Not the United States of Europe

Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph splashed its front page September 14 with the banner headline “A United States of Europe.” The page was embellished with a half-photo of the face of Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, framed by the blue, gold-starred flag of the European Union.

The eurosceptic Telegraph was not, of course, hailing the imminent birth of a United States of Europe. On the contrary, the newspaper was using the further integration proposed in Juncker’s State of the Union speech to the European Parliament the previous day to demonstrate the wisdom of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU)—rejecting once and for all the closer European political union that most Britons have traditionally resisted.

Juncker is looking at the other side of this coin. He and many other European integrationists believe that if any good can come of Brexit, it lies in eradicating the British objections that have for many years hindered the forward march of the European project. According to this school of thought, Brexit, combined with an improving European economy and the election of the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron as president of France, has opened a window of opportunity for new movement toward the “ever closer union” called for in the Union’s founding treaty.

The removal of the British brake, however, will not be nearly enough to secure the implementation of Juncker’s grand vision, which in many respects runs counter to the proclaimed policies of France and Germany—on whom Juncker is heavily relying to implement the vision—and large sectors of EU public opinion. In the EU’s Eastern half, many countries, particularly Poland and Hungary, will be nervous of Juncker’s call for an almost totalitarian uniformity of EU policies and regulations among all twenty-seven member states.

Juncker did not actually use the words “United States of Europe,” preferring to speak of “a more united Europe.” He is well aware that very few of the governments and people of the EU are ready for such an ambitious, US-like outcome. But he does want a single Europe advancing at a single speed, with conformity enforced by stronger centralized control.

Juncker’s rejection of a “multi-speed” Europe, in which some countries move faster than others to closer union, flies in the face of the views of many distinguished European experts, as well as those recently expressed by the French and German governments. The “multi-speed” idea was even offered as an option by the Commission itself in a white paper earlier this year.

Most controversial is Juncker’s insistence that all member countries join a strengthened eurozone and the twenty-six-nation Schengen Area, in which internal border controls have been abolished. Germany has already expressed caution about expanding the eurozone to countries that do not meet the entry qualifications, and will not want tighter cooperation inside the zone if it makes Germany more responsible for other countries’ debts and poor economic policies. And public opinion in many non-euro countries, such as Sweden, Poland, and the Czech Republic, is against joining the single currency.

Far from extending the Schengen Area, a number of countries, again including France and Germany, are currently seeking to make it easier to suspend its provisions to cope with terrorist threats. Many view the Area’s passport-free borders as aiding terrorists, as even Juncker concedes they might, and expanding the Area further would conflict with current trends in European opinion.

If Juncker wanted to protect Central and Eastern European countries from being left behind in a multi-speed Europe, it is far from clear that his plan would achieve that objective. Even if Juncker succeeded in making the adoption of all EU regulations, including the euro and Schengen, the “norm,” some would still be left outside—for example, by failing to meet the criteria for euro membership—and the laggards would find themselves relegated to even less favored status than today.

The overall thrust of Juncker’s plan—to strengthen the Commission and give it greater control over enforcing the main EU policies—runs equally against the present mood in Europe, where numerous populist movements are contesting the power of elites and institutions. It is not an auspicious time to discuss rejigging the EU’s institutional structure to make its least popular institution—the Commission—more powerful.

To do so, Juncker wants the Commission to provide a new European minister of finance and its president to become president of the European Council—a recipe for serious institutional confusion that would pose a big threat to the EU’s system of checks and balances.

When the institutions were first created in the 1950s, many of the founders saw them ultimately evolving along American lines. The Commission would become the executive or administration, the Parliament the equivalent of the House of Representatives and the Council of Ministers (representing member states) of the Senate.

This has obviously not happened. In practice, the Council has over the years become the most powerful institution, although the Parliament has recently been snapping at its heels. Juncker’s single presidency would create an institutional muddle in which the new president would be elected via the junior branch of the legislature (the European Parliament), preside over the executive, which initiates proposals, and also over the top body of the groupings of member states that decide on the proposals, in conjunction with the Parliament.

The influence of the member states would be further reduced by Juncker’s proposal to remove their veto power in important areas such as foreign policy and taxation that lie close to the heart of national sovereignty. Some alert member states, such as Denmark, have already seen the danger and protested.

Although the governmental structures are different, the continuing debate over Europe’s institutional future bears an uncanny resemblance to the conflicts between federalists and anti-federalists in the newborn United States of the 1790s, with Juncker seeking a similar role to the centralizing Alexander Hamilton and many member governments leaning to the “states’ rights” camp of Thomas Jefferson. Germany plays the role of Virginia, the most powerful of the former thirteen colonies, in resisting assumption of the debts of its less thrifty partners.

But there are big differences. Unlike Europe, the United States at that point already had a constitution, a single language, and a common cultural and legal heritage. The Europeans will certainly now put efforts into developing their system of governance, but, whatever Britain’s eurosceptics may say, a United States of Europe is nowhere in sight. 

Reginald Dale is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Media Network in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. He is a former European editor and US editor of the Financial Times and a syndicated columnist for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

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Image: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on September 13. (Reuters/Christian Hartmann)