Don’t dream federalist dreams

The European Union is an immense force for good. A European state could well wreck all of that.

The European Union is curious thing. It’s not a state but nor is it a mere international organisation like the World Health Organisation. It has a currency but doesn’t collect its own taxes. Its laws override those of its member states but it has no police force to enforce them. It has a foreign policy but not an armed forces.

In a recent article for Vox, Dylan Matthews makes it clear he wants to see that change. He sees the Greek crisis as evidence that the EU’s semi-state status isn’t working: it constrained Greece from devaluing its currency and lowering its interest rates but did not enable automatic fiscal transfers from less battered parts of the Union. He wants to see the EU become a federal government al la the USA.

His case is partly economic:

A European superstate…. would create a common banking system and establish redistribution at the national level. Imagine if such a system had been in place when the 2008-’09 recession hit. Greece still would have suffered more than Germany — but its banks would not face the same risk of failure, and it’d be getting billions upon billions in welfare payments from the federal European government. They’d still have a recession — all of Europe did, after all — but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad.

And also political:

Even since the European Coal and Steel Community, the idea was to grow closer economically so as to grow closer politically and culturally. After World War II and the generations of European wars that had preceded it, ensuring that war on that scale could never happen ever again was an absolute imperative.

European integration was a way to do that. It appears to be working. But the economic crises that have plagued the EU in the past few years are inherent to this current model of partial unification. In order to fulfill the European project of replacing the old, war-torn Europe with a new, peaceful, stable Europe, it has to complete the process of unification.

The EU has indeed been a great success. But what it has successfully done is provide a mechanism by which European states can co-operate. It does not follow from that it would be a good idea for it to supersede those states.

‘The United States of Europe’ (USE) would almost certainly be a dysfunctional entity. This point is illustrated by precisely the precedent Matthews invokes for it. America is still hobbled by the compromises made two centuries ago that made its initial inception possible. The fear of the states that their voice would not properly represented within the new union created an exhaustive set of systems to ensure they were. The problem was that all these supermajorities, constitutional restrictions of the role of the federal government and the like was that they make it hard for the US to make necessary decisions. Witness, for example, the absurd the spectacle of the federal government shutting down if no less than three separate entities cannot agree among themselves about the contents of the annual budget.

Now the new European State could theoretically avoid these pitfalls and create a constitution that allowed for effective decision making. However, that seems unlikely because the current EU certainly hasn’t. The treaties that serve as its constitution can only being amended with the unanimous agreement of all member states. Therefore, any change could theoretically be blocked by a Maltese government that represents just 0.08% of the EU’s population. In this context, it seems likely that the mechanisms for redistributing resources from rich to poor members would have to be pretty miserly not to be vetoed by those who’d wind up paying for them. Thus the USE flounders: its creation as a successful entity would require finding a solution to a problem for which it is supposed to be the solution!

Indeed, the entire notion that greater trust will arise from deeper integration looks suspect. The creation of a monetary union has lead Greece and Germany to share not in fraternal feelings but in misery and resentment. Unfortunately, the USE would probably be unusually prone to such mistrust because it doesn’t have a lingua franca:

A new paper* by Bodo Steiner and Cong Wang, two economists at the University of Southern Denmark, reach the conclusion that less linguistically diverse countries tend to prosper (rather than the other way round). Messrs Steiner and Wang set out to find the relationship between linguistic fragmentation and social capital. Social capital itself can be hard to define, but a few scholars have nonetheless put a number on it. Three scholars led by Dan Lee of Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea created an index** of 72 countries across criteria like trust (a feeling of societal fairness, confidence institutions like government, political parties and the press); norms (corruption, the rule of law, the prevalence of tax evasion and benefit fraud); and networks (for example how likely people are to join religious groups, arts and sports clubs and the like). Countries with high levels of social capital tend to be richer.

They also tend to be more linguistically homogeneous. Messrs Wang and Steiner found that the number of language spoken in a country is significantly negatively correlated with social capital…the authors…[plotted]…the probability that two citizens will speak the same first language against social capital. These measures….[were]…closely (negatively) correlated. Despite headline-grabbing levels of immigration, countries like Denmark and the Netherlands remain linguistically highly homogeneous; they also have the highest rates of social capital in the data set.  Uganda and India fall neatly along the trendline at the other end.

This makes sense: how much harder must it be to bridge social divides when those on each side can’t talk to each other?

Now, one could reasonably argue that many nations started out culturally disparate and later became more cohesive. In fact Matthews does:

It’s not unheard of for a young political union to be disharmonious, and for that disharmony to be worsened by its decentralized political institutions. In 1950, just a year into the European experiment, the Norwegian foreign minister wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs comparing Europe at the moment to the early American colonies, which were in some ways even more disparate and divided than the European nations. The foreign minister didn’t quote Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join, or Die” political cartoon, but he might as well have. The colonies unified to fight the British, and then over the next century continued to build an ever-closer union because it was more effective, and because a weak union created too many problems.

Yes but a clear majority of citizens of the new nation already spoke English. And even then it took two wars to create a cohesive USA.

There are examples of successful examples of building nations from a polyglot population: Indonesia is perhaps the best example. However, the process of achieving this has often been rather unpleasant. It usually involves the suppression of national minorities and allows people who already speak the national language to gain social privilege. It’s not something that’s really compatible with the EU’s commitment to equality and diversity. So it seems likely that the USE would have to muddle through Indiaesque with its populace living in linguistic silos and needing an army of translators to make its government work.

There’s also the rather unfortunate fact that efforts to instil patriotism in the people of a new nation can easily tip over into creating an unfortunately aggressive form of nationalism. This perhaps explains America’s propensity to brash unreflective “USA, USA, USA”ing. Or looking at a vastly more extreme example: it’s probably not a co-incidence that the two European nations that spawned fascist regimes had only a few decades before been united from a succession of smaller principalities. It would be a cruel irony if a Union that has so successfully contained the harm European nationalisms cause, were itself to give rise to a harmful European nationalism.

It’s also probably worth noting that the greater demands of nationhood would probably exclude peoples who might otherwise belong to the Union. Are the French or Austrians really going to want Turks, Serbs and Macedonians as their compatriots? Countries like Britain and Greece that already find the being part of the club a difficult prospect would probably choose to depart. Thus an attempt to deepen European integration would probably wind up narrowing it.

All of which is to say that Europe is not a nation and should therefore not become a state. There are less difficult and dangerous routes out of the present difficulties in the Eurozone. Its members could push forward with a banking union and create better mechanisms for transferring resources to member states in distress. Or failing that the currency union could be dismantled, a painful enterprise fraught with risks. Nonetheless, the risks of returning to a recent and tolerably functioning past would be fewer that striking forward on the basis of dubious speculations about a future that might be.


One thought on “Don’t dream federalist dreams

  1. Pingback: Would Edmund Burke be for Leave or Remain? | Matter Of Facts

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