The creation of a European state was severely wounded if not killed last week. The Irish voted against a proposed European Union treaty that included creation of a full-time president, increased power to pursue a European foreign policy and increased power for Europe’s parliament. Since the European constitutional process depends on unanimous consent by all 27 members, the Irish vote effectively sinks this version of the new constitution, much as Dutch and French voters sank the previous version in 2005.
The Irish vote was not a landslide. Only 54 percent of the voters cast their ballots against the constitution. But that misses the point. Whether it had been 54 percent for or against the constitution, the point was that the Irish were deeply divided. In every country, there is at least a substantial minority that opposes the constitution. Given that all 27 EU countries must approve the constitution, the odds against some country not sinking it are pretty long. The Europeans are not going to get a strengthened constitution this way.
But the deeper point is that you can’t create a constitution without a deep consensus about needing it. Even when there is — as the United States showed during its Civil War — critical details not settled by consensus can lead to conflict. In the case of the United States, the issues of the relative power of states and the federal government, along with the question of slavery, ripped the country apart. They could only be settled by war and a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution forced through by the winning side after the war.
The Constitutional Challenge
Creating a constitution is not like passing a law — and this treaty was, in all practical terms, a constitution. Constitutions do not represent public policy, but a shared vision of the regime and the purpose of the nation. The U.S. Constitution was born in battle. It emerged from a long war of independence and from the lessons learned in that war about the need for a strong executive to wage war, a strong congress to allocate funds and raise revenue, and a judiciary to interpret the constitution. War, along with the teachings of John Locke, framed the discussions in Philadelphia, because the founders’ experience in a war where there was only a congress and no president convinced them of the need for a strong executive. And even that was not enough to prevent civil war over the issue of state sovereignty versus federal sovereignty. Making a constitution is hard.
The European constitution was also born in battle, but in a different way. For centuries, the Europeans had engaged in increasingly savage wars. The question they wanted to address was how to banish war from Europe. In truth, that decision was not in their hands, but in the hands of Americans and Soviets. But the core issue remained: how to restrain European savagery. The core idea was relatively simple. European wars arose from European divisions; and, for centuries, those divisions ran along national lines. If a United States of Europe could be created on the order of the United States of America, then the endless battling of France, Germany and England would be eliminated.
In the exhaustion of the postwar world — really lasting through the lives of the generation that endured World War II — the concept was deeply seductive. Europe after World War II was exhausted in every sense. It allowed its empires to slip away with a combination of indifference and relief. What Europeans wanted postwar was to make a living and be left alone by ideology and nationalism; they had experienced quite enough of those two. Even France under the influence of Charles de Gaulle, the champion of the idea of the nation-state and its interests, could not arouse a spirit of nationalism anywhere close to what had been.
There is a saying that some people are exhausted and confuse their state with virtue. If that is true, then it is surely true of Europe in the last couple of generations. The European Union reflected these origins. It began as a pact — the European Community — of nations looking to reduce tariff barriers. It evolved into a nearly Europe-wide grouping of countries bound together in a trade bloc, with many of those countries sharing a common currency. Its goal was not the creation of a more perfect union, or, as the Americans put it, a “novus ordo seclorum.” It was not to be the city on the hill. Its commitment was to a more prosperous life, without genocide. Though not exactly inspiring, given the brutality of European history, it was not a trivial goal.
The problem was that when push came to shove, the European Community evolved into the European Union, which consisted of four things:
- A free trade zone with somewhat synchronized economic polices, not infrequently overridden by the sovereign power of member states.
- A complex bureaucracy designed to oversee the harmonization of European economies. This was seen as impenetrable and engaged in intensive and intrusive work from the trivial to the extremely significant, charged with defining everything from when a salami may be called a salami and whether Microsoft was a monopoly.
- A single currency and central bank to which 15 of the 27 EU members subscribed.
- Had Ireland voted differently, a set of proto-institutions would have been created — complete with a presidency and foreign policy chief — which would have given the European Union the trappings of statehood. The president, who would rotate out of office after a short time, would have been the head of one of the EU member states.
Rejecting a European Regime
The Irish referendum was all about transforming the fourth category into a regime. The Irish rejected it not because they objected to the first three sets of solutions — they have become the second-wealthiest country in Europe per capita under their aegis. They objected to it because they did not want to create a European regime. As French and Dutch voters have said before, the Irish said they want a free trade zone. They will put up with the Brussels bureaucracy even though its intrusiveness and lack of accountability troubles them. They can live with a single currency so long as it does not simply become a prisoner of German and French economic policy. But they do not want to create a European state.
The French and German governments do want to create such a state. As with the creation of the United States, the reasons have to do with war, past and future. Franco-German animosity helped created the two world wars of the 20th century. Those two powers now want a framework for preventing war within Europe. They also — particularly the French — want a vehicle for influencing the course of world events. In their view, the European Union, as a whole, has a gross domestic product comparable to that of the United States. It should be the equal of the United States in shaping the world. This isn’t simply a moral position, but a practical one. The United States throws its weight around because it can, frequently harming Europe’s interests. The French and Germans want to control the United States.
To do this, they need to move beyond having an economic union. They need to have a European foreign and defense policy. But before they can have that, they need a European government that can carry out this policy. And before they can have a European government they must have a European regime, before which they must have a European constitution that enumerates the powers of the European president, parliament and courts. They also need to specify how these officials will be chosen.
The French and Germans would welcome all this if they could get it. They know, given population, economic power and so on, that they would dominate the foreign policy created by a European state. Not so the Irish and Danes; they understand they would have little influence on the course of European foreign policy. They already feel the pain of having little influence on European economic policy, particularly the policies of the European Central Bank (ECB). Even the French public has expressed itself in the 2006 election about fears of Brussels and the ECB. But for countries like Ireland and Denmark, each of which fought very hard to create and retain their national sovereignty, merging into a Europe in which they would lose their veto power to a European parliamentary and presidential system is an appalling prospect.
Economists always have trouble understanding nationalism. To an economist, all human beings are concerned with maximizing their own private wealth. Economists can never deal with the empirical fact that this simply isn’t true. Many Irish fought against being cogs in a multinational British Empire. The Danes fought against being absorbed by Germany. The prospect of abandoning the struggle for national sovereignty to Europe is not particularly pleasing, even if it means economic advantage.
Europe is not going to become a nation-state in the way the United States is. It is increasingly clear that Europeans are not going to reach a consensus on a European constitution. They are not in agreement on what European institutions should look like, how elections should be held and, above all, about the relation between individual nations and a central government. The Europeans have achieved all they are going to achieve. They have achieved a free trade zone with a regulatory body managing it. They have created a currency that is optional to EU members, and from which we expect some members to withdraw from at times while others join in. There will be no collective European foreign or defense policy simply because the Europeans do not have a common interest in foreign and defense policy.
Paris Reads the Writing on the Wall
The French have realized this most clearly. Once the strongest advocates of a federated Europe, the French under President Nicolas Sarkozy have started moving toward new strategies. Certainly, they remain committed to the European Union in its current structure, but they no longer expect it to have a single integrated foreign and defense policy. Instead, the French are pursuing initiatives by themselves. One aspect of this involves drawing closer to the United States on some foreign policy issues. Rather than trying to construct a single Europe that might resist the United States — former President Jacques Chirac’s vision — the French are moving to align themselves to some degree with American policies. Iran is an example.
The most intriguing initiative from France is the idea of a Mediterranean union drawing together the countries of the Mediterranean basin, from Algeria to Israel to Turkey. Apart from whether these nations could coexist in such a union, the idea raises the question of whether France (or Italy or Greece) can simultaneously belong to the European Union and another economic union. While questions — such as whether North African access to the French market would provide access to the rest of the European Union — remain to be answered, the Germans have strongly rejected this French vision.
The vision derives directly from French geopolitical reality. To this point, the French focus has been on France as a European country whose primary commitment is to Europe. But France also is a Mediterranean country, with historical ties and interests in the Mediterranean basin. France’s geographical position gives it options, and it has begun examining those options independent of its European partners.
The single most important consequence of the Irish vote is that it makes clear that European political union is not likely to happen. It therefore forces EU members to consider their own foreign and defense policies — and, therefore, their own geopolitical positions. Whether an economic union can survive in a region of political diversity really depends on whether the diversity evolves into rivalry. While that has been European history, it is not clear that Europe has the inclination to resurrect national rivalries.
At the same time, if France does pursue interests independent of the Germans, the question will be this: Will the mutual interest in economic unity override the tendency toward political conflict? The idea was that Europe would moot the question by creating a federation. That isn’t going to happen, so the question is on the table. And that question can be framed simply: When speaking of political and military matters, is it reasonable any longer to use the term Europe to denote a single entity? Europe, as it once was envisioned, appears to have disappeared in Ireland.