After the ‘seismic’ shock of ‘Brexit’ a re-appraisal is taking place in the EU concerning the future direction the remaining 27 member states could take. There are three possibilities: ‘more Europe’, ‘less Europe’ or ‘business as usual’. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, is in no doubt as to the future direction that the EU must not take. In a recent speech he argued that in order to prevent the second scenario, the EU must not attempt the first.
Increasingly louder are those who question the very principle of a united Europe. The spectre of a break-up is haunting Europe and a vision of a federation doesn’t seem to me to be the best answer to it.
Tusk is, of course, right in pointing out that the aspiration of ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’, expressed in the opening sentence of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and repeated subsequently in all important EU treaties, lacks wide popular support in the EU. ‘An ever closer union’ is generally assumed to mean not only greater economic but also greater political integration in Europe which could eventually involve the creation of a pan-European ‘super-national’ state. This prospect, according to Tusk, is a ‘utopian’ aspiration which the political leadership of the EU would do well to scale down in order to prevent any further disconnect with the majority of ordinary citizens, a disconnect which could lead eventually to the break-up of the EU.
The diagnosis that the EU general public is not yet ready for the creation of a United States of Europe is not new. Indeed, from the outset European political leaders were aware that their vision of a politically united, federal Europe did not command wide popular support; so the idea was never seriously debated, openly promoted or a popular mandate directly sought for what has come to be known as the ‘European project’ though some partial consent was sought in the plebiscites on the proposed 2005 constitution. This, however, has created, over time, a kind of ‘vicious circle’ whereby there was no serious debate about the creation of a federal political system in Europe because the idea was unpopular; and the idea remained unpopular, in part, because there was no serious debate about it. The unpopularity of a politically united Europe has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fact that the federalist ideal was/is unpopular has not, of course, stopped political leaders and policymakers in the EU from putting in place slowly, gradually and incrementally an implicit federal structure. This transformation of Europe took place without any direct popular consent (apart from those referendums) or a clear indication of when and how this implicit federalist structure was to become an explicit or a completed political union. This process, however, was not necessarily undemocratic. It was an example of indirect democracy whereby democratically elected political leaders of EU sovereign nation states resorted to inter-governmental decision-making to create the current status quo that, in principle, can be reversed through the same process.
The danger that Tusk identified is that pro-Europe parties could be voted out of office which, in turn, could lead to the disintegration of the EU from within if a significant number of Eurosceptic governments are elected. European political leaders, therefore, can prevent the disintegration of the EU by becoming more in tune with their electorates and reject the ‘utopia’ of a politically united federal Europe, “a utopia of Europe without nation states, a utopia of Europe without conflicting interests and ambitions, a utopia of Europe imposing its own values on the external world, a utopia of Euro-Asian unity”.
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Pursuing this ‘utopia’ of a federal Europe, therefore, might be not only futile but also, counter-productive in this view. What needs to be taken into account in this assessment, however, is the very strong possibility that without political reform and greater political integration, the existing status quo in Europe might not be viable as well. The expectation of an imminent political unification of the EU might be ‘utopian’; but so is the belief that the current status quo can survive without greater political integration. Historically there has never been a successful and durable economic and monetary union without a political union: an ever closer union is hence unpopular and at the same time necessary.
It is tempting to play down the prospect of greater political integration for fear of reinforcing the centrifugal forces in Europe. This danger is real and it cannot be underestimated. Refusing to debate this vital issue, however, can be equally damaging as only the negative aspects of political union will be presented and the obvious weaknesses of an unreformed EU exploited by Eurosceptics throughout Europe.
A democratic political alternative to the existing political status quo in Europe is, however, possible. There is no ready-made ‘blueprint’ of how this is to be achieved but political union is a truly positive outcome that would improve the economic and democratic functioning of the EU and secure peace and prosperity in 21st century Europe. The great challenge is to convince a sceptical European public that ‘an ever closer union’ is part of the solution and not part of the problem. Many of the current problems that threaten the stability and the very existence of the EU, such as free unrestricted movement of labour or fiscal transfers, would not be so intensely divisive issues in a federal political system. But is the establishment of a formal federation in Europe anything other than a ‘utopia’?
A federal Europe is only a ‘utopia’ if there is a pragmatic and realistic alternative. The feared break-up of the EU is more likely to be prevented if Europe’s political leaders were to ignore Tusk’s advice and provide a more constructive rival narrative of political integration. Whether such leadership exists in the EU today is another question.
Yiannis Kitromilides is Associate Member of the Cambridge Centre of Economic and Public Policy, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge. He has previously taught at the University of Greenwich, University of Westminster, University of Middlesex and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.