Culture & ideas Ideas

Federalism: Not a United States of Europe, please!

5 December 2013
NRC Handelsblad Amsterdam

If the EU is to continue to exist, then its representatives will have to be clear about their ultimate objective. This should not be a federation of states, but a Union which sets its sights on further horizons, defends its diversity, puts an end to its expansion and establishes a legal basis for further integration, says academic Paul Scheffer writes. Excerpts.

The European elections 22 May 2014 bid the opportunity for a payoff: it is certainly not inconceivable that the populist aversion to ‘more Europe’ courted by the left and right may prove a force to be reckoned with in the European parliament.

If politicians representing the moderates fail to present their own view of the future of Europe, then populism may prove the only political alternative. The following are four building blocks of an entirely different story of Europe.

Although European unity has long been very much a matter of internal borders – in the sense of the immortal phrase “war no more” – it will increasingly become a matter of exterior boundaries during the next few decades. The actual motive for integration lies beyond the continent itself, as the position that it occupies in a new world is changing radically. When Europe has to turn to countries like India, Brazil and China to help it overcome the monetary crisis, then it is evident that a vital change has occurred.

The setting for a new story about “Europe” is therefore more likely to be Beijing instead of Berlin, or Sao Paulo rather than Paris.

Concealed vitality

This external perspective reveals to us another factor, however, which may prove vital to any story focused on the future of Europe. Consider the Human Development Index for example. The top five in the 2012 index consists of Norway, Australia, the United States, the Netherlands and Germany in that order. Belgium ranked seventeenth, France 20th and the United Kingdom 26th. In stark contrast, the BRIC countries scored rather poorly: Russia 55th, Brazil 85th and China 101st, while India could only manage a lowly 136th. The corruption index paints a similar picture: the western nations fare far more favourably than the BRIC countries.

This leads us to gradually discover the concealed vitality van the majority of European societies: by comparison, they boast a high measure of equality and quality of life, low levels of corruption and a constitutional state which functions reasonably well, but also urbanisation which compares rather favourably to that of the megacities sprouting in countries like India and China for example. Amid all the discussion on the matter of Europe, however, there is a deplorable lack of this sort of comparative perspective: only then does the quality of our society actually become apparent, after all.

Strengthening of the nation state

The big question is whether this hidden vitality of Europe is not also rooted in the diversity that characterises the continent

The big question is whether this hidden vitality of Europe is not also rooted in the diversity that characterises the continent. Indeed, that question should form the core of the debate in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament. Must Europe strive towards a federal structure or will the nation states continue to play an important role?

Klaus Mann wrote about this diversity in his autobiography Turning Point: ”That is the double condition that Europe must meet in order not to fail: maintain and deepen the awareness of European unity; while at the same time celebrating the multiformity of European traditions and styles.”

That multiformity is at least as important as the sense of unity. Let it be stated clearly once and for all: a European Union with the current 28 Member States can never become a United States of Europe and should not have the ambition of doing so.

Purpose of the Union is not to bring an end to the national state, but rather to strengthen those states as viable democracies, governed by the rule of law and a high level of social welfare. We must extricate ourselves from the simple choice that some wish to impose on us when it comes to thinking about Europe: either a federal state or a free trade zone.

Stated differently: we need a constitution for Europe, which in a limitative manner lays down the authorities of the Union. Not with the purpose of ruling out further integration, but rather as a deliberate constitutional choice.

Only once stability has been achieved along the interior borders, can the communal external border receive the attention that it deserves.

Moratorium on expansion

From the end of the 1960s, various new peripheral areas have been added to the old continental core. The question is how far the process can continue until the core itself starts to weaken

We cannot conclude a reflection on the borders of Europe without saying a few words about the boundaries of expansion of the Union. From the end of the 1960s, various new peripheral areas have been added to the old continental core. The question is how far the process can continue until the core itself starts to weaken.

Taking stock, it is now clear that the boundaries of expansion have been reached: neither Turkey, nor the former republics of the Soviet Union, such as Georgia and the Ukraine, nor Russia itself may be led to believe that membership of the Union is on the cards during the next 20 years or so. While this is common knowledge, it is not spoken openly. Exceptions form those parts of the former Yugoslavia – such as Serbia – that have not yet joined the Union. Given their geographical location and size, they are a natural part of the Union, which with its 30 Member States has reached its maximum for the coming decades.

This is a heavily edited version of the essay The hidden vitality of Europe, issued by Felix Meritis Foundation following a debate last Friday between Scheffer at the Austrian writer Robert Menasse.

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom

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