a mighty continental union that could stand as a second pillar of the free world next to the United States.”

I wish the PDU good luck. (The outfit’s publications and events are consistently interesting and a breath of fresh air.) But I fear that the authors’ own analysis strongly suggests the hopelessness of their enterprise. The EU is demonstrably incapable of a Hamiltonian insight or a constitutional moment. Among numerous other reasons: unlike the pre-Constitution Union, the EU has the misfortune of being dominated by a single member-state. If that member-state were to embark on the PDU’s proposed program, it would raise universal alarm: the “continental union” would be Germany writ large, just as the Euro is the German Mark in drag.  In that limited sense, it may be all to the good that EU powers remain “atomized”—and that Germany’s political establishment lacks imagination. More next time.