On eclipsed ends: Ideals and ambitions in the search for Europa

Photo: European Alternatives

People rarely talk about the overall objectives of the ‘European Project.’ Much of Europe’s political class acts as if it’s a non-issue.

Since the rejection of the so-called ‘Constitutional Treaty’ in 2005 in particular, few major European politicians have been willing to talk about the future of the Union, almost to the point that one might infer that we’ve reached the optimal point of integration, where no more changes are required and we can hold the EU up as an example to the world, and tell everyone: ‘this is progress, this is where we all should be going.’

This is not a new phenomenon. Even in the 1990s, when Francis Fukuyama famously declared the ‘End of History’, the likes of Timothy Garton Ash were cautioning against further European integration, believing we had reached a point where ‘Liberal Order’ had been established and could prevail as the optimal example of government beyond the nation-state. A few minor problems were mentioned in passing: the need for American (primarily military-based) hegemony in Europe to maintain peace; the failure of the European states to prevent mass slaughter on the European continent in the Western Balkans; the necessity of national cultural homogeneity to guarantee stable democratic government (which the disintegration of Yugoslavia supposedly demonstrated); and the large-scale social dislocation caused by the implementation of neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ in Central and Eastern Europe.

Europe was not going to transcend the socioeconomic and political conditions of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, instead it was going to permanently embody them, through nationalism and national homogeneity, laissez-faire capitalism, unleashed on a global scale, imperialism against the weakened Central-Eastern & Balkan states and ultimately, international relations that weren’t significantly different to the ‘Concert of Europe’ established at the 1815 Vienna Congress. Europe wasn’t going to show us how to transform the world, it was going to alter it slightly to entrench a system that had been tried and failed not 100 years previously.

A United States of Europe?

One idea left out in the cold, abandoned by this brave new world in which history had ended, was the ‘United States of Europe.’ From such a term, it is clear its creators had not intended Garton Ash’s Liberal Order, when they had begun the European Project in 1951. They had envisaged much more. What the term really means has caused much confusion and debate among those who are willing to use it as shorthand for Europe’s ultimate ambition. What most agree on is that it involves federalism.

The most recent, open advocate of this idea is Guy Verhofstadt who argues that the EU’s major problems stem from its inability to act in the areas it needs to. The answer to this, he argues, is centralisation. It is clear that Verhofstadt sees the United States of Europe as an enlarged state encompassing all of Europe, but which is essentially no different to how nation-states act today. The European state would engage in the anarchic realpolitik of international relations as our nation-states have done until now, rallying the population to its chosen interests. It would promote massive corporations as its ‘champions’ in the economic sphere and it would intervene in the affairs of weaker countries. Europe would in effect become a nation-state.

This is unsurprising. The idea of a United States of Europe naturally looks to the American experience for inspiration, a state which has centralised over time, and which has used that power to project its influence across the world, to integrate the various European (and other) cultures which have arrived on its shores into a single hegemonic American culture, rather than allowing their diversity to proliferate. America is a nation, with all that this entails, including the attitude the idea of ‘nation-state’ engenders in the society that it governs. There is dissonance between this vision, however, and the vision of a Europe constructed on the basis of treaties. There’s also a dissonance between this and the idea that Europe in part embodied for centuries and still has the capacity to embody.

Treaties: the international paradigm

The key problem with building a Europe on the basis of treaties is that, being negotiated and signed by national governments, they hold neither the authority (granted by the citizens alone) nor the normative value (generated in the act of free citizens writing a constitution containing values and standards to which they will hold their government) required to underpin an entity whose purpose is to govern. Such an entity requires democratic authority to legitimately exist, and for citizens to be certain it governs in their name and by their consent. Such authority cannot originate from already established power for it has been given the authority only to govern according to norms and ideas laid out in a constitution, not to establish new forms of government. There are no checks on ministers and diplomats who sit around conference tables for hours on end to craft these treaties, they have no mandate on this matter, and citizens have no way of controlling the conduct of the negotiations. They can simply say yes or no to the final product (as we saw in 2005).

Were governments to engage in this, the ‘constitutional’ document that would emerge would fulfil a merely functional role – it would provide the rules and procedures of government alone. Like the treaties, its official status – a constitution not written by citizens – would be uncertain, and would not act as the official source of procedures and norms, which the government had formally adopted as the standards to which it would hold itself. Finally, without citizen-involvement in writing the document, there’s no guarantee that government would be at the service of the people, nor uphold its highest standards of democratic legitimacy. In other words, the law must be established democratically for it to be legitimate, and a constitutional document written by governments rather than citizens is not a democratic source of law.

Due to the insufficient nature of treaties as a foundation for democratic government, the United States of Europe is immediately beyond the scope of a ‘Europe of treaties’. We can assume that a ‘USE’ would be a sovereign state, if it was to achieve the purposes Verhofstadt and other federalists have set out for it. The sticking point is the matter of sovereign power, that is, authority to act on a matter to which all citizens are equally subject. In several areas, the EU does technically wield such power, as member-states are legally obliged to abide by its legislation. However, a USE would have to be completely sovereign – in any area, in accordance with the constitution, the federal government should be able to act. Treaties cannot legitimately provide this. A simple yes-no in a hastily-organised rubber-stamp referendum is not an example of the exercise of democratic authority – citizens themselves must write the constitutional document.

The result, by contrast, has been the ‘Europe of Nations-and-Offices’ we have today, a toxic mix of intergovernmental politics in which political authority is diluted, alongside highly centralised and integrated bureaucracy, enabling decisions taken in the centre to be smoothly implemented in the periphery. Crucially, this enables Europe’s politicians to take no responsibility for the decisions made at a European level; statesmen abdicate responsibility under the guise of being national representatives, while technocrats in Brussels with Europe-wide scope have no political authority. Corporate influence has easily taken advantage of this vacuum of politics, hence the proliferation of lobbyists in Brussels. Theirs are the only agendas that are consistently administered at the European level.

The rest of us are forced to engage in the Standortkonkurrenz of globalised capitalism, which renders nations and their citizens impotent, and accumulates power in private hands. This also ties in with the idea of ‘post-sovereignty’ being pushed by figures in Brussels like Jean-Claude Piris, who believe that in the postmodern world, old ideas of accountability, responsibility and authority to decide must be replaced with new ones geared towards globalisation. Reading between the lines, it’s clear by this they mean post-democracy. We don’t need accountable leaders anymore, or democratic controls, or clear lines of decision-making; in the globalised world, power is simply beyond the citizen’s control. Democratic sovereignty is neither national, nor European; it has been abolished.

A constitution: the transnational paradigm

It is clear that the aims of the idealists who conceived of the European Project have been eclipsed by more short-term and vainglorious ends. What was supposed to be a clear alternative to Europe’s violent, imperialist past, has come to represent the very forces which brought our Götterdämmerung in the period 1914-1945. Europa has the potential to mean so much more, to represent a new paradigm of government and society beyond the nations which we have circumscribed for ourselves: diversity, of opinion and of culture; transgression, of static and moribund establishments and status quos; sovereignty, achieved individually by acting collectively; and Utopia, acting in the name of an ideal world, in the knowledge that it is nowhere.

These things need to be refined and distilled in a constitution, written and adopted by the peoples of Europe. Such a constitution can only be achieved by accepting democracy, justice, liberty and solidarity as the basis of a transnational society that reaches across borders and makes us realise that we are not alone and isolated, and that to act as if this were so is to fundamentally weaken us all.

To realise these ideas in our lives, certain doctrines must be accepted as the basis of government. Republican democracy – the understanding that democracy enables us to seize control of our fate, and liberty in the first place is freedom from tyranny – and federalism – the priority of effective, decentralised self-government – must come together in the realisation of what Kant referred to as the pacific federation. It is what I call the civic-state, one that has at its heart universal values and civic, democratic emancipation, before ideas of culture, nation and ethnicity – without abolishing them. Its purpose is the reconciliation of Eros and Civilisation, humanity’s passion and its reason. This requires the recognition that the belonging and the particularity created by nations is a value, but one which democracy and just government must go beyond if they are to be realised.

This state does not demand unquestioning loyalty, but represents a true social contract, which we enter into with the aim of better achieving the universal values enumerated above. Hence, nations may leave freely, if they no longer believe they are able or willing to contribute to the common project, that is, if the purpose of the civic-state is lost. It is a contract between individual, nation and wider humanity. This project is one that is universal, but it must begin in Europe. We have an obligation by virtue of our current position and our history to be the vanguard of this new form of political community, one that is truly transnational.

The last century saw these ideas, which were first articulated here in Europe, grapple with our most primal urges. The European Project was begun to prevent the re-emergence of the worst of those urges; it will, only if it truly embraces the democratic, radical and just foundation of the civic-state, if its new ambition is a Union of European Nations.


This article is republished as part of an editorial cooperation with PoliticalCritique.org.


Sam Hufton

Sam Hufton is an undergrad studying at King’s College London and the author of the political blog Evropaïkí Dimokratía.

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