The Future of the European Union

The European Union has been one of the most interesting experiments in federalism of the post-World War II era. At present, the EU is a very weak federal government, if one can all it a government at all. In some ways, it is even weaker than US government was under the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution. For example, unlike the the US government under the Articles, the EU lacks an armed forces and a common foreign policy. On the other hand, EU regulatory authority has gradually increased, and many European elites envision eventually turning it into a full-fledged federal state that could rival the United States in power and influence. In this Washington Post op ed, political scientist Charles Kupchan (an admirer of the EU) argues that the Union is dying because of the recent resurgence of nationalism which has been exacerbated by current economic crisis:

The European Union is dying — not a dramatic or sudden death, but one so slow and steady that we may look across the Atlantic one day soon and realize that the project of European integration that we’ve taken for granted over the past half-century is no more….

For many Europeans, that greater good no longer seems to matter. They wonder what the union is delivering for them, and they ask whether it is worth the trouble. If these trends continue, they could compromise one of the most significant and unlikely accomplishments of the 20th century: an integrated Europe, at peace with itself, seeking to project power as a cohesive whole….

Europe is hardly headed back to war; its nations have lost their taste for armed rivalries. Instead, less dramatically but no less definitively, European politics will become less European and more national, until the E.U. becomes a union in name only. This may seem no great loss to some, but in a world that sorely needs the E.U.’s aggregate will, wealth and muscle, a fragmented and introverted Europe would constitute a historical setback.

Many of Kupchan’s points are valid. It is certainly true that nationalism is making a comeback in Europe, and that the richer nations are becoming more reluctant to pay the cost of increasing integration. He is also correct to point out that the recent economic crisis has greatly undermined the EU’s public support.

On the other hand, Kupchan’s prediction of the “death” of the EU seems overstated. Even if the Union never becomes the sort of super-state envisioned by its most enthusiastic advocates, it will probably survive in a less ambitious but still very important form. The two greatest achievements of European unification over the last several decades are the creation of a continent-wide common market and freedom of movement. It is important and very impressive that goods from any of the 27 nations can be sold in any other without trade barriers. It is an even greater achievement that citizens of any one nation can live and work freely in any of the others, despite large differences in income and culture. Most American libertarians and conservatives dislike the EU, and there is indeed much to criticize. But the establishment of free trade and freedom of movement throughout Europe are two of the greatest advances of freedom in the recent history of the Western world.

These two crucial elements of the EU are likely to survive the current economic crisis and nationalist backlash. All but the most extreme European nationalists seem willing to leave them in place. In that important sense, the Union will not “die.” It will remain a very weak federal system, but one strong enough to continue to provide these two great benefits to the people of Europe. The EU will also likely continue to engage in a variety of regulatory and redistributive initiatives, albeit perhaps fewer than today. It may not become a true unified nation, but it will be far from being a “union in name only.”

On the other hand, it is certainly possible that European integrationists’ dream of creating a superstate will die. Europe has far less cultural and ideological unity than the United States, and less sense of a common identity. As a result, the integrationist project may not survive the impact of crisis and nationalist backlash. Unlike Kupchan, I don’t lament that possibility. As he admits, the absence of a strong EU central government is unlikely to lead to the return of nationalist warfare between Europe’s nations. The combination of freedom of movement and a high degree of member state autonomy will enable to Europeans to “vote with their feet” for the government policies they prefer. Kupchan points out that nationalist pressures in the wealthier countries are likely to curb transfers to poor and inefficient economies. As a result, each national government will have stronger incentives to adopt policies that both promote economic growth and are attractive to migrants in other ways.

That said, I am not sure that the superstate project is as dead as I hope and Kupchan fears. The institutions created by recent European agreements such as the recent Lisbon Treaty may well survive the current crisis. If they do, European political elites can use them to gradually promote greater integration over time, even as public opposition wanes due to the return of relative prosperity. Repeated economic crises and bouts of populist opposition have not prevented long-term progress towards European integration over the last fifty years. It’s too early to say that this time will be different.

UPDATE: I should mention that Kupchan is also correct that the enlargement of the EU to include most of Eastern Europe over the last 15 years has made it more difficult to get consensus on deeper integration. On the other hand, it has also extended the benefits of free trade and freedom of mobility to tens of millions of additional people. The Eastern Europeans may be reluctant to accept the idea of a fully unified European nation. But they also strongly support the EU in its current form, if only because of the substantial economic benefits to them.