Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously asked: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” Kissinger’s question describes the confusion and frustration of many Americans with the multitude of European nations.
After the terrorist attacks in Brussels, the media filled the airwaves with the incompetence of European security services and the problems of the open borders within the Schengen area. Particularly European elites share America’s frustrations. For many European elites and Americans, the answer to this problem is simple: a federal Europe, modeled on the United States.
Many in Europe do not share the optimism of the elites. The recent rejection in the Netherlands of the European Union (EU) association treaty with Ukraine, the close race in this summer’s Brexit referendum, and the rise and sustained presence of anti-EU parties all over Europe prove popular distrust and dissatisfaction with the European Union.
Challenges to its capacities and legitimacy poses a problem for the EU. As John Daniel Davidson argued, the EU must decide whether it is a state. To answer this conundrum, perhaps it is time to turn to men who already framed a union out of a loose confederation: the framers of the United States Constitution.
Ask the American Founders
Like Americans in the 1780s, European leaders today face an increasing security problem and a growing debt, but a lack of political power to solve it. The European Union has claimed in various stages to be a legitimate government, while few have taken its claims seriously. When the European Union is arbiter in a dispute or attempts to solve a problem, very few actually abide by the agreements made, if the agreements would solve the problem at all.
The United States faced similar issues in the 1780s. In the “Federalist Papers,” Alexander Hamilton argued a federal constitution is necessary, because of the “unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government.” Like its contemporary European counterparts, Hamilton and many of his contemporaries thought the Articles of Confederation that held the United States together during the Revolutionary War were too weak to pay for the war debt and to provide for a strong defense against European empires.
The biggest problem the Framers faced was the issue of political factions in the federal government, comparable to “the curse of nationalism” EU officials try to cope with. Steeped in classical and Enlightenment political theory, the Framers knew factionalism eventually would destroy republics from within. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison argued in Federalist No. 9 and 10 that “a firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.”
Madison argued factionalism was inevitable as long as men are free, and that therefore the size of the republic must help control these erroneous effects of factionalism, both geographically and demographically. When you create a large republic, Madison stated, “you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” In other words, the larger the republic, the fewer factions exist, which thus preserves the liberty of its citizens.
Additionally, the Framers thought rightfully that the federal government would be more capable of paying off the war debt and providing for a common defense. Particularly Hamilton argued that a country without common defense or able to pay off its debts is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “no country at all.”
Europe Doesn’t Have a Common Cause and Culture
At the face of it, a strong central government seems an easy solution to the European Union’s problems. Organize a constitutional convention of all the elected leaders of Europe, create a balanced republican constitution, and Europe will no longer have a debt problem and can fight terrorism and Russia side by side.
Indeed, the European Union already pretends this centralized, federal system exists and, where it does not work, that more centralization should be implemented. EU parliamentarian and former prime minster of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt argues in his latest book “De ziekte van Europa” (“The Disease of Europe”) that decision-making in the European Union is too slow to solve past, current, and future problems and that centralization based on a federal model is the cure for this disease.
But, unlike Verhofstadt and EU officials, the Framers of the Constitution understood the difficulty of creating a large political union. The Framers argued that the United States was suited for a strong union because it was a connected and relatively homogenous nation, geographically and in spirit. A federal government would function properly because of homogeneity of language, devotion to liberty, a common history, and because, as John Jay put it, the Americans sought a united government in the revolutionary war when “their habitations were in flames, [and] when many of their citizens were bleeding.”
Probably the only commonality all Europeans share is that its peoples strongly resisted unification for centuries and still refuse to unify. Elite unification projects, such as those of Charlemagne, Napoleon, Nazi Germany, and the current European Union, all ended in failure and, more importantly, death and destruction.
The European Union likes to take credit for the decades of peace in Europe after World War II, while it was obviously the protective umbrella of the United States and the NATO alliance that kept western Europe safe. In fact, contemporary social unrest in Europe can be attributed to European Union failures, such as an inadequate protection of its borders, disastrous fiscal policies, and unnecessary expansion. Greece had a proven dysfunctional economy and financial system for decades, but only when it joined the Eurozone did this start to have significant consequences in the euro—and refugee crises. Increased ambitions and centralization of the European Union made things worse, not better.
European leaders should heed the warnings of the Framers and the failures of centralization in Europe’s past. Whether European and American elites like it or not, Europe is a diverse continent with different peoples, an enormous variety of languages, cultures, and even entirely different alphabets. As the Framers realized, a country is most safe and free when it creates and maintains a political system that reflects the realities of the country’s culture and history. The elitist, hopelessly idealist European Union, however, does not reflect any European reality.