This is a book about the European Union, an organization that is exceedingly opaque, dauntingly complex and full of mutually opposing currents and interests.
It is not surprising that the EU is poorly understood. But understanding the EU is necessary in order to understand international affairs, the global economy and the world’s most important alliance—the transatlantic alliance between North America and Europe. This book is not an “EU for Dummies;” nor is it a handbook that would explain the bureaucratic machinery of the EU institutions, or the technicalities of the EU treaties. Rather, it is a sketch of the EU’s essence: what kind of organization the EU is, how it is understood by those who are committed to the European idea, what its reason for being is. And finally there is a larger question: what all of this implies for the United States and Europe, the transatlantic alliance and the world at large.
This book is meant to sound an alarm. It is written out of great admiration for Europe, in the hope that Europe’s postwar democracies and the Western idea of self-government rooted in truth will not be lost to a new ideology—the postdemocratic ideology of global governance that has become the EU’s driving force.
The European Union, rising from the ruins of two devastating world wars, embodies a longing for a world of peace, prosperity and stability. It is more than just a free-trade area, a customs union or an international organization through which the member states pursue their national interests. It is meant to be the harbinger of a new era, in which a cosmopolitan and harmonious Europe provides the model for a worldwide system of supranational governance. In this new world order, power is to be wielded not primarily by national governments on behalf of national electorates, but by an ever-thickening web of international organizations administering a growing body of international law and regulation, purportedly in the interests of a global citizenry. The EU, in other words, is conceived as a “soft utopia,” engendered in the birthplace of the “hard utopias,” the antihuman ideologies that led to immense misery, death and ruin. Unlike the hard utopias of communism and fascism, the EU has no political prisons or secret police. Despite its own deficiency of democratic legitimacy, it has helped foster the worldwide spread of democracy, free markets and the rule of law since its inception. Like communism and fascism, however, it is in essence a utopia—a political construct that seeks humankind’s ultimate purpose in a better-than-possible world created by politics. It puts politics before people, as it seeks to remake human beings in the service of its political project rather than to adapt the project to human beings as they are.
But the EU does not seek to realize its dream by force; it is too comfortable and too relativistic for that. The European idea itself remains amorphous, and its underlying ideology vague. There is nothing jagged or sharp-edged about the EU. Truly, it is a soft utopia.
Despite the soft edges and vagueness, it is worthwhile to attempt to define the EU and describe the essence of its soft utopia. The first thing to understand is that the EU cannot be defined in familiar categories, in the way that one could define the United States as a nation-state with a constitutional liberal democracy, for example, or the United Nations as a global international organization functioning as a forum for cooperation among its member states. The EU is sui generis. It is far more powerful than a traditional international organization, and its members are far more politically and economically integrated, but neither is it a European superstate. It is like nothing that has come before it, and, more than sixty years after the establishment of its first predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, the EU is still evolving, still in the process of becoming. And no one even has a particular end state in mind.
In fact, the EU has been in the process of becoming for so long that many believe the very essence of the EU is process—constant motion and change. Many commentators have said that the EU is “postmodern,” not only in the sense that it heralds a new, peaceful world beyond the modern world of nation-states and balance-of-power politics, but also in the way it exemplifies process rather than outcome, diversity rather than singularity, dialogue and open-endedness rather than conclusion, becoming rather than being. If nothing else, the EU is a fascinating and quintessentially European mind game.
But when all the vagaries, blurred distinctions and fuzzy edges are stripped away, the EU is essentially the following: a constantly evolving union of twenty-eight Western and Central European nation-states in which the governing and intellectual elites, in the interest of realizing an unprecedented degree of peace, stability and prosperity, are pooling, and thus relinquishing, significant elements of the member states’ national sovereignty, and doing so over the heads of their national electorates. The EU aspires to function as a model of global governance on a continental scale. Thereby, the most ambitious among the EU elites and acolytes aim to lead the way into a new world order in which wars will be unthinkable, or at least very rare.
Preventing war has been the noble obsession of the EU and its predecessor institutions from the beginning, since the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was launched in 1952. Its members were Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The essence of the ECSC was its supranational character. By vesting the ECSC with substantial authority over the coal and steel industries of its members states, the founders hoped to bind those states’ economic interests together and thus foreclose the possibility of yet another war arising out of national rivalries, especially between France and Germany. The ECSC was also an elitist project. The general citizenry was not consulted.
The ECSC was supported and fostered by the United States, which had lost hundreds of thousands of young men fighting two brutal wars on the European continent, and which, as the postwar guarantor of the free world’s cohesion, wanted to be sure that Germany and France would never go to war again. In fact, Americans were very active in pushing sometimes reluctant Europeans to support the ECSC. The United States would continue to be a significant engine promoting European unification, although the Americans, like the peoples of Europe itself, never understood exactly what it was they were supporting.
The ECSC was the first milestone on the long institutional road to the EU, which did not officially come into being until 1993. The immediate successor of the ECSC, the European Economic Community (EEC), was established in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The treaty’s preamble begins by expressing the signatories’ determination “to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” The concept of “ever closer union” has been the primary motivating force of the EU ever since, and its careful formulation exemplifies three key characteristics of the EU: it is visionary and purposeful, but also vaguely defined.
With few exceptions, the most ideologically committed EU policymakers have always been visionaries. They have acted upon a vision of a Europe that would rise above the Europe of nation-states. Whether those nation-states would disappear into a European superstate, or continue to exist but be united through their common membership in a pan-European sovereign entity, the vision has always involved bringing about a radically new European order.
The vision is connected to a purpose. The EU’s objective is to establish a permanent peace and preclude the possibility of war on the European continent. Thereby, the EU aims to function as a model for—and thus help bring about—a global order of peace, justice and stability.
Beyond the desire for peace and amity, the EU’s vision and purpose are unclear. Just as the phrase “ever closer union” is vague and open-ended, the means of achieving this ever closer union and what it will look like when achieved are ill-defined, while the motives and the driving ideology remain amorphous. But this vagueness is strategic: it has served to maintain relatively constant forward movement toward realizing the vision, and has done so in a twofold way: (1) by bringing in governments and elites of diverse views and visions, while placating everyday citizens who would not accept a vision that gave a subordinate place to the nations and cultures to which they naturally rendered their primary allegiances; and (2) by preserving the EU’s room to maneuver and evolve, even while no one really knew exactly what it was becoming.
The crucial importance to the soft utopia of remaining ill-defined can hardly be overstated. European elites themselves are engaged in a perennial debate that can be summarized as: What is the EU, and what do we want it to become? To dismiss this ongoing debate as merely European navel-gazing is fundamentally to misunderstand the EU.
The basic disagreement goes roughly as follows: Is the EU basically a customs union, a single market and a forum to enhance political cooperation among sovereign nation-states, or is it something that will ultimately subsume within itself the bulk of the sovereignty and independence of its member states, thereby prefiguring a true system of global governance? This disagreement often plays out along national lines, because of the different histories, interests and cultural values of the various EU member states. Take the three largest member states as examples: Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
In Germany, the vision of a unified Europe transcending the Europe of nation-states has always exerted a strong attraction. The Germans, admirably, have been wrestling with their nation’s history as the cradle of Nazism and the homeland of the perpetrators of the Holocaust for almost seventy years now. Patriotism has a bad name. It means something different to Germans than it does for perhaps any other nationality in the world. Even the general population of Germany—despite habitual grumbling about Brussels and a great unwillingness to be the payors of Greece and other eurozone members threatened with insolvency—is reflexively in favor of the European Union, and of giving up a significant degree of national sovereignty to the EU. In Germany, being a good person means being pro-EU, because being pro-EU is widely assumed to be synonymous with being pro-European and antinationalistic. Such a person has learned the moral lesson from Germany’s horrible past. He shares in the passionate determination that war should never again arise from German soil.
The French have a different view of the EU. For many it is a vehicle to increase French influence in Europe and the world, to minimize the American footprint in Europe, and to give outlet, in the spirit of the French Revolution, to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French also stand to benefit from the EU in a way that is ironically reminiscent of the old balance-of-power politics of nineteenth-century Europe: the EU binds their rival Germany, and serves as an instrument for France to bend Germany to its will. Thus, whereas the French sometimes seem almost as committed to the ideal of supranationality as the Germans, French culture and history and France’s traditional rivalry with Germany militate for supranationality as a means to promote French interests and French national grandeur. In contrast, the Germans’ dedication to supranationality functions as a renunciation of any and all attachment to German national greatness.
The typical British attitude toward the EU differs greatly from that of either the French or the Germans. The English value their singularity and their national sovereignty, based partly on geographic isolation from the daily affairs of the European continent. They take pride in their history as the oldest continuous democracy in the world, and in the global dominance of the British Empire. With this history coloring their perspective, the British are generally more attuned than other Europeans to the EU’s lack of democratic accountability, and they are more protective of their national sovereignty against encroachments from Brussels.