The slow-motion crisis of the European Union finally seems to be coming to a head. "Europe could lose its historical footing and the project could die quickly," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned in a speech at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "Things could fall apart within months," which, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble added, "would be a tragedy."
The catalyst for these fears is Britain's upcoming referendum on its EU membership, due by the end of 2017. I am writing this column having just left Congress Hall in Davos after British Prime Minister David Cameron's own speech on "Britain in the World." At least, that was what the speech was supposed to be about; in fact, it might have been better titled "Britain in the European Union (and What I Don't Like About It)." There are, to be sure, bits of Europe that Cameron does like, particularly its potential to create a single market for goods and services, but there is much more of which he disapproves. The core issue, he insisted, is that "if Europe is about ever-deepening political union, with ever-deepening political institutions, then it's not the organization for us."
Pressed on this point in the Q&A session, Cameron accepted that "you [can] never forget that this is a group of countries that used to fight each other and kill each other, and have actually now come together in a common endeavor"; but that coming together, he suggested, was the result less of the movement toward political union than of "some values that we in Britain are very proud of, in terms of committing to democracy and freedom and rights and all the rest of it."
Much ink has been spilled over whether David Cameron's speeches about the European Union represent his own views, those of his party, or a subtle attempt to manage the British nation's political mood. Yet whatever the prime minister's motives, seeing the 70-year process of European integration as part of a much longer history of state formation casts an interesting new light on the arguments Cameron offered at Davos.
Forging a New Path to Peace?
When I was a teenager growing up in 1970s Britain, no topic seemed quite as dull as the European Community (as it was called until it rebranded itself as the European Union in 1993). Nothing could get me to turn the TV off quite as quickly as yet another announcement from the bureaucrats in Brussels about what I was allowed to eat or drink and what size container it could come in. But I — and the millions of others who shared my lack of interest in all things European — was very wrong to react this way.
For 5,000 years, since the first states were created in what is now southern Iraq, governments have been using violence to create political unity and then using politics (and, when necessary, more violence) to create economic and cultural unity everywhere that their power reached. From 3000 B.C. through the late 1940s, it is hard to find a single example of a state formed in any other way. Since the late 1940s, though, Western Europeans have been turning history's most successful formula on its head.
The European Union has arguably been the most extraordinary experiment in the history of political institutions, but the reason its accomplishments seemed so boring was that dullness was the bloc's whole point. In committee meeting after committee meeting, unsung bureaucratic heroes spun a web of rules and regulations that bound the Continent's formerly sovereign states into an economic and cultural unit and then began using economics and culture to create a political unit. "The final goal," Helmut Schlesinger, the head of the German Bundesbank, explained in 1994, "is a political one … to reach any type of political unification in Europe, a federation of states, an association of states or even a stronger form of union." In this agenda, "the economic union is [merely] an important vehicle to reach this target."
The European Union has arguably been the most extraordinary experiment in the history of political institutions, but the reason its accomplishments seemed so boring was that dullness was the bloc's whole point.
For the first time in history, huge numbers of people — 500 million so far — have come together to form a bigger society without anyone using force to make them to do so. The consequences have been extraordinary: Between 1914 and 1945, Europeans killed more than 60 million people in two world wars, but by 2015 the European Union had become the safest place on Earth. Its citizens murdered each other less often than any other people on earth, its governments had abolished the death penalty, and it had renounced war within its borders (and almost renounced it outside them, too).
In 2003, opinion pollsters found that only 12 percent of French and German people thought that war was ever justified, as opposed to 55 percent of Americans. "On major strategic and international questions today," U.S. strategist Robert Kagan concluded that same year, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."
The contrast with the lands beyond the European Union's eastern border, where Russian leaders have not hesitated to assassinate their critics and use force against weaker neighbors, could hardly be starker. Small wonder that the Nobel Committee decided in 2012 to award its Peace Prize to the European Union as a whole.
The Drawbacks of Europe's Experiment
Why, then, Cameron's insistence that "Britain has never been happy with the idea that we are part of an ever-closer political union?" My own (admittedly unsystematic) survey of the discussions makes me think that there are three main arguments. The first is tribal: as Cameron put it in Davos, "We're a proud, independent country, with proud, independent democratic traditions." Britons have not been persuaded that the gains from surrendering their independent traditions and identity outweigh the costs.
The second argument, and the one least spoken about, is geostrategic. Since the 17th century, British grand strategy has consistently revolved around engaging with the wider world while preventing any single power from dominating continental Europe. "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual friends," Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, famously observed in 1848; only "our interests are eternal and perpetual." Between 1689 and 1945, Britain built and broke alliances and paid huge costs in blood and gold to prevent the political unification of Europe; and as I have discussed before, since 1945 it has carried on a delicate diplomatic dance to remain engaged with the Continent while undermining any ever-deepening political union.
Third is what seems to be the most powerful argument of all: that Europe's novel path of coercion-free state formation is just not working. For nearly 15 years after the signing of the crucial treaty at Maastricht in 1992, the opposite had seemed to be the case. From Ireland to Estonia, most Europeans began sharing a single currency and central bank, accepting rulings from a European court and parliament, and crossing borders without passports. Since 2010, however, the tedious path of consensus building has increasingly broken down.
As the countries that had adopted the euro as their currency plunged into a debt crisis (or, more accurately, a balance-of-payments crisis between the highly productive North and the less productive South), they discovered the limits of a rules-based union that lacked the centralized coercive powers of a traditional state. An old-style empire could have used force to solve the problems, as Britain did when it sent gunboats to extract debt payments from Greece in 1850; but in the new Europe, no German tanks would be rolling through the streets of Athens to restore fiscal discipline.
Having chosen a path of state formation that denied it the very possibility of enforcing its rules with violence, the European Union has been teetering on the brink of an abyss for the last five years. By late 2011, the Swiss bank UBS was even worrying that the absence of central coercive power would unleash violence of a different kind: "Almost no modern fiat currency monetary unions," its analysts observed, "have broken up without some form of authoritarian or military government, or civil war." However, as of early 2016, the much-criticized policy of masterly inactivity — doing just enough to keep indebted countries afloat, but no more — does seem to be averting disaster. Despite eye-watering unemployment, occasionally violent street protests and regularly recurring political crises, Greece has hung on within the eurozone; and despite mounting pressure on Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and even France, none has collapsed.
Since 2014, however, a second problem has emerged for the European path toward state formation. Nearly 2 million refugees — less than half of one percent of the European Union's population, but a formidable number nonetheless — have flooded into Europe from the south and east. The borderless Schengen area, which will eventually comprise 26 of the 28 EU countries plus Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, has struggled to cope since it was constructed in 1985. Amid scenes of misery and even violence, internal borders are returning. State formation is going into reverse.
The Problem of Governing Without Power
For more than 60 years after its beginnings in the late 1940s, the European Union's revolutionary path of state formation without centralized coercive power gradually mastered its members' tribalism and local strategic interests. In many ways, this has been an inspirational story, challenging head-on Thomas Hobbes' assertion in Leviathan that the only force strong enough to prevent people from using violence to pursue self-interest is a government that has more violence at its disposal than any of its subjects.
Since 2010, however, evidence has been mounting that the European path toward state formation only really works in the best-case scenario. Confronted by genuinely Hobbesian challenges of greed and desperate refugees, the limitations of Brussels' rules and committees have become clear.
Since 2010, however, evidence has been mounting that the European path toward state formation only really works in the best-case scenario.
If correct, this seems to leave just two options. The first is that the champions of political union will turn the crisis of state formation into an opportunity, persuading the bloc's members to strengthen central institutions at the expense of local ones and thereby giving Brussels the powers it needs to tackle the forces of dissolution. Right now, however, that does not seem to be the direction Europe is moving in.
The second option is the one that Cameron championed at Davos: rejecting "ever-deepening political union, with ever-deepening political institutions" as Europe's goal. Cameron's claim that the pacification of Europe since 1945 has been a product of the Continent's shared democratic values rather than of political integration sweetens the pill, but rests on an unstated counterfactual assumption — that even if European nations had not surrendered so much of their sovereignty since the late 1940s, pacification would have happened anyway. In favor of Cameron's counterfactual is the point that violence has declined across most of the world in the last 70 years even though the number of independent nation-states has grown; against it, perhaps, the fact that violence has declined more inside the European Union than anywhere else.
No one has a crystal ball, and because Europe's experiment in state formation without violence is unique in the annals of history, we cannot even appeal to arguments from analogy to see where it might lead. One of the clearest trends of the last 10,000 years has been the creation of larger and larger political units, which might mean that Cameron is wrong and that the European Union will somehow muddle through. On the other hand, because these larger units have always been formed by governments monopolizing the use of legitimate violence within their territories and because this is the one strategy that the European Union has always rejected, perhaps we should conclude that Cameron is right, and that ever-deepening political union is a dead letter.
Back in 1651, Hobbes speculated that Leviathan — an awe-inspiring government controlling sufficient force to deter its subjects from using violence in their own interests — could be created in more than one way. The most common route, he surmised, was what he called "commonwealth by acquisition," which depended on threats and coercion, "as when a man maketh his children, to submit themselves, and their children to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse; or by war subdueth his enemies to his will, giving them their lives on that condition." However, Hobbes argued, it was also possible for there to be "commonwealth by institution … when men agree amongst themselves, to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily."
More than three centuries on from Leviathan, the European Union has been giving commonwealth by institution the most serious test it has ever had. It has been a noble and inspiring experiment in solving collective action problems without the threat of coercion. But if Cameron was right in Davos, the experiment is failing.