Do We Need a European State?

15. 3. 2017

This question may seem like a provocation. After all, do we not already have a European state?

According to one reading, the European Union was conceived from the beginning as project for “ever-closer” union among its member states and ultimately, the transcendence of those states through the progressive pooling of sovereignty. We now have not merely a Common Agricultural Policy, a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and many other common policies. Above all, most of Europe has a common currency, the euro, and a European Central Bank, surely a clear sign of an extant European state. The defense of the common currency, in turn, has spawned the creation of a slew of new institutions, including various stability funds, all of which amount to a eurozone state for economic purposes. Across the southern periphery of our continent, populations protest against the dictates of Brussels as if they were those of an oppressive state.

Alternatively, one could interpret the question as a challenge to the idea of a European state. On this reading, our continent is made up of many individual organically-developed polities, whose diverse characteristics not only make a single European state impossible but undesirable. This view is popular in the United Kingdom where the desire to roll back in the movement towards the United States of Europe goes well beyond the usual Eurosceptic suspects. Another argument suggests that the very idea of a state is “too twentieth-century,” applying instruments which are not suited to those of the interdependent networked new millennium. From this point of view, Europe was rescued from the Iraqi morass not merely through its principled opposition to the invasion, but also through its lack of any common armed force which might lead the EU to intervene across the world. “We don’t need no European state,” they say, in the same way as the nailless world needs no hammer.

Sadly we do not yet have a European state, but we sorely need one. The European Union today is not a state, not even a federal state, but a cross between a Confederation in the conventional sense and the old Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a sui generis entity which defies classification. A state enjoys the command of all legitimate forces on its territory and is capable, or should be, of marshalling its internal resources for the defense of its territory. In defiance of conventional political theory, the European project created a common currency before political union in a common state, rather than simultaneously, as in the United Kingdom, or even subsequently, as in the United States and the Second German Reich. This attempt was celebrated by its advocates as the constitutional and currency equivalent of a bumblebee, which famously shouldn’t be able to fly from an aerodynamic point of view. In a strange inversion of Galileo, they cried after each narrowly survived crisis: “And yet it flies!”

Worse still, the European Union is not even a confederation, in which the individual strengths of its members are aggregated. Taken together, France, Germany, Italy and the rest of the eurozone have an enormous economic clout, a nuclear weapons capability and a huge demographic base. In years gone by, such an alliance of powers, a continental union which not even Napoleon and Hitler were able to maintain for long, would have been well-nigh unbeatable. Now, it is true that in purely trade matters, the Union is a serious force to be reckoned with. Yet in foreign and security policy, matters of life and death that is, we have designed a structure calculated and perhaps even intended to diffuse rather than mobilize power. Instead of a powerful executive and representative assembly which decides by majority vote, we have a Council which requires unanimity on key strategic questions and a parliament which despite all the best efforts of its champions remains largely a talking shop. In place of decision, there is tergiversation. The British and the Americans punch above their weight in the world, we punch considerably below ours. We take the greatest economic and military potential the universe has ever seen and we atomize it. We are so much less than the sum of our parts.

This has become obvious in the Union’s response to the rise of Russian territorial revisionism in the East. President Putin some time ago signaled his intention to create a “Eurasian Union” as a direct challenge to Europe, which— even more than NATO—he saw as a threat to his western border. This was because of the “Polish effect,” the fact that whereas Poland and Ukraine enjoyed roughly the same standard of living when Communism collapsed in 1990–1991, the former has pulled far ahead since “joining Europe.” Ukrainian membership raised for Putin the terrifying prospect of being asked why those benefits should not also be enjoyed by Russians, thus unravelling the whole basis of his regime. It was for this reason that he annexed Crimea in early 2014 and then moved on to promote secession, sometimes through direct military intervention, in eastern Ukraine.

Europe reacted feebly, with Germany and Italy questioning the need for serious sanctions, let alone military measures. They were concerned about possible economic repercussions though loss of markets and energy supplies; the close relationship between Putin and the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder played an important role here. The Germans, in particular, have since hardened their stance, but they are still miles away from comprehending what has happened and what needs to be done about it. One way or the other, the immense strength of the individual members of the union was not mobilized to deal with the greatest transgression against the European legal and territorial order since the end of the Second World War. Instead, the powers cancelled each other out, allowing Putin to get away with a flagrant land-grab. This has encouraged irredentist sentiment across Europe, especially in Hungary, where nationalists are openly talking about recovering lands lost after the First World War.

Looking south, the picture is also dispiriting, though less directly threatening. Every day, thousands of economic migrants from Africa, the Maghreb and Middle East attempt to cross the Mediterranean or are engaged in planning to do so. Who can blame them, with unemployment and political instability running high at home? The Union has neither a concerted plan of dealing with the migration it undoubtedly needs for economic purposes, nor any idea how to police its southern flank. The frontline states, especially Italy, but also Spain and Greece, were long left to fend for themselves, even though the “end-user” of these refugees tends to be a prosperous northern state where jobs are plentiful (or are believed to be). The recent European attempts to share the burden through common action at sea have been woefully inadequate, and less effective than the efforts of the nation states which it replaced. As a result, the Mediterranean is fast becoming the soft underbelly of the continent through which not merely illegal migrants but extremists and terrorists can penetrate to the heart of the Union.

Finally, there is the eurozone crisis itself which has rumbled on without much respite since 2008, when the sovereign debt issue erupted first in Ireland, then Greece, and then in pretty much every state along the southern periphery of the Union. The promise of the ECB president to “do what it takes” by buying bonds restored some confidence, but the renewed prospect of a “Grexit” following the election victory of the radical left Syriza party at the start of this year has revived some of the old fears. Even if the damage could be contained fiscally much better than in 2010, the hostile demerger of a state from the currency union would take the eurozone into politically uncharted waters. It would challenge the notion of the irreversibility of European integration. If Grexit was successful, it would encourage other states to seek similar solution. If Greece became a failed state, it would be a vacuum in which xenophobic parties would thrive, and into which forces hostile to the Union would push.

All these crises, and many more besides, are of course closely linked. It is the absence of proper state instruments which prevents the economic governance of the eurozone from grappling with economic and sovereign debt crisis in the way in which the US and British governments did after 2008. Likewise, the absence of a single voice on foreign policy allows Moscow and other enemies of the EU to divide and rule. The Greek government has exploited this by repeatedly suggesting that if it was not once again bailed out by the eurozone, it might turn to Russia. It is the lack of a European Navy and the budget to finance one which makes the Mediterranean not a European lake, but the back door into the Union. And it is the lack of democratic legitimacy through an elected European parliament which decides the really great matters, such as the debt and the common defense, which is at the root of the whole malaise.

How, though, are we to achieve the European state we so desperately need? The first thing we must do is to give up the persistent conceit that political union will be constructed in a series of gradual “little steps,” as the peoples of Europe become more aware of their common destiny. Historical experience shows that the really successful unions were achieved in a relatively short period of time in the face of profound external threat. The Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, for example, created the United Kingdom in one fell swoop in order to solve Scotland’s economic crisis and mobilize both countries more effectively in the struggle against Bourbon France and its “popish” and absolutist ruler, Louis XIV. It merged the two debts which became the responsibility of the united political nation represented in the Westminster parliament. Henceforth Scotland and England would have a joint army and foreign policy. They were much “better together” in a dangerous Europe and unstable world, and have remained so for the past three hundred years despite periodic intense controversy, most recently in the independence referendum debate of 2014.

Likewise, the American colonists established the United States in response to the debt crisis generated by the costs of the War of Independence and in order to prevent their young republic from being overrun by predatory great powers. Alexander Hamilton created a single debt, for which the people represented in the House of Representatives and the Senate were responsible. A unified, union-funded army and navy was established. Many details remained to be worked out and the United States took a long time to become truly unified, but the steps were taken in one fell swoop rather than a slow process. Once again, the resulting Union went from strength to strength to dominate world politics.

Something similar will have to be done in the eurozone, and quickly. Our debts, which as an average are comfortably well below those of the United States or United Kingdom, should be consolidated into one single debt, sustained by a “Eurobond” or better “Union Bond,” for which the entire population of the eurozone represented in parliament would be responsible. This would have to be accompanied by the end of the individual state sovereignties and debt-making powers; US-style debt-ceilings should take place. The Union should handle all matters of foreign policy and enjoy the monopoly of legitimate armed force. These arrangements would of course have to be agreed by a pan-eurozone constitutional convention and then submitted to the entire voting population of the participant entities in a referendum deciding the same question on the same day across the Union-to-be.

It is a tall order. The bumblebee eurozone, which still remains the continent’s last best hope, was catapulted into the air without a properly functioning engine and landing gear. Both will have to be constructed in flight: a hazardous and difficult task, but without it we risk crash-landing someway short of our destination. Otherwise we will resemble nothing so much as the bumblebee now buzzing ineffectively around our continent, a constitutional curiosity whose obsolescence was predicted from the start.

Brendan Simms

is Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and President of the Project for Democratic Union, which advocates a full political union of the eurozone on Anglo-American constitutional principles. His research focuses on the history of European foreign policy. He has written a variety of books and articles on this subject.

He is the author of “Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present Day” (Penguin Press, 2013) and “The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo” (Penguin Press, 2014), which is about the King’s German Legion as a prototype for a future European army.

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