The United States of Europe

The EU's problems go much deeper than debt.

The reasons that the European Union has such great difficulty in dealing with the debt amassed by several of its members (and many of its banks!) run much deeper than it seems. The EU has been trying to act increasingly as if it were one nation—the United States of Europe—without developing the kind of loyalties and commitments only nations can elicit from their citizens. Nations are particularly strong communities. The clearest sociological test for the national level of the communal bonds is that people are willing to die for their nation; no one is even thinking about dying for the EU.

Another indication is the level of economic sacrifice one is willing to make for the community. The West Germans gave the equivalent of a trillion dollars to the East Germans in the decade that followed unification with little hesitation. “They are fellow Germans” was about all the explanation that was needed. However, the same Germans have a very hard time granting much smaller amounts to Greece and other EU nations that are in trouble. They are not members of “the tribe.”

Americans can readily gain insight into this same phenomenon. Once every few years, some reporter will call attention to the fact that, in the United States, southern and midwestern states pay substantially fewer taxes and gain a disproportionately larger share of the federal outlays than do the northern states. However, such stories have very short legs; these are fellow Americans, case closed. In contrast, when Americans are asked to extend much smaller amounts to other nations than the wealthier states (say, Connecticut and New York) give to the poorer states (such as Mississippi and Alabama) in the union, this is called foreign aid, and it is widely opposed.

The trouble with the EU is that, although it started like a free-trade zone, it is increasingly seeking to make EU-wide decisions on many economic and social policies—policies that benefit some members and cause much pain to others—without first building a strong community. This is essential in order for people to be willing to make significant sacrifices for “others.”

True, the EU tried to build shared sentiments. It fashioned a flag of its own in the form of a circle of stars, and its logo is displayed on car license plates and on the beaches. It also arranged for student exchanges and a few other such rather inane measures. The net result has been some, albeit rather limited, increase in a commitment to Europe, especially among the young—but not to the EU and its institutions.

Worse, the EU made a move which cannot but be considered a sociological bomb. It both expanded and “deepened” at the same time. Over the last decade, it has added twelve new members, including Poland, Slovakia, Cyprus, Malta and Romania. It now totals 27 members who differ greatly in their values, interests, politics and much else. Long before these differences could be muted and strong, shared commitments could be developed, the EU also decided to move from what was largely a requirement for unanimous rule (which meant that every member, in effect, had a veto power) to a majority rule in many matters. It now compels those in the minority to make sacrifices of a magnitude they are not necessarily ready to make.

Trying to overcome the resulting weaknesses, the EU discussed the appointment of a full-time President of the European Council to serve a term of two and a half years, to replace the existing system of rotating presidencies every six months, as well as a Union Minister of Foreign Affairs (to speak for the whole EU). However, these changes ran into such opposition that the final Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 established the President of the European Council without abolishing the rotating six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union and changed the title of Union Minister of Foreign Affairs to High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (who is considered a chairman, rather than a foreign minister)—and rather weak persona were chosen for these posts. Meanwhile, due to open-border policies, the EU faces challenges that arise from the large flow of illegal and legal immigrants from Africa that some nations (e.g. Italy and Spain) in effect admit into other nations (such as Germany, the UK and France). These immigrants are troubling to the natives because they are held to undermine the public order, tax the social services, take jobs from the locals and heed different values and traditions than the prevailing ones in the countries they seek to make their home.

The EU thus faces two basic choices. The first is to retreat to a much lower level of integration and become basically a glorified trade union, which combines a free flow of goods with the harmonization of numerous, largely administrative laws but allows each country to manage its own economy, borders and polity. (This may well entail giving up the Euro and restoring national borders.) This is the likely course to be followed. Or the EU could move to a much higher level of integration and create a union akin to that of the U.S., for which there is rather little support. But the EU cannot stand between two stairs, as it is trying to do as it seeks to find its footing.