The celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome this month come at an opportune moment. For now is the time for the European Union to call an end to its self-imposed “reflection period” following the rejection of the European Constitution by the French and the Dutch, and make up its mind about the future.
The reflection period has been mostly devoid of actual reflection, and Europe’s leaders have failed to offer Europe’s citizens any new, fundamental vision. So how should a “refounding” (Neubegründung) of Europe – as called for by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her first parliamentary statement on European policy – be accomplished?
In theory, there are three competing, fundamentally different visions of the EU’s future. Some still take the form of a “state of nation states.” These thinkers – often imprecisely called “Federalists” – refer to the Constitution as a necessary step towards a European federation.
Such a federal state can be justified by claiming that the moral substance of traditional nation states has been deeply compromised by past belligerence, or as a practical preventive measure to keep the potential of new nationalist passions in check. Moreover, the British political scientist Glyn Morgan has argued that a robust concept of pan-European security also requires a pan-European state, and that it is irresponsible on the part of Europe’s elites to maintain a permanent position of strategic dependency on the United States. Related to this is the idea that only a strong EU can save the “European social model.”
But the last few years have made clear the absence of majority support for a European federation by the states that make up Europe, a point underscored by the debate surrounding the failed Constitutional Treaty. In fact, many of the “federalist” arguments look dubious: in particular, there is no single European social model. The differences for instance between the Scandinavian countries, the Mediterranean countries, and the “liberal Atlantic countries” like Ireland and the UK are sometimes more pronounced than those between Europe as a whole and the US.
In recent years, an alternative view of the EU that can be described as “supra-national multiculturalism” has taken root. This view entails a Union whose main function is to allow – and to maintain – diversity and difference. Instead of traditional homogeneous states, this Europe seeks to be a “Community of Difference,” a kind of “People of Others,” to borrow a phrase from the jurist Joseph Weiler. Tolerance becomes the cardinal European virtue in this vision, and the EU’s character as an entity with federal law but without federal statehood is viewed as a strength, not a weakness.
The prophets of supra-national multiculturalism thus reject a federal democracy. What is feasible is, they believe, at best a so-called “demoi-cracy” -- that is, the rule not of one people or “demos,” but of many peoples or “demoi” who deliberately assure and seek to maintain their diversity.
Elements of this vision sound attractive. It is questionable, though, how credible European heads of government are who promote such pan-European multiculturalism and at the same time emphatically denounce alleged “multiculturalist” illusions at home – as has by now become standard political rhetoric in almost all countries.
The third vision is essentially no vision at all, but a justification of the Brussels bureaucracy as it currently exists. From this technocratic perspective, Brussels today maintains functions that even within nation states are often delegated to institutions that are not democratically elected. Central banks are the classic example. Those policy areas that citizens consider the most significant – in particular welfare and education – remain under the direction of member states.
Consequently Brussels is no government to be, but a regulatory authority – and this often to the benefit of European consumers. This authority, the technocrats claim, in turn is part of a system of national and supra-national checks and balances which, while not resembling a national democracy, would reliably prevent despotism from taking root in Brussels.
None of these three visions entirely misses the EU’s current reality or its future possibilities. The federation has become a distant prospect, but still receives homage in politicians’ speeches, as if a different end result was inconceivable. The demoi-crats win support because their vision tends to reinforce the status quo and leaves nearly all options open. The technocrats in turn see their position confirmed with every passing day that the alleged crisis of legitimacy fails to appear.
But is there any kind of pan-European consensus on where Europe should go next, whether federal state, demoi-cracy or status quo? If the answer is no, adhering to a pragmatic approach to the Union as a kind of continuously expanding “Commonwealth” is the most honest alternative to any high-minded visions. The classic argument that the EU, like a bicycle, must always keep moving forward to avoid falling over, is simply not true: the reflection period may be frustrating for federalists, but it also proves that, even at a standstill, the EU continues.
The Brussels elites are not likely to admit this fact without further ado: their rhetoric still oscillates between doom-and-gloom pessimism and a kind of pro-European PR that is concerned only with how best to “sell” the Union to Europe’s citizens. But PR won’t work unless there is a vision that ultimately sells itself.