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What future for a United States of Europe?

It is possible that the economic integration implied by the maintenance of the euro may spill over into matters of defence and foreign policy, making EU member states more willing to pool their national sovereignties – argues Brendan Donnelly

The phrase ‘United States of Europe’ is one that rarely helps to clarify debate on the future of the European Union. It means very different things to different people. Some regard it as a desirable goal and others see it as synonymous with the European ‘superstate’ against which Margaret Thatcher warned in her Bruges speech of 1988.

Nevertheless, the question of how far the EU should be thought of as a traditional state is a fascinating one. The best answer seems to be that in some respects the union already resembles a state; in other respects it is coming more to resemble a state; in yet other respects it is very far from resembling a state and may well never do so.

The supremacy of European rules over national law, the limitations on national vetos within EU decision-making, the existence of a modest central budget, a directly elected European Parliament and the legal personality of the union are all elements pointing towards traditional state structures. The EU is, indeed, inconceivable without them.

The restraints on national sovereignty they imply are central to the union’s political structure. In joining the club every member state agrees explicitly to exercise a portion of its national sovereignty through supranational, state-like European structures. States or individuals who reject in principle these state-like attributes of the union can never logically be a part of the EU; an analysis vigorously advocated by many Eurosceptics in the United Kingdom.

The Treaty of Rome speaks, as is well known, of an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” as one of its goals. The continuing crisis of the eurozone, in which the clear and soon to be overwhelming majority of member states in the EU participate, is unambiguously promoting this closer union – in a way that is at the same time making the union more state-like. There has admittedly been a considerable schizophrenia in the reactions of the single currency member states to the challenges posed by the economic crisis.

A theoretical recognition that the single currency’s structures need to be reformed in the direction of greater centralisation has gone hand in hand with the reluctance of many member states to accept the practical measures to implement this centralisation. Nevertheless, the direction of travel is clear, not least in the enhanced role of the European Central Bank. The single currency functions today in a fashion much more akin to that of the dollar’s workings than it did five years ago and this is a process likely to continue. The union will look correspondingly more like a state as a result.

But in other areas of policy traditionally associated with the activity of states, the EU is a long way from integrated decision-making. The union has no competences in such central activities of the member states as welfare systems, secondary education, structures of local government and domestic security. Nor have the member states, particularly the larger nations, been willing to pool their sovereignty in external relations or defence matters.

Greatly to the disappointment of many among those favouring the goal of a United States of Europe, the Lisbon Treaty maintained largely intact the protection of national vetos traditional in these areas of policy.

The EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European External Action Service will be coordinating bodies active only where the member states of the union wish to act together on specific questions of external relations. It is not easy to see a similar set of circumstances to those surrounding the crisis of the eurozone that might force national governments to any radical re-evaluation of these attitudes in the near future.

From all of the above, the lesson that emerges most clearly is that of the centrality to the union’s future of the course of the eurozone’s crisis. If, at one extreme, the euro does not survive many – although not all – commentators believe that it will pull down in its wake even those state-like structures of the EU that predated the single European currency. If, as seems more likely, the single currency survives on the basis of enhanced sovereignty-pooling between its members then the state-like attributes of the union will have been greatly enhanced.

It is even possible that over time the economic integration implied by the maintenance of the euro may spill over into matters of defence and foreign policy, making national governments more willing to pool their national sovereignties in these areas than they have been hitherto. This must however be at best – or at worst – an extremely long-term prospect.

For many decades to come, the EU is likely to be a unique political construct, with important components that resemble a state-like structure and important components that do not. Individuals and states will have to form their own view as to whether this is a desirable prospect. According to their judgement, these individuals and states will have to decide whether they wish to accelerate, retard or reverse the path upon which the union is currently engaged.

Brendan Donnelly is the director of the Federal Trust for Education and Research think-tank in the United Kingdom and a former MEP

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