The Specter of European Federalism

European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 10, 2019. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
A €750 Billion virus-recovery plan could pave the way to a federalized European state. It could also destroy the EU forever.

World War II left an indelible mark upon Europe. The continent found itself shattered. In the quiet ruins of wrecked Western European capitals, the survivors arose to enshrine and preserve their recaptured independence. After two world wars and centuries of conflict, they sought to ensure perpetual peace among peoples forever scarred by the horrors of Nazism. The essential proposition was simple: If neighboring countries joined forces around a shared set of values, institutions, and goals, their newfound commonality would dwarf their deep-rooted differences. And so what would become the European Union was born.

The EU’s founding fathers were far from a pack of detached cosmopolitans in search of transnational governance. From then–British prime minister Winston Churchill to Robert Schuman, a devout French patriot who had served in conservative governments before the German occupation, the political leaders who laid the foundations of the European project were more interested in small-scale cooperation than they were in Wilsonian internationalism. Accordingly, the project began as a modest economic partnership. In May 1950, Schuman proposed a “community” to integrate the coal and steel industries of Europe, those being the two industries key to making weapons of war. Less than a year later, the community was formalized in the Treaty of Paris, signed by France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

The symbolic and financial benefits of these early efforts soon became evident. Recovering economies needed as much stimulus as possible, and the partnership allowed coal and steel production to thrive. That success, in turn, allowed all involved to tout the enterprise as the harbinger of a New Europe. Yet the six member states remained cautious about expanding their union. They rejected several attempts at creating a common defense and political community in 1952. While all desired to strengthen their economic ties, only a few stood ready to transfer sovereign political power to a centralized European institution.

Eventually, though, economic considerations proved sufficient to legitimize the birth of European federalism. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome formalized the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the common market. It was a turning point for the European project, because along with the customs union came a slew of new political institutions. The Common Agriculture Policy would guide and support farmers beyond borders; the Common Transport Policy would create a vast rail network across the continent; the European Social Fund would help member states combat unemployment; and the unelected European Commission would preside over this new web of bureaucracy. Technocrats moved to Brussels, the new transnational institutions grew, and European federalism was born.

From this point onward, the rise of stronger European institutions seemed unstoppable. French president Charles de Gaulle, who had always opposed the enlargement of the EEC, left office in 1969. Unchaperoned, the EEC welcomed a series of new members. By the end of the 1980s, ten additional countries had joined the original six, and each newcomer was more committed to federalism than the last. What had begun as an economic partnership turned into a full-fledged political entity. In 1992, member states ratified the Maastricht Treaty, which removed the adjective “economic” from “European Economic Community” in order to reflect the EU’s expanded purview.

Just like its predecessors, the Maastricht Treaty required the creation of new transnational agencies, the delegation of additional sovereign powers, and the enlargement of existing bureaucracies. One after the other, treaties were drafted and ratified en masse. Member states submitted themselves to a common jurisprudence, a common court of justice, a common currency, and a common central bank. From trade and agriculture to transport and scientific research, a vast array of concerns quickly became the responsibility of the EU. Every step of the way, national governments sacrificed their sovereignty on the altar of economic prosperity and political integration.

Then, in 2005, the inescapable march of federalism came to a halt. Against all odds, the French and the Dutch voted against the ratification of the Treaty of Rome, which would have extended the powers that Maastricht had already delegated to transnational European institutions. For the first time, the cause of national sovereignty had united a majority of voters in two key member states. Naturally, the European Union did not respect the popular vote; two years later, a repackaged version of the Treaty of Rome was signed by the European Council without any form of public consultation. And this betrayal of democratic norms did more than fuel the determination of anti-EU parties; it affirmed a growing sense of disenchantment, a cultural malaise, a deep-rooted feeling that European integration might have gone too far too fast.

Ever since, the continent has seen populist parties surge. Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orbán may not agree on a set of policy proposals, but they all reject European federalism — and they have all used nationalist sentiment to rise to political prominence. And amid a deadly global pandemic that has caused massive economic disruptions, Europe is more vulnerable than ever to the attacks of these detractors.

While the COVID-19 crisis seems like an ideal time for international partnerships to exercise power, a recent poll found that a majority of Europeans thinks the EU has been “irrelevant” during the pandemic. Naturally, this discontentment need not mean that Europeans are becoming more anti-EU than before; in fact, partisans of federalism have argued that the EU’s shortcomings were primarily due to its lack of influence. But what these statistics do show is the need for a strong response on the part of those who think that transnational cooperation is worth preserving.

Even when the 2008 financial crisis threatened the EU’s economic survival, wealthy northern European countries such as Germany and Sweden refused to take on collective debt. But the coronavirus has done so much damage to the continent’s financial stability that the European Commission announced last Wednesday that it would raise €750 billion to help member states recover.

Naturally, the implementation of this proposal is far from guaranteed; it still needs the approval of 27 national governments. But if it comes to pass, it will set a monumental precedent with far-reaching implications. Shared financial leverage would bring the EU closer to having a bloc-wide budget, which might eventually be supported by EU-mandated taxes. Controlling the debt levels of member states would allow European technocrats to put pressure on national governments and impose economic prescriptions on struggling economies, as they did on Greece in 2009. The EU’s power would be further expanded at the expense of state sovereignty.

If such radical measures succeeded, federalists would find themselves with a chance to decisively vanquish their populist foes; if they failed, the future of the European project itself would be thrown into doubt. As German chancellor Angela Merkel put it in a recent interview, “for Europe to survive, its economy needs to survive.”

This week, Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU council. For Merkel, whose tenure as chancellor is about to end, the dénouement of the COVID-19 crisis will be a defining moment. Germany, a country often denounced for its excessive influence over Brussels’s technocrats, will undoubtedly shoulder the bulk of the blame if the collective bailout fails. In this economic climate, convincing all 27 member-states will require a masterful display of diplomacy: While countries such as Spain and Italy are in desperate need of financial support, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands have already announced that they will consider the proposal only if the recovery funds given to the bloc’s weaker economies are attached to strict conditions. The EU has for years sought without success to find a middle ground between irresponsible spending and inhumane austerity, and now that quest has taken on existential importance: The European project will emerge from this crisis either triumphant or shattered to pieces.

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