Politics & Policy

Is the EU Too Weak?

To compare the woes of the E.U. with those of America under the Articles of Confederation is historically illiterate.

In the wake of the ongoing eurozone crisis, the New York Times reports that the European Union is looking to make “fundamental changes,” mooting the creation of a “central financial authority — with powers in areas like taxation, bond issuance and budget approval.” This, notes the Times, could “eventually turn the Eurozone into something resembling a United States of Europe.”

And so, in the face of arguably the most significant crisis in the history of the European integration project, the conclusion drawn by those who seek further federation is predictable: The problem with Europe, they say, is not that there has been far too much integration of a continent which is inherently unsuited to union, but that there has been too little. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that unification is the barely concealed endgame of many on the Brussels gravy train. Nor that supranationalism is reflexively posited as the solution to any ill that rears its head. (And, for that matter, preferred even when there are no ills present.) But it seems that the Euro-federalists are now drawing inspiration from an unlikely source. According to the Times, financial officials in Washington have “brandished the Articles of Confederation” during Eurozone crisis meetings “as an example of why stronger unions become necessary.” Such a lofty comparison will undoubtedly be music to the ears of those who consider further integration inevitable. But it is arrant nonsense. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “Europe, I know the United States. And you are no United States.”

When, in 1787, the Founders trekked to Pennsylvania’s State House to draw up a new constitution, the 13 colonies had been independent of their former master for little over ten years. The Articles of Confederation, which the convention sought to replace with something better, had proven incapable of resolving the limited disputes that had arisen between the colonies. These differences were limited largely to border disputes and the taxation of interstate commerce. Along with a desire for the establishment of a central means of paying off the national debt, such quarrels were important enough to force a summit, but in the grand scheme of things they did not represent existential or serious cultural divisions.

American discussions were generally conducted under the carapace of common cause. During the War of Independence, the colonists had been forced together in a shared fight for survival. Benjamin Franklin’s stark call for colonial unity — “Join or die,” no less — was eventually heeded. The revolutionaries came together under one banner and won their independence. Naturally, differences still abounded, but after the break the 13 were possessed of a certain contra mundum outlook. Their enemies were without; in Europe’s history they have tended, tragically, to be within.

The American colonies enjoyed a natural unity of which Europeans can only dream. This is unsurprising, for, in Britain, they all had the same mother. As a result, the colonists were broadly agreed upon both a vision for the proposed republic, and as to what constituted liberty — even if they disagreed as to exactly how it should be codified, and on the extent of collective, federal power. Most of the angry missives aimed at Britain prior to, and during, the War of Independence were laments not for revolutionary change, but for the restoration of British liberty in America. They read almost identically, regardless of in which colony they were written.

Moreover, the colonists all spoke the same language, shared a Christian heritage, obeyed the same common-law system, and were products of the same political tradition and legacy. There was, of course, a clear economic and philosophical gap between North and the South, one which would eventually be violently resolved in the Civil War. But slavery was not an issue that the new constitution addressed, let alone set a national policy on, and Jefferson’s firebell was muted at the time of union. Simply put, the body politic that outgrew the Articles of Confederation looked nothing like the continent of Europe does today, and comparisons between the two are specious and unhistorical.

Unlike the United States, which is as much an idea as a nation, Europe is an accident of geography. Its history has been forged by conflict, division, and disharmony. The constituent nations have repeatedly gone to war with one another, with France and Germany especially guilty of repeated attempts to carve out more space for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. This trend has been put to an end only by the relatively recent rise of American power, and the associated stationing of thousands of troops in its historical trouble spots.

Europe is home to wildly different economic models, 23 different languages (that is, officially, but many more are spoken), fundamentally different legal systems, and divergent cultural histories. So pronounced are these differences that Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed British entry into the European common market on the entirely fair grounds that the U.K. had no appetite for being part of a strong European bloc, and might even prove to be a Trojan Horse for the United States, to which he correctly considered Britain to be more similar than the nations on the continent. De Gaulle also objected to the expansion of the nascent European project beyond Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany and was so appalled by les apatrides — those who had supranational ambitions for Europe — that he happily caused a major diplomatic incident in 1965, threatening to withdraw France from the economic community unless such plans were nixed.

Except by naïve and war-weary utopian pacifists, and those who make up the now-considerable bureaucratic ranks, the prospect of today’s European Leviathan has always been treated with suspicion and worse, it being generally understood that the nations of Europe were too diverse to be part of a single federation. Winston Churchill famously wrote that he wished Britain to be “with Europe, but not of it . . . linked but not compromised . . . interested and associated but not absorbed.” Why? Because Britain had its “own dream and own task.” No American state could survive in the federal union with such a discrete attitude. And ultimately no European union can withstand the maintenance of such hopes either.

European integration is not, and has never been, a grassroots movement, but a philosophical square peg that the continent’s elites appear determined to force into a round hole. When given a choice, Europe’s citizens tend to demur on ceding more power to Brussels — unless the question is repeated until its architects get the answer they want, as the citizens of France, Holland, and Ireland recently discovered. And herein lies the difference: European federalism is an unnatural construct imposed from above, whereas the United States grew from a common principle. By 1787, the colonists were looking to build a nation. The majority of Europeans are not, because they already have one.

As has been predicted all along, and now made patently obvious by the crisis in Greece, the economic integration which the European Union has gradually constructed since the end of the Second World War cannot work efficiently without commensurate political union. Ultimately, the EU will have two choices — to join or die. Contrary to the path taken in America in 1776, the latter would seem to be the better solution.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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