The European Union will soon need to decide what sort of union it’s going to be
The European Union is a failed project in many respects. When ‘ever closer union’ was set out as a founding principle in the Treaty of Rome, there were only six signatories. It was an achievable goal. As the union grew, hegemony seemed increasingly impossible. The vast majority of European federalists finally conceded defeat with the eastward expansion of 2004.
At present each member state is, in theory, an equal partner in the union in relation to the size of their population. In votes concerning security, foreign affairs and taxation, European Council decisions have to be unanimous. Any single member state can veto a decision, and often they do.
With so many member states, and more on their way, unified governance is impossible. As a result a sense of inertia has descended on Europe. Despite the scale of the European institutions there is actually very little they can do when it matters most.
The situation in Ukraine is a perfect example. Six people have died protesting for closer European integration, and yet the response of the EU has been quiet to say the least. We seem to find ourselves at a fork in the road. Within a decade there will have to be a treaty change, because things simply can’t go on as they are.
The Revival of Federalism in a Europe of Regions
Two decisions to be taken over the next three years will be play an important part in determining the future of Europe. The first is the question of Scottish independence. A yes vote in Scotland would make a strong case for a European Union of similarly sized regions. In empowering the regions the European Union could bypass national governments by seeking the consent of the people.
In this scenario federalism suddenly begins to make sense again. Although the number of states would increase, the power wielded by each would be greatly diminished. The creation of a European army would be a pragmatic and sensible decision in a Europe of regions. A European intelligence agency would surely follow. A central authority with the power to collect taxes would surely replace the present, cumbersome system of funding.
This would be presented in a positive light as localism, but with Europeans largely under the spell of social democracy it never could be. It would merely be a transfer of power from one centralised state to a larger one. It would be collectivism on an enormous scale, run by the kind of people who enjoy a nice flow chart.
The Nation State
John Donne, the seventeenth century poet, understood collectivism perfectly. It is a romantic notion. He wrote that no man is an island. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Conversely, individualism is a pragmatic position, and there aren’t very many poems about it. Splendid isolation does not inspire the creative spirit.
These are the opposing ideologies of our age. Every time an election takes place a sizable portion of the population will curse the colour of the incumbent government’s neck ties. It is the other fork in the road. Perhaps Scotland will vote to remain in the United Kingdom, paving the way for the second decision that will determine the future of Europe.
In 2017 regardless of which government is in power there will be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The result is far from certain. The polls favour exit, but the government will not. From the perspective of big business the single market is too profitable to abandon to democracy. It is certain to be a close vote.
A vote to leave the EU is a vote for the very concept of the nation state because Britain’s exit would have a profound effect on the rest of Europe. The balance of power would shift heavily in Germany’s favour, which is a prospect so uncomfortable in Europe that it could ultimately end the union. The rise of Euroscpeticism that we are seeing now would gather pace.
The entrenchment of European laws and institutions makes the prospect of a British exit seem unlikely. The single market has been under construction for the best part of a century, and removing ourselves from it would be far more complex than our gradual entry has been.
The Spatchcocked Federation
Boris Johnson is responsible for the title of the third option. Perhaps this is the most likely and least desirable scenario of all. Business as usual.
If Britain decides to stay in the European Union, very little will change, and it will rumble on as an ineffective, bureaucratic sinkhole. Europe’s decline will continue, strangled as it is by overbearing legislation and a narrow, politically charged interpretation of human rights. At least Nick Clegg will be happy.
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