The EU debt crisis has exposed the Union’s decision-making deficits and, at last, European leaders are beginning to admit that systemic mistakes, as written down in treaties thus creating institutional lock-ins, require structural reform.
Unsurprisingly, Angela Merkel, in her speech at the Bundestag on Friday, warned that these reforms, however urgent and necessary, will take time. EU decision-making is, namely, agonizingly slow. Indeed, this is one of its main structural problems and stems from its unique inter-governmentalist model. The latter has been established over years as a murky institutional compromise between those in favor of greater integration and those keen to safeguard national sovereignty.
National sovereignty is a favorite term of many Europeans—it is almost religion. This stands in stark opposition to federalism. The antagonism is strong and is fought not only within the political field but also within academia—and often to the extent of arguing, quite abstrusely, that democracy is only possible within nation-states but not within federal states. (As if Europe did not have its good share of federal states (among which Germany) and the United States were an autocracy of some strange sort.)
This is also why currently, and even as we de facto move towards a federalist Union, the term is avoided. Treaty reform, yes; fiscal union, yes; common economic policy, yes; even Eurobonds begin to draw yeses these days—but not federalism. The motto seems to be, don’t wake up sleeping dogs: all of the above are building blocks for federalism, but let us just keep quiet about it.
But why should federalism have such a bad name? A look at Belgium locked in a political crisis since 2007 provides some insight. The problem in Belgium, in a somewhat simplified form, is that a majority within the rich Dutch-speaking Flemish Community thinks it is unfair to have to contribute a higher share to the federal budget, to then have it partly used to subsidize the poorer French-speaking Walloon Community. Underneath it all, however, it is not just, or even mainly, about money but also about ancient injuries that survive to these days and continue to separate the two groups.
Along similar lines, solidarity in Europe continues to have a rather bitter nationalist aftertaste. More than fifty years of European integration efforts did not manage to do away with this entirely. A mistake made was to believe in the own myth: European integration has always been promoted as a win-win project in the name of peace and prosperity—and comparatively less attention has been paid to the institutional implications of efficient power-sharing between different levels of government, as well as the political culture of constitutional patriotism that needs to be encouraged among Europeans if they are to put aside their ethnic, religious and national narrow-mindedness.
One could argue it is mundane that a crisis over debt is emerging as the European Union’s existential test of all times. Yet from another perspective, what better test could there be as to whether Europeans have finally managed to outgrow their national blinders? If pragmatism were to turn out to be the main driver and inspiration for structural reform, would that not also mean that we have finally recognized the vices of (nationalist) ideology?
We do not have to love a federal Europe; we perhaps should just recognize it as the better host.