EU leaders obsessed with the idea of a federal Europe are losing touch with their populations and are fueling nationalist and Euroskeptic sentiment across the Continent. At least, this is how Donald Tusk, European Council president, summarized the situation in Europe during a May 30 European People's Party summit. According to Tusk, EU leaders create "all kinds of utopias — a utopia of Europe without nation states, a utopia of Europe without conflicting interests and ambitions," even though "the citizens of Europe do not share our Euro-enthusiasm." Tusk is not the first EU representative to question the future of Continental integration (EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently made similar statements). But Tusk's choice of words is notable. EU integration has often been described as a goal, an aspiration or even a dream — all concepts that involve a degree of hope to achieve a possibility. But by definition, a utopia is an imaginary place that exists only as an ideal; the word itself comes from the Greek "ou-topos," meaning "nowhere." Tusk has therefore admitted that a fully integrated Europe, however ideal, is impossible.
That the statement came from the head of the European Council may seem shocking. After all, EU institutions were designed to propagate more and deeper Continental integration, and Tusk is from Poland, a country that embraced EU membership just 12 years ago. Nonetheless, the European Council comprises the heads of government of EU member states, and today many European governments — and their constituencies — share Tusk's view.
Derision of the concept of a "Europe without nation states" is central to Tusk's statement, reminding European leaders that theirs is a fundamentally divided continent. Mountain ranges and peninsulas account for much of Europe's land, and its rivers split rather than converge. In the Continent's southern reaches, where geography has long prevented the emergence of strong, unified economies, the fragmentation is even worse. The result is a Continent where strong identities have formed separate from and often in direct opposition to one another. Distinct cultures impede any attempt to unify Europe under a single banner, whether by the military means of Napoleon or Hitler, or by the political means of the European Union.
Once again, the European Union has failed to overcome Europe's differences. Its southern members imagine it as a transfer union, where wealth flows from north to south. Northern European countries, on the other hand, want to protect their national wealth and are leery of measures that would distribute the costs and risks of Continental integration. Eastern countries such as Hungary and Poland support the European Union but grow more and more wary of its interference in their domestic affairs. Meanwhile, across the Continent, nationalist parties are gaining traction with promises to insulate their countries from foreign threats such as immigrants, free trade or the euro.
Considering the important decisions that loom on the horizon for several EU member states, Tusk's comments are particularly relevant. On June 23, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum to decide whether to stay in the Continental bloc. From March through October 2017, core eurozone members, including Germany, France and the Netherlands, will hold general elections, and Euroskeptic parties are expected to perform well in all of them. Spain will hold its next elections on June 26, and Italy's rebellious (but pro-EU) government will determine its political future in an October referendum on constitutional reform. Renewed political uncertainty in Madrid and Rome could undermine the eurozone's tenuous economic recovery.
In response, France and Germany have been discussing ways to revive the process of Continental integration. The problem, however, is that they cannot agree on how to go about it. Additional fiscal integration is a non-starter. Southern members such as France and Italy would push for greater risk sharing in the eurozone, while northern countries, led by Germany, would insist on centralizing fiscal power and curtailing their southern peers' spending and borrowing abilities.
A recent report by the Financial Times suggests that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel think that security and defense may be the answer. Integrating more in these areas, they reason, would be acceptable to most member states, given the continued migration crisis and the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. But even this proposal will be controversial, and some EU officials have already warned that introducing federalist initiatives would only exacerbate the Continent's existing rifts. Besides, by late 2017, Hollande and Merkel may not be in power anymore.
In its attempt to overcome the nation state, the European Union has managed only a half-measure. Countries give up sovereignty on some issues and keep it on others. As a result, no one is satisfied. Germany and France are still debating ways to preserve the Continental bloc. But as they do, political events in the next year and a half may prove that the best way to save the European Union is to dismantle some parts of it.