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Out of Many, One Europe

Out of Many, One Europe

In his new book, Thibault Muzergues argues that a "Big Bang" federalization of the European Union is the path toward peace and security.

Dalibor Roháč
War in Europe? From Impossible War to Improbable Peace
by Thibault Muzergues (Routledge, 334 pp., $34.95)

Dalibor Roháč and Thibault Muzergues, two Europeans working for US think tanks, have published books recently that address Europe’s pressing predicaments. In this article, Roháč reviews Muzergues' book, with Muzergues offering a response. See here for Muzergues' review of Dalibor Roháč’s Governing the EU in an Age of Division.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone more qualified to discuss Europe’s geopolitical order, the Continent’s history of conflict, and transatlantic relations than Thibault Muzergues. A London-educated Frenchman married to a Ukrainian, he has been working out of Rome, running the European programming for a prominent U.S. organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide.

His latest book, War in Europe? From Impossible War to Improbable Peace, does not disappoint. Written over the two years that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this February, it is both prescient and grounded in an understanding of the European continent’s conflict-prone nature, starting with its geography.

“Even a superficial look at the physical map of the continent leads to the conclusion that Europe is probably the most perfect place in the world to prepare, create and sustain warfare,” Muzergues writes. “From rugged terrains, jagged coastlines, to diversity in the flow of rivers, there are solid reasons for the continent’s political fragmentation, which in turn fuels conflict.” Worse yet, with the exception of the Atlantic Ocean, the Continent lacks natural borders. The Mediterranean is easily navigable; the history of invasions from the East is long-standing.

Western Europe managed to break with its violent history only after the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. Shielded from the Soviet threat by America’s security umbrella, Europeans slowly learned how to cooperate, to manage their differences through common institutions, and to overcome economic nationalism by integrating their economies in wholly new ways. As a result, interstate conflict between major European nations was taken to be a political and economic impossibility.

Over the course of the past decade or so, Muzergues shows, the pillars that have been buttressing Europe’s peace have been fraying. With Obama’s pivot to Asia, Trump’s disdain for NATO, and an isolationist ferment in both its major political parties, America’s commitment to Europe’s security cannot simply be taken for granted any longer. Disappointing some European capitals, the United States failed to enforce its own red line in Syria. A few months later, Vladimir Putin concluded that he could get away with the illegal annexation of Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s territory in the Donbas region. He was not wrong.

Meanwhile, Europe’s common institutions—which earlier had evolved into a convoluted, quasi-confederal structure encompassing not only Western European nations but also some 100 million people living in formerly communist countries—have come under enormous stress. The fallout of the 2008 financial crisis almost tore apart the EU’s monetary union. The 2015 refugee crisis pitted a number of “new” member states—opposed to mass immigration—against the “old” ones, most notably Germany, which adopted a more welcoming stance in the face of the large inflow of asylum-seekers.

Much like the rest of the developed world, Europe has seen a rise in a new form of politics that is populist, pugilistic, and anti-elites—and particularly unsparing of the common European institutions. In 2016, British voters narrowly decided to leave the EU, opening a protracted period of agonizing negotiations over of the modalities of Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which is still not fully settled in 2022. In Westminster as in Brussels, Brexit acted as a distraction from the far more pressing geopolitical issues on which the UK and Europeans have no choice but to act together.

Going forward, Muzergues outlines a variety of possible scenarios from Europe—from a hot war with Russia, through a spectrum of events that would lead to Europe’s fragmentation and increased irrelevance, to “a difficult reform.” A “Big Bang” federalization would respond to internal and external stresses by a dramatic increase in the role of common European institutions, beefing up the EU’s capacity to act as a security provider, and in order to speak with a single voice on the global stage. It would also provide macroeconomic stability and stronger social safety nets to a fragile Eurozone.

The rationale for moving toward the latter path seems overwhelming. “Confederations,” Muzergues argues—echoing historians such as Brendan Simms —“have never lasted long, mostly because they end up producing much less capacity against more centralized models of governance.” Interestingly, while Muzergues review of my own book, Governing the EU in the Age of Division, mentions India and Switzerland, the prescriptive part of his own book seems modelled more on America’s constitutional moment of 1789 and its subsequent centralization away from the tenets of classical federalism, culminating with the New Deal, which he calls “a model of good management of federal tensions between states and federal government.”

While the diagnosis of Europe’s problems is spot on and the historic background is presented with real panache, Muzergues’ call to action raises questions not fully addressed in his book. What if there are deep-seated reasons for why Europe is not amenable to the kind of Big Bang federalization that he proposes?

For one, even prior to the founding, American colonists could see a common political identity, presumed already in the 1754 Albany Plan. In Federalist No. 2, predating the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, John Jay talks of “one connected country” given by Providence

"to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence."

In the EU, by contrast, not even the renewed Russian threat of 2022—which Muzergues aptly anticipates—has fostered a deeper sense of common purpose. The Nordic countries and most Eastern Europeans continue to see the problem in very different terms from Germany and France, not to speak of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Seven months into the conflict, Berlin continues to equivocate on supplying defense equipment. As Russia was escalating its attacks against Ukraine’s civilian population, President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that he did “not want a World War” and vowed “never to attack Russia.”

The idea that Poland or the Baltic states would acquiesce to a reformation of Europe’s common institutions that would allow the large Western players to outvote them is nothing short of fanciful, particularly after the departure of the UK, which could have provided a counterweight in a system relying on qualified majority voting. Muzergues admits that “such a framework [federalization and a move away from unanimity voting] would actually preserve their [France’s and Germany’s] power more than it would constrain it.” On the same page, however, he seeks to comfort the Eastern Europeans, arguing that “a federal solution has the merit of caging the bigger states in an institutional framework that may consolidate their dominance, but also checks it through other institutions.”

Well, maybe. The ultimate test is whether such a proposition can be convincing to policymakers in Eastern European capitals. Thus far, we have seen little evidence to that effect. Of course, the differences between European countries go far beyond their foreign policy. Countries on the Continent have dramatically different views of the appropriate generosity of social safety nets and labor standards, asylum systems, or tolerance towards sexual minorities—not to speak of fiscal policy.

Consider how controversial the common debt instrument, deployed on a modest scale to help to finance the EU’s post-pandemic recovery package, proved to be. One fears that similar efforts to address the Eurozone’s looming financial woes will set in motion highly toxic political dynamics, which will do even more to divide Europeans than to unite them.

In other words, the “federalization” that Muzergues proposes is a constitutional solution to a problem that is political in nature. Imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on questions that continue to divide can work, but it can also unleash uncontrollable centrifugal forces. As a result, can the desired “federal” arrangement be stable? Or would it risk tearing Europe apart, much like the issue of slavery almost tore apart the United States? Brexit seems to have been triggered by disagreements that were far less existential than the one currently animating the European debate—yet they are certainly salient enough to do the job.

At the very least, it is worth considering that the fact that Europe has long eschewed that political centralization is not accidental. It reflects something deeper about the European condition as a continent with a peculiar balance between unity—manifested through shared cultural and religious heritage—and through political and ideological diversity. What is more, as many economic historians would suggest, it is also worth considering that this diversity has served Europe well. Institutional competition helped learning and the proliferation of best practices in governance, new technologies, and even in new business models.

Decentralization provided a check on government power, too. The inability of, say, Germany to centralize in the 18thcentury provided an opening for a level of intellectual freedom unseen in other parts of the world. Among many vibrant centers of intellectual life, Jena provided the early Romantics with the freedom to experiment both with bold ideas and with alternative lifestyles in ways that most contemporaries found problematic—and which would probably have been clamped down upon in other parts of Europe.

If Europe’s diversity carries an upside and  not only costs, then Europeans should not be seeking to engineer it away. Rather, they might consider managing it in ways that prevent conflict, and that also enable them to reap gains from trade broadly understood. That said, Muzergues book makes a valid and compelling counterpoint—that the risk that quasi-confederal Europe, as it currently stands, will be divided and conquered by unfriendly, revisionist powers is real. The main question, however, remains what Europeans are going to do about it. On that front, our expectations should be calibrated by past experience, and not by utopianism.

Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and a contributing editor at American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

Author Thibault Muzergues responds:

Dalibor Rohac may be forgiven for using the “f-word,” federalism, as a proxy for concentrating more powers in Brussels. That is, after all, how the term is typically used in the capital of European institutions. Yet federalism should not serve as the pretext for the concentrating of powers in the center, or for turning subsidiarity on its head, because of Brussels’ putative technical expertise. On the contrary, it should be seen as a way to manage diversity within vast political bodies, whether that diversity is ethnic, territorial, or even ideological.

Federalism is not a silver bullet. It is a stabilizing force. Progressive pro-Europeans would be satisfied to see enshrined the power of a federal government in Brussels, at the cost of recognizing nations and the nation-state as the basis of the European construct. On the other hand, the Right would be relieved at seeing the nation-state recognized and “sanctuarized,” even if some political decisions must be taken at Brussels-level.

None of this is new. Bringing this debate to its logical conclusion will require a common sense of purpose, and Rohac is right to point out that this common “identity,” at least in the American sense, is lacking in Europe—as we see in the constant and frustrating debates over the EU’s aid to Ukraine. But as Rohac well knows, a common sense of purpose does not preclude a wide debate on all things, including on foreign policy. Ukrainians may be thankful to the American foreign policy establishment for the exceptional armed support provided by the United States, even if this support is the subject of intense political contestation.

Importantly, Rohac is wrong in comparing the European project solely to U.S. federalism. Again, he can be easily forgiven for this error, as the EU and its precursors built themselves with the United States as a model. But Europe is not America, as Dalibor himself points out. It is not a nation, and its sense of purpose is much more diffuse than in the United States. Rather, the EU is, and should be taken as, a civilizational rather than as a national project. The more relevant comparison is with India, rather than with America. Besides being striking, India’s unity is also a rather recent thing, just like the EU’s. And as in Europe’s case, India was a civilization long before becoming a nation.

In many ways, India’s asymmetric model should be of interest to Rohac, as it echoes his proposals for a multi-speed, polycentric Europe. Federalism and polycentrism can be combined, and this combination might actually serve best the interests of the European continent—and the Union. At the very least, this proposition deserves a debate.

Thibault Muzergues is the Regional Program Director for Europe and Euro-Med at the International Republican Institute. Twitter: @TMuzergues.

Image: Daniel Sambo-Richter, "Flüchtige Form," 2003 (Wikiart)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEuropePolitical Philosophy