Ever Closer Union: Why the United States of Europe is a Pipe Dream
As much as some of the more dedicated Europhiles would like to see it, the EU is never going to become a ‘federal superstate’. Practically speaking, Blair and his generation of politicians made that an impossibility by supporting the expansion of membership to eastern Europe and the Balkans – as the important decisions in the EU need to be passed by unanimous vote, the best way to slow these things down is by adding more members (in this case, 12 new members between 2004 and 2007 alone, nearly doubling the size of the EU).
It’s like that old ‘Yes, Minister’ scene:
JIM: Why are we pressing for an increase in the membership?
HUMPHRY: Well, for the same reason; it’s just like the United Nations in fact. The more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
(See https://youtu.be/37iHSwA1SwE?t=86 if you have no idea what I’m on about here.)
With so many competing interests in Europe, any possibility of something as close as a Federation is frankly ludicrous – the pipe-dream of Europhiles and the night-terror of the Eurosceptics, respectively, but nothing more than that: a dream.
But Nationalism, I hear you Cry!
Much of the Brexit debate in the UK has centred on notions of nationhood, national sovereignty, and ‘taking back control’ from the Evil Federated Empire of Europe – indeed, the issue of sovereignty came frequently at second place in surveys of the most important issues (narrowly behind immigration control).
However, the EU does not hold this sort of power. For one thing, for this argument to carry any real weight, it would have to apply to other countries – or else you’d have to buy the absurd conspiracy that the rest of Europe were engaged in a plot against the UK. Regardless, this idea that Britain is the only country with a strong national identity in Europe is also more than a bit misleading.
- France doesn’t want to be dictated to by Germany – a brief look at the history of either nation tells you why.
- Belgium has no desire to reunite with the Netherlands – they fought a revolution to secure their independence.
- Sweden fought for its independence from Denmark (and, later, Norway did the same from Sweden) – they don’t want to be subject to each others’ diktats.
- The Balkan states certainly don’t want to pay fealty to Austrian overlords any more – that particular relationship was partly responsible for starting WW1.
- Don’t even get me started on Yugoslavia.
- Indeed, the eastern bloc states pushed their applications on the grounds that they had emerged from dictatorships and wanted to ensure they did not fall back into the Russian sphere of influence – they didn’t accede to trade one master for another, but to be their own masters.
One of the reasons such a loose coalition of states as the EU exists, rather than some federal superstate, is because of the existence of powerful national and regional identities across Europe, which preclude anything closer.
- It’s why the UK has devolved administrations for the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish parts of the country.
- It’s why the Benelux remains a loose collection of states, rather than one large one.
- It’s why Scandinavia never united, despite it being a real possibility at various points throughout history.
- It’s why a swathe of European superstates collapsed throughout history, including the Austrian Empire, the USSR and Yugoslavia.
The closest Europe can ever come to truly uniting is not far from where we are now – a loose confederation of states, each governed with a modicum of oversight from their neighbours. Indeed, much of the Leave rhetoric on ‘taking back control’ ignores the important difference between Federation and Confederation, which seems bizarre, given that the whole purpose of the Leave argument was lawfully given by the fact that the EU is, at best, a Confederation – which is free to leave.
Ancien Régimes: Why the EU is Necessary as the Sun Sets on Europe
I’d like to close on this thought from Linda Colley:
Many Britons who backed Brexit believed – and believe still – that a UK “freed” from “Europe” would be able to recover and re-establish its historic destiny as an independent global trading nation… Britain in the past, like the United States now, was used to command; and it is hard for states and populations to let such pretensions go.
Historically, the least worst option has been the best that almost all states and peoples in the world have had to settle for; many nations have not even been able to do that. Since Britain and the US have each at different times been paramount global powers, however, their politicians have for a while been able to indulge in higher ambitions, and sometimes get away with them.
But for Britain, that time has long passed. Its politicians need now to talk and think and plan not in terms of a transformative, glowing Brexit or a new, modern socialist millennium, but to put their minds together to establish what the least worst options are that they can feasibly and usefully pursue. So do impatient UK voters.
Britain – and Europe as a whole – does not live in a world of empires any more. We are not the stage of history. We do not command global empires. The world does not hang on our every word. Not any more.
Last year, Kenya inaugurated a new mega-railway, constructed and funded by the Chinese. During the same period, and despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, China reaffirmed its role as a leading supporter. It used to be imperial Britain that built and financed African railroads, while its successor empire, the United States, proclaimed itself the world’s indispensable nation. No longer.
In both the UK and the old powers of Europe (France, Germany, Spain etc) – and, perhaps, the US – unhappiness about lost or imperilled greatness has been the result of so much political upheaval over the years. Britain pioneered an influential system of parliamentary government, which it exported to the many parts of the globe under its auspices. Spanish, and later French, used to be, well, the ‘lingua franca’, and both of those nations had empires on which the sun never set. Even relatively small nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands could hold sway over a million square miles in Africa, or an extensive archipelago in the Indian Ocean. But, perhaps, Germany is the most telling of these examples – a nation which fought two world wars on the grounds that they did not possess their rightful influence (at different times colonial, territorial, nationalistic, and ethnic) on the world stage.
In the case of these nations, who acted in different ways as constitutional, colonial, economic, cultural or military role models for the rest of the world, it has made the loss or decline of international influence even harder to bear. It has also made it difficult for many people in Britain to accept the degree to which their political systems are in fact now faltering and in dire need of substantial reform.
The EU was founded as much as a means of retaining global significance in a fast-changing world as it was about some glorious pipe-dreams of pan-Europeanism. It infers a degree of pooled sovereignty, yes, but the crucial fact that the ‘take back control’ argument ignores is that this voluntary trade-off results in more power and more influence, not less. By leaving the EU, the UK is not enhancing its position, but surrendering that control and losing that influence, making itself less relevant, not more.
It seems an expensive way to get a reality check.