Will There Ever Be a United States of Europe?

By | June 6, 2012

From recent news you will have learned that the euro zone crisis continues to be the 700 pound gorilla in the room of the global economy. It’s become increasingly clear that, whatever happens in Greece on June 17, the euro zone countries must undertake the most significant reforms in the way they operate since the common currency was introduced in 2001, if a train wreck of global proportions is to be avoided.

The European Central Bank (ECB) should become a real central bank with greatly increased powers – that’s the proposal most analysts have suggested. A lesser solution would be to give the ECB the authority to issue euro denominated bonds and to give aid directly to imperiled banks, rather than governments. Unfortunately Germany, Europe’s present paymaster, doesn’t like these proposals.

While the ECB looks poised to lend more bailout money – this time to Portugal and Spain – it isn’t ready to assume a greatly enhanced role. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has consistently rejected the ideas, and without German support they simply won’t happen. There is a chance Merkel will change her mind, if the situation calls for it, as she has in the past. At present, as there’s not much else on the table, it may eventually happen; but by that time – after three years of dithering – it may be too, little too late.

Europe’s problem is systemic, or in academic terms “structural.” It’s the result of putting together a union designed as a super national body, while at the same time respecting the sovereignty of the individual states. There are currently 27 members, with more in waiting, along with affiliates – Russia, Switzerland and Norway. Europe’s population at around 450 million is larger than the U.S., and its combined GDP, at least until recently, is about the same as the U.S. at $14 trillion. It should therefore be relatively simple to take the next steps and create a United States of Europe.

It’s not, as there are fundamental differences between the two entities. Most Americans lose sight of the fact that the U.S. is a young country, compared to Europe. Every American now living is descended from immigrants who came from somewhere else. Beginning around 1840, and extending into the 1920’s, the U.S. welcomed the world, and has been richly repaid for doing so.

While many of those immigrants came from Europe – first English, French and Dutch, followed by Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, Swedes, etc. – most Europeans stayed home, where they had literally lived forever. There are valleys in Germany with Neolithic tombs over 7000 years old. DNA from the remains confirms that the valleys’ present day residents are mostly descendants of these original inhabitants. A friend of mine in France has traced her ancestors back to the 14th century. They lived in the same village (now a suburb of Paris) where she was born. Italians still consider the Roman Empire as part of their ongoing history.

As a result, each nation, and indeed each community, in Europe has roots to which people are profoundly attached. By contrast, every immigrant who came to America left the past behind, usually, but not always (slavery) by choice. English became their common language, buuilding cohesion. Most international business in Europe is also conducted in English, but as the EU’s translation services attest, everybody uses their traditional language in Europe. They have neither the desire, nor the intention to change that.

After the Revolutionary War the U.S. tried a somewhat EU like system – the Articles of Confederation. They didn’t work. The U.S. then adopted a Constitution that has worked pretty well for more than 200 years with one glaring exception – the Civil War. Pause for a minute, and ask yourself what the states of the U.S. would look like today if the Confederacy had been allowed to secede. There would probably be at least five, and possibly more, independent nations in the same space.

The U.S. has had only that one major internal conflict in 200 years. Europe has had nothing but – territorial wars, religious wars, trade wars, colonial wars. You name it they’ve had it, culminating in the doomsday scenarios of the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Those twin disasters spawned the European Union, but did nothing to eliminate the sense of separateness and allegiance to “the nation” that remains the main stumbling block to a real European Union.

The U.S. may have 50 individual states, and they are very different, but they are united under the overall law of the U.S. Constitution. All of them, with the exception of Louisiana, derive their governing statutes from English Common Law. It is the lynchpin of the country’s success. How else could you ever hope to resolve disputes between a Pole, a German, an Irishman and an Italian, if they didn’t all have access to a common and, at least theoretically, neutral forum?

This also explains why the U.S. is the most legalistic and lawyerfied country in the world. There are more lawyers in L.A. County that in all of France.

No such system exists in Europe. Each country maintains its own laws and frequently disputes are settled by custom, not through the courts. The European Commission (EC) does mandate the adoption of national laws which incorporate its directives, but, as these are mainly regulatory in nature, they haven’t fundamentally caused changes in the body of laws and traditions that the people in their respective countries look to for justice. Contract law in the UK, isn’t the same as it is in Germany, France or Spain.

The current crisis centers on a common currency, the euro. The U.S. has had one, the dollar, since its beginning. But the U.S. also has a Treasury Department, a central bank, the Federal Reserve, as well as executive and legislative powers that monitor policy and control its issuance and use. The ECB can’t do this, because the countries that form the EU don’t want it to. Essentially none of them want to cede the powers necessary for it to do so.

As anarchic as it might seem, the U.S. political system also acts as a unifying force. Every two years members of the House of Representatives must seek a new mandate from voters in their constituencies – in the Senate, every six years. Every four years there’s a national election, which seems to go on forever, but at least provides a forum for discussing the merits and demerits of the candidates, their policy positions, and their views on how they would lead the country. People are involved, even if many of them don’t end up actually voting.

The EU has none of this. Leaders of the countries that make up the EU are elected, but those who govern it are not. The European Parliament, which is actually elected, has very little power to actually manage the EU; it’s more of a sounding board. As a result people in EU countries view the dictates from the EC as remote. They feel alienated from Brussels, just as many Americans feel alienated from Washington D.C., but at least the latter have the potential to do something about it.

Paradoxically, if you did give EU citizens the right to vote, they would probably opt for exactly what they already have. EU leaders seem to actually fear their own constituents. Despite repeated promises from both left and right, the UK has yet to hold a referendum on EU membership, as party leaders are afraid voters would reject it. Only Ireland has enacted a law mandating the submission of major EU treaty changes to the voters.

The last time Europe was somewhat unified was 1200 years ago under Emperor Charlemagne. It fragmented into separate states after his death in 814. The attempts by various dictators, particularly Napoleon and Hitler, to unite Europe by conquest failed, and it’s hoped they will not be repeated. That leaves only the political option, which at present isn’t terribly encouraging.

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