United States of Europe: the end of a dream?

di Giorgio La Malfa - 12/10/2007 - Politica estera
United States of Europe: the end of a dream?
1.     When it all started, in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, the final destination was clear. In the mind of statesmen like Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Altiero Spinelli and indeed Jean Monnet, the nations of Western Europe should set themselves to renounce their sovereignty and give birth to a supranational entity forged on the same lines of the United States of America: the United States of Europe, with its own Army, a single Currency, a Parliament and a Federal Government. The first natural, as well as necessary, members of the group were to be France and Germany, the arch-enemies whose rivalry had periodically bloodied Europe. Work on the project should begin immediately and be completed in a very short span of years.
60 years later, one can say that a dramatic change, perhaps an everlasting one, has taken place in Europe. Who could imagine in 1945-1946 that we would travel in most of Europe without passports and that we would pay our bills in a common currency? Who could think that the European Union would encompass both its Western part and its Central and Eastern part? And yet, as to  the final destination, the political union of Europe appears still far away, perhaps as difficult to achieve as at the beginning of the process. Why is this happening? Is it possible to resume and speed up the process? What will happen if further progress towards a politically integrated Europe will prove impossible?
These are the questions one has to address to assess where Europe is today and  where it is heading.
 
2.     In the very first period, in the forties and fifties when the process started, three powerful factors helped propel the project and keep it on a steady course. In the first place the nation States of Western Europe were at the nadir of their power and influence. They were held responsible for the tragedy of the war, the destruction of the countries involved in it, the plight of their people. The European states could claim no great achievement in the first part of the xx century. They could only hope to recover some of their standing through mutual cooperation.
The second element was the fear of the Soviet Union. As Churchill famously said in his Fulton speech of March 1946: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere”. To this he added, in September 1946, in a speech in Zurich, that it was necessary to form a Council of Europe to join forces to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding further its hold on Europe.
The third element was the encouragement from the US. The Americans took a decisive stand in favour of European integration as they felt that a stronger, rearmed and united Europe would stabilize the Continent and make less imminent a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.
 
3.     From the very beginning there were two views as to the way to go about Europe’s unification. The strict federalists, their leading figure being Altiero Spinelli, claimed that it was necessary to start with the political decision to form a federal union and then proceed to work-out the details. They advocated a big bang solution. The alternative view, of which J. Monnet was the most coherent interpreter, was to proceed incrementally starting with economic integration, each successful step preparing the ground for the next. Political union would then be the natural outcome of the process of integration.
The big-bang solution was put to a test when in August 1954 the French Senate failed to ratify the Treaty forming a European Defence Community. After this setback there was no choice. The functionalist approach of Jean Monnet became the only strategy which could be utilized to move the European project forward. As a matter of fact, this approach has served Europe well for quite a long span of time. The economic road to integration has been highly successful: the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the Common Market in 1958, the progressive liberalization of capital movements from the Seventies onwards, the completion of the internal market from the mid-Eighties, the European Monetary System in 1979, the European Central Bank in 1999 and finally the changeover from national currencies to the euro in 2002. And yet, for all these very successful advances in the economic sphere, political unification has lagged behind.  From 1979 there is a directly elected European Parliament whose powers have progressively expanded; the areas of political cooperation have increased enormously; foreign policy and defence policy are no longer strictly reserved to the member States. But the fact is that in the realm of political decisions the European Union is and seems poised to remain at best a Confederation of sovereign States. Why is it so?
 
4.     The answer is that the three factors which propelled, in the first post-war period, the political integration of Europe have largely ceased to operate. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 have all but eliminated the threat coming from the East. This in turn has vastly reduced, in the American eyes, the value of a fully integrated Europe. Quite to the contrary, in many areas the EU tends to be seen by the US nowadays more as a threat to its role and status than as a strategic partner. But in a sense the most significant change has occurred in the attitude of the member States. In a very perceptive essay which was published in 1983, Stanley Hoffman, one the most knowledgeable American scholars of European problems, observed that “the EEC regime has served not only to preserve the nation states, but paradoxically to regenerate them and to adapt them to the world of today. Far  from leading to a supranational, European nation-state, it has put pressure on the members to modernize their economy”. His conclusion was that, while economic integration would proceed smoothly because it was in the interest of all member states, they would oppose political integration as no longer indispensable for the well-being of their citizens.
 
5.     From 1989 onwards Europe has tried to move to a higher stage of political integration, but largely to no avail. In 1988, the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, produced a detailed plan for a European Monetary Union which would include the creation of an European Central Bank and a single currency. It was obvious, and it was reiterated, both by those who were in favour as well as by those who were against the proposal, that a monetary union would imply and at the same time require a political union – “nothing less than a United States of Europe” as a Chancellor of the Exchequer put the matter to explain why the UK was against the project. In giving the green light to the Plan, the Strasbourg European Council of December 1989 set up two Intergovernmental Conferences, dealing respectively with the economic aspects of the Plan and with the institutional changes which would go with it. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 contained a detailed road map for the construction of the EMU, but no significant progress as to the political and institutional aspects of the Union.
 
6.     The next test of the will by the member States to proceed along the road to political integration was the question of the enlargement of the EU towards the East. After the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, it was evident that the new independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe would be powerfully attracted by institutions like NATO and the EU. But it was also obvious that the aspiration of those countries to join the EU posed a difficult problem. Insofar as the prospect of joining the EU would accelerate and reinforce the transition of those countries to democracy and the market economy, it was impossible to shut them out. But it was also clear that to work properly and to take meaningful decisions a Union of 27 States or more would require a new institutional set-up and a decision-making body similar in essence to a Federal Government. So it was argued that parallel to the widening of the Union, a deepening of its institutions should take place. The former has occurred according to the time schedule which was originally decided. The latter was largely a failure as attested by the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties and by the fate of the Constitutional Treaty.
 
7.     In view of the difficulties met by the process of political integration in Europe, it is legitimate to ask whether there is a way to resume and speed up the process and which would be the consequences of a protracted stalemate. Here we have to rely on hunches as to the future, which also include an assessment of the personalities of the heads of State or Government in some of the EU countries. There is a new generation of leaders in Germany, France and the UK whose intentions as far as Europe is concerned are not fully known so far and whose political ability to perform on the European scene is largely untested. It is also difficult to assess the effective working of a Union of 27 members and the determination with which some of the new members will pursue their aims or express their idiosyncrasies. Granted that some of these questions cannot be answered a priori, the situation does not look very promising. It is likely that Europe shall remain for quite a while in the present condition of a very uneven state of integration. In some areas, such as monetary policy, agriculture, external economic relations Sovereignty has been fully transferred to the Union. In others, such as budgetary policies, there is effective coordination through the Commission or the Council of Ministers. In others, however,  such as foreign policy, there is the possibility for the Union to act only if Members States agree, which amounts to very little. As for the prospect of creating an effective mechanism for political decision at EU level, i.e. a Federal Government, it looks as if  we are very far away.
 
8.     This state of affairs, which is likely to continue, obviously greatly impairs the capacity of the Union to act and be effective on the international scene. Take the case of the threat stemming from the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, the French proposal of imposing European sanctions is currently met by a sceptical response in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. The quest for an independent Kosovo is going to receive a variety of reactions at European level. Even the crucial decision on Turkey’s membership of the EU may elicit widely different responses among the member States.
 
9.     This brings us to the final question. Traditionally those who are in favour of speeding up Europe’s political integration do claim that the alternative to more integration is disintegration i.e. the unwinding of some of the achievements of the past Sixty years. Is there the danger for the Union to dissolve itself? Certainly one cannot exclude that one country might decide to leave the Union altogether. One could for instance imagine that a Conservative Government might decide to pull UK out of the EU. But even this seems to be a fairly remote possibility in view of the economic costs that such a move might entail. In fact I do not perceive a threat of disintegration. European countries are by now strictly woven by a web of institutions which constitute a solid link among them. Moreover Europe has developed a set of common values which distinctly characterize it. It has an identity, if not a personality. This will stay with us even if we cannot act together. No disintegration, perhaps not further political integration, at least for the time being; an economic giant, a political dwarf, unable to play the role it could in Asia or in the Middle East. This is Europe today, for good or bad. No radical change appears likely in the near future.
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