How Schulz Should Pursue a United States of Europe

by Benjamin Studebaker

Martin Schulz–the leader of the center-left SPD, Germany’s second largest party–has publicly called for the United States of Europe by 2025:

This is an exciting proposal–a strong union is precisely the thing to break the European Union’s deadlock (the nature of which I’ve discussed elsewhere). But it will be politically difficult to do, because the EU has understandably lost so much of the European people’s trust over the last decade. To regain that trust, the “convention” Schulz talks about needs to operate fundamentally differently from current EU institutions. Here’s how it could be done.

The big problem with current EU institutions is that, as Schulz put it:

the continent cannot afford four more years of German European policy

Germany is too powerful within the EU because it is the most economically dominant member state. It exercises tremendous influence over European Central Bank policy and over the European budget. When Germany imposes austerity on Spain, Italy, or Greece, these countries have little choice but to accept it. When Germany agrees to take large numbers of refugees, it doesn’t ask permission from London or Paris or Budapest. Germany does what Germany thinks is best, and the rest of Europe lives with the consequences, whether good or ill. This kind of decision-making delegitimizes the European project and weakens support for it, making it even harder for reformers like Schulz to restructure EU institutions. The way to distribute power more evenly within the EU is to create an independent federal structure with the power to compel even German obedience. But when Germany undermines confidence in the EU, it also undermines confidence in tighter forms of political integration. The current EU structure requires German leadership to change, but German leadership is precisely the thing the people of Europe are increasingly skeptical about.

So for Schulz to succeed, he must be very serious when he says that the constitutional treaty will be drafted by “a convention” “in close cooperation with the civil society and the people”. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the people must play a leading role in the drafting of the constitution if it is to stand a chance of securing legitimacy in the current political climate.

When the United States constructed its federal union, the member states appointed their delegates directly. The delegates were not selected by the people. In America, we got away with this for two reasons:

  1. It was the 18th century, and democratic confidence was far less developed than it is today.
  2. The states tended to pick heroes of the American Revolution, in whom the public had tremendous confidence. There is no equivalent group of European statespeople–at this point there are few if any European politicians who enjoy that kind of respect.

It’s sometimes claimed that America was much more heavily united than Europe at the time of the constitutional convention, but this isn’t true. The problems and divisions we faced at that time were arguably greater than those Europe faces today. The Continental Congress’ currency was completely worthless–it depreciated to 1/40th of its face value in five years because the individual states printed their own quantities without regard for what the others were doing. There was open rebellionA third of Americans spoke a native language other than English. States didn’t even agree on their borders:

But America got it done, because Americans were able to recognize that the federal system would not just intensify the problems of the confederation–it would eliminate them. It’s not a magic bullet, and there are many areas where European states do better than us (universal healthcare, welfare, pensions, etc.). But we all know we’re better off with the feds than without them. Europeans must be able to see that their constitutional convention will do the same. The perception of EU dysfunction comes from the decisions taken by the commission and by the states (especially Germany) over the last decade. It comes from the marginalization of the EU parliament and the absence any other democratic mechanisms which might plausibly make the European people feel involved in what goes on.

So if Schulz wants to do a convention, great. But the delegates to the convention need to be directly elected, not appointed by member-states. The state parties can campaign for the specific candidates they want, but the state governments cannot control the process directly. Europe is where it is today because of the failure of the states to cooperate effectively, and the states need to acknowledge this and put the constitution directly in the hands of the people. There’s no revolutionary generation to entrust and this isn’t 1787. The parties put up the candidates. The people vote for the delegates. The delegates write the constitution. The people vote on it. The state governments oversee the voting. They watch. Anything less is unlikely to get the widespread support and legitimacy necessary to go through and keep the EU together, and a rump United States of Europe is no United States of Europe at all.