superstate (suːpəsteɪt), noun, a large and powerful state formed from a federation or union of nations: “We are not advocates of a European superstate.” – Oxford Dictionaires.
Victor Hugo famously spoke of the “United States of Europe” at the 1849 International Peace Congress. Almost 100 years later, just after Second World War, George Orwell spoke of the same thing, adding however that these United States should also be “Socialist”. These calls have always been abstract in the extreme. For Europe, holding the bulk of the world’s industrial and war-making ability, division, meaning war, had apocalyptic overtones. The rhetoric of unity, the very phrase “ever closer union” inscribed in the Treaty of Rome, has often had an almost theological quality.
But today European unity is a very real thing. Whether we like or not, the quiet (and not so quiet) work of diplomats, businessmen, politicians, activists and civil servants over six decades is bearing fruit. A number of “game-changer” factors, I believe, will come into play in the coming years, contributing to the creation of something actually like the European Superstate of federalists’ dreams and nationalists’ nightmares.
The key challenge for European federalism to exist is for the EU to cease being like an international organization and like a normal, democratic State. International organizations (the UN, NATO, the WTO…) have certain characteristics: their work tends to be opaque (protected by diplomatic privileges), they act by consensus (or not at all), each works to cause the least trouble possible in each others’ countries, etc. These values and habits go completely against the norms of democratic politics, which is inevitably partisan and messy, which has both winners and losers. However, a number of developments suggest that, quite soon, the European Union will become far less like an international organization subject to vetoes and much more like a normal federation of states (small “S”).
The first is that, as stipulated by the Treaty of Lisbon which is the EU’s current Basic Law, from November 2014 a new system of voting will apply in the Council of Ministers (the most veto-prone institution, where national governments are represented). Qualified majority voting (QMV) will no longer be based on the rather arbitrary system of points currently used in which big states are under-represented (Germany has 29 points, like France, the UK and Italy, while Poland and Spain have 27…) and in which a block minority requires a mere 27% of points. Instead, a valid majority will only require the support of at least 55% of states representing 65% of the EU’s population. A national government will be able to ask that the old rules be used on specific votes, but this right too will be disappear from April 2017.
Most EU policy areas come under the new “ordinary legislative procedure” requiring QMV in the Council and a majority vote in the European Parliament. This concerns most matters of the Single Market (including financial regulation), environmental issues (including carbon emissions, GMO cultivation, chemicals regulation…), immigration, trade policy, and so on. Majority voting is now generally the rule for EU policies (list here) with the significant exceptions of taxes, foreign policy and defense (in short, the last, most fundamental attributes of the State).
A second factor is the likelihood of an elected EU President. This is an idea that has been floating around for a long time but may soon become a reality. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and European Commissioner Michel Barnier are among those supporting the idea. Some argue this elected person should combine the positions of Commission President (head of the EU executive) and Council President (chairman of meetings of national prime ministers and presidents). This would be perfectly legal under the existing Treaties.
Direct elections will not happen. But the EU-level parties (Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals, Euroskeptics, Greens…) can, if they wish, nominate presidential candidates to campaign in the 2014 European parliamentary elections. The party with the biggest share of votes would then, according to current rules, have its candidate become Commission President.
This is an unpredictable but potentially revolutionary development. Genuine, partisan multinational democracy has never actually been tried for a powerful institution and it completely violates the EU’s ultra-consensual tradition. In a recent speech, the current President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat, very astutely highlighted the importance and political impact of elections:
[I]n the run-up to the 2014 European elections the European parties should each choose a leading candidate, who would thus also be their candidate for the post of Commission President. […]
For the first time, therefore, a European election campaign will offer the voters a choice between candidates with differing programs. This will foster a European debate on European issues which highlights markedly different approaches to policy-making at EU level. There is nothing more apolitical than the argument which goes ‘there is no alternative to Europe’. In the context of European elections, a more pertinent question would be ‘What kind of Europe do we want?’ That is the very purpose of an election campaign, to determine our political course on the basis of partisan, informed debate.
The newly-elected President would de facto have entirely new powers deriving from his democratic mandate and his ability to appeal directly to European public opinion(s). Citizens would, for a start, actually know his face (as opposed to the current crop of “Mr. and Mrs. Nobodies”). If an elected European Commission President had campaigned, for example, on financial regulation or stronger measures against climate change, this could make it far easier to waive the culture of consensus, and go for an ambitious policy even if it means outvoting a (very upset) minority.
The final factor is the decline in the taboo of national sovereignty among European political elites. This is above all the case for the eurozone avant-garde. National leaders of eurozone countries understand that, sooner later, either the currency area must federate or it must die. The eurozone core, in turn, will be in a strong position to determine monetary and economic policy for the Union as a whole. Euroskeptic think-tank Open Europe has notably argued in a major report that this will critically undermine the United Kingdom’s ability to block EU financial regulation.
In addition, many countries now see Europe as their prime lever for influencing the world. Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Poland together urged the EU to find ways of creating a permanent European military HQ despite a British veto. In the same genre, Sweden, Poland, Italy and Spain (the “middle powers”) have made a point of pushing for a “European global strategy” for foreign policy. Poland, which once had a Europhobe and reflexively pro-American government, is now ruled by a party which has made Europe the core of its foreign policy. Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski regularly makes statements like “I believe Europe should behave like a proper superpower”. Even if it is unlikely much of these will amount to much in practice, it is indicative of how “normal” it has become for European states to think of their national interest first and foremost in terms of the EU’s world policy.
Then there is the declining influence of Britain, the nation most prone to obstructionism and which votes most often against the majority in the Council. The long-dreaded word “referendum” has been on the lips of more and more British leaders, including those of conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) George Osborne, and senior Labour leaders. Whatever happens – secession, renegotiation or more and more opt-outs – Britain’s influence and ability to hinder European federation will decline.
At the end of this process, the EU will not become anywhere near as decisive as a nation-state, but this is common for federal unions. The United States, for example, has an especially minoritarian system where states are equally represented in the Senate (regardless of population) and a minority of only 41 out of 100 Senators is necessary to block legislation. The majority of the U.S. population that lives in the nine biggest states are represented by 18 Senators while Senators representing as little as 14% of the U.S. population is theoretically sufficient to form a blocking minority.
In many areas then the EU is likely become almost as “federal-majoritarian” as the United States, minus (very significantly) the budget. In fact, because Council votes are weighted by population and because European governments are not afflicted with the same toxic culture of vicious partisanship that plagues American domestic politics, the emerging European Superstate may actually prove to be less dysfunctional than the U.S. government (Francis Fukuyama, of “end of history” fame, goes so far as to argue that the U.S. has degenerated into a “vetocracy”).
For Europeans this should serve as a warning and opportunity. On the one hand, their nations’ freedom of action can only diminish. On the other hand, their ability to work together with other Europeans to tackle essential issues – such as on trade, financial regulation and climate – will be greater than ever before.
This post is the first in the “Europa 2024″ series on the future of the European Union.