Last time around, I gave you all the rundown of my visit to the European Parliament on the 25th anniversary of German Reunification. It’s time for me to put on my International Relations nerd hat on and get into the nitty gritty.
The big question of the afternoon was the state of the European Union, and more accurately, how ‘much’ union there was to be. The two opening speeches by Merkel and Holland boiled down to several buzzwords: “More,” “Solidarity,” and “Union.” The heart of the debate was what shape and form the European project would take in the coming years. In recent times, the European Union has barely dodged a triple-dip recession, endured the Grexit crisis, and is currently grappling with the migrant crisis. With that in mind, tensions were high.
First off, what is interesting from an American perspective is how immigration is seen in Europe. It was mentioned by one of the debaters later on the marked contrast between the US and Europe: broadly speaking, the big European nations are used to emigration while the US is used to immigration. By no means does that indicate that the US is better at handling immigration, but I would wager we are more ‘used’ to it.
In any case, the migrant crisis was brought up as a warning sign for the European project. The ability for the EU to react and solve such crises is up in the air. In the EU, there is a severe lack of federal authority, thus large actions have to be taken with everyone in agreement. This limits needed and expedient unilateral action…and when an individual state takes it into their own hands, it gets ugly. For example, there were many who were upset with Merkel’s unilateral action several weeks ago to tighten security around the Austrian border. Fears that the Schengen Area agreement might collapses were abound and many were quite vocal about their distaste at the marked power difference between the two big continental powers and their smaller compatriots.
One answer to these woes was to break up the EU or at the very least, hamstring its abilities. There are already very vocal and salty members of the Parliament who support that, with a British MEP plain out saying that was his group’s goal, beginning with a potential Brexit.* Generally speaking, more conservative members of the parliament alluded to, and sometimes explicitly mentioned, the idea of traditional sovereignty and national borders. The European Project sought to end territorial spats and foster greater European cooperation…but they feel that the costs of that have come to their national sovereignty and ability to navigate in international affairs. Not to mention that they feel bullied around by the two big dogs, France and Germany.
*In 2017 there is a planned referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, affectionately called “Brexit.”
Interestingly, one of the largest counter-arguments to EU dissolution was the fear of American or Chinese domination. It surprised me a bit, actually, but made sense from their perspective. Isolated, the individual states would find themselves vulnerable to manipulation from the US or China, but together, they would be harder to push around.
Mind you, most of the speakers would only allude to these ideas. The ideas of breaking up the Union or solidifying it further are rather radical to say the least. The only ones who were particularly explicit in their distaste were the radical conservatives—including France’s version of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen. A member of the European Parliament and President of France’s third-largest political party, the National Front, she is one of the most vocal and conservative forces in their politics today. And that’s putting it lightly. She’s known for her bluster, media recognize and incorrigible convictions. When she had her chance to speak, she shouted at Merkel, saying that she “refused to recognize her” as a leader, and she didn’t give Hollande much of a break either.
But, in my honest opinion, splitting up the European Union is probably a bad idea…for Europeans. While I was there, I was reminded of a rather fascinating article: “The Philadelphian System: Sovereignty, Arms Control, and Balance of Power in the American States-Union, Circa 1787-1861,” by Daniel Deudney. That’s a mouthful, I realize, but I remember reading it in my Global Order class last Spring. It was…radical to say the least. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s certainly fascinating.
The gist was this: The United States used to be seen not as a single sovereign country, but rather as a tight collection of sovereign states. This is an important distinction, actually: Alexander Hamilton, for example, advocated for free trade between American states precisely because people viewed them as sovereign states. Today it would be absurd to think of California and Oregon like we think of Germany and Austria, but back then, it was sort of accurate. Deudney argued that much of the early dysfunctions with the US came from that distinction, and it was only after the Civil War that the idea of a singular United States of America finally was cemented. His prescription for solving interstate problems was the idea of union.
For those who remember early US history, the US was originally organized under the Articles of Confederation. Back then, states would voluntarily give tax dollars to the federal government and executive authority was completely impotent. This was due in part to fear of an over-powerful executive—the US had a revolution over that, after all. But, the framers figured out pretty quick that that wasn’t an efficient way of organizing the states and the Constitution was born. Mind you, scuffles over “State’s Rights” (Basically code for sovereignty, to an extent) continued, but they were mitigated by a federal authority. The Civil War was the ultimate confirmation of that Union through federal authority.
Now, how does that tie back to the EU? Well, from my perspective (aided by Deudney’s insights), the European Union resembles the early US, particularly during the era of the Articles of Confederation. Many of its problems stem from the lack of true federal authority, the inability to levy effective union-wide taxes and a comparably weak central bank—just as the US did. The ‘solution’ would be a real union, to turn the EU into a sort of United States of Europe. That may sound a little crazy, but that idea was in the subtext of last week’s debate. It was even explicitly referred to (positively) by a Belgian MEP, Guy Verhofstadt, during the debate. When that happened, I nearly jumped out of my seat. I had seen them debate and argue, beating around the union bush, and bam, someone actually advocated for a federal union.
Does this mean the European Union will become a mega-state, one to rival the US and China? Probably not any time soon..but the seeds of that idea have been sown. Now the question is whether the EU can make it to that point or be destroyed by national differences. Time will tell.