Federalism or Bust for Europe?

BRUSSELS – August was quieter than feared on the European bond markets. So, while resting on Europe’s beaches and mountains, policymakers could take a step back from the sound and fury of the last few months and think about the future. Is the eurozone sleepwalking into becoming a United States of Europe? Is it exploring uncharted territory? Or are its constituent nation-states drifting apart?

To answer these questions, the best starting point is the US. The model of a federal union that emerged from its history consists of a single currency managed by a federal agency; closely integrated markets for products, labor, and capital; a federal budget that partly, but automatically, offsets economic disturbances affecting individual states; a federal government that assumes responsibility for tackling other major risks, not least those emanating from the banking sector; and states that provide regional public goods but play virtually no role in macroeconomic stabilization.

This model served as a template for the European Union’s architects, notably for the creation of a unified market and a common currency. But, in several respects, Europe has diverged significantly from the American model.

First and foremost, Europe has not established a federal budget. Back in the 1970’s, there was still hope that common spending would eventually amount to 5-10% of EU GDP, but this dream never materialized. The EU’s budget today is no larger than it was 30 years ago: a meager 1% of GDP.