Germany’s New Government Makes a Naïve Push for a European Federation

Angela Merkel’s decision to step down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor created an opportunity last year for Germany’s Green Party to take power. The Greens led in the early polls, and although that lead shrank, they still won a higher share of the vote than at any point in the party’s history. More importantly, the Green Party succeeded in securing a place in government. After agonizing negotiations, a new coalition government was formed, a so-called “traffic light coalition” between the Greens, Social Democrats, and centrist Free Democratic Party.

One of the first things this new government did was to declare its support for turning the European Union into a federation of Europe, a concept best described as the United States of Europe.

This was a bad idea. Not only because the concept of a “United States of Europe” is a bad idea in and of itself. By proclaiming support for a European federation, the new German government revealed that it was incapable of filling the shoes of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who would never have been caught dead advocating for a USE. As much as her actions in office served to massively expand EU powers—at one point going so far as to violate treaties to bail out countries in order to save the Eurozone—she was smart enough never to endorse the idea openly. 

The idea of a United States of Europe is unpopular in most countries, even as a long-term goal. It’s so unpopular, in fact, that supporters of federalization have long since discovered that the best way to centralize power away from the member states and to  Brussels is by doing so quietly and discreetly. 

That  makes it all the more puzzling why the new German government would rip off the band-aid like it has. Openly stating such ambitions invites political opposition and ensures that anyone even mildly Euroskeptic within the EU apparatus will be on high alert and view every policy proposal stemming from the German government with utmost suspicion. 

The first possible response is that this was merely a case of an inexperienced government committing a gaffe. Yet it was not an off-hand comment by an inexperienced member of government, but a wording in a conference document that came with detailed policy prescriptions. 

The second possibility is that this government is in fact more dedicated to centralizing EU power than Angela Merkel and her coalition were. There is certainly some truth to this, as the German Greens, perhaps more than any other party in Europe, supports European federalization. The German government claims that “people are waiting for” a federalization of Europe. This is not true, unless by “people” the Greens are referring to their own party’s supporters and their allies in the Brussels bureaucracy. It happens very easily that politicians get caught up in their own echo chambers, and maybe this is what has happened to the “traffic light coalition.”  

The third reason, related to the second, is that the government may simply be playing the long game, hoping to shift the Overton window of European politics. Any government of Germany—the biggest country in the EU—is a voice that cannot be ignored, and so its proposals are automatically taken seriously and debated. Over time, previously taboo ideas and beliefs can become mainstream just by virtue of being supported by big players like Germany. The government may consider a short-term political cost to be worth it, hoping that it will eventually lead to a political environment more favorable to European federalism.

Finally, the German government may simply believe conflict is inevitable and that there is nothing more to be gained from keeping up the pretense that it does not oppose European nation-states.

After all, the EU has been amassing a lot of power in recent years. Just since the last European Parliament term began in mid-2019, the EU has passed a European Green Deal and is working on the European Pillar of Social Rights, the latter of which extends EU power to issues such as minimum wage, health care and pensions. The EU has already successfully clashed with Sweden over the minimum wage, is continuing to fine Poland 1 million euros per day for refusing to abandon a judicial reform that the EU disagrees with, and is fining Poland another 500,000 euros per day for refusing to close down a coal mine. Meanwhile it is threatening to fine Hungary over its restrictive immigration policy. 

As it is, the EU’s only way to collect fines against countries is to withhold EU funds. This is possible in the case of Poland and Hungary because both are significant net benefactors of the EU. If the EU were to fine a net contributor, the EU could of course withhold funds, but it would face the prospect of that country doing the same, refusing to pay its annual membership fee. In a United States of Europe, this would no longer be an issue, as Brussels could simply order the civil servants at the local treasury in the erring country to transfer whatever amount they deemed the country owed them.

In short, the German government may deem that, in order to face down those challenging its power, the EU will have to federalize. Even more importantly, a federal Europe may be the only way to accomplish all those things that the government wishes to accomplish. The European Green Deal was facing resistance even before this winter brought record-high heating, electricity and fuel costs. While the deal is unlikely to be abandoned, more and more governments are likely to start dragging their feet on actually implementing and enforcing new laws and restrictions to further reduce greenhouse emissions. 

For the past several years, ever since Greta Thunberg began her famous school strike, the political winds have favored the environmental movement. Now, with average households literally paying the bill, the tide may be turning. Already within the EU there is an internal uprising demanding that nuclear be classified as a green source of energy for the purpose of investment under the European Green Deal. Its main opponent is Germany, which stubbornly views nuclear energy as a threat to the environment rather than as a source of low-carbon electricity. It is this view that has also rendered Germany utterly dependent on Russian gas.

If the EU is to continue its green crusade, it may well need powers it would get only if it became a United States of Europe.

But even many of those who do not subscribe to hardcore environmentalism still subscribe to the idea of European federalism, arguing that an ever closer union is necessary to keep Europe together, not least in the face of Russian imperialism. If Europe were to splinter—or, remain splintered—federalists argue, small individual states would make easy pickings for Russia. 

Arguably, the opposite is true. European federalists are driving countries away from the West. As it is, progressives and federalists are forcing countries in the east of Europe to choose between adopting neoliberal views on everything from immigration, to religion, LGBT rights, abortion, and environmental issues, or be destroyed economically by increasing fines and the withholding of EU funds that they have come to depend on since joining the EU. It should not surprise anyone if these countries decide that their true place lies within the Russian sphere of influence after all. At least Putin is not trying to make them legalize abortion or drink through paper straws.

There is a famous saying that men marry women thinking they won’t change, while women marry men thinking that they will. This is the crux of the issue between Eastern Europe and Brussels: When the EU admitted the Eastern countries as members, they expected them to adopt progressive Western values and commit to a closer union, which to the EU means increasing power being transferred from member states to Brussels. When the Eastern European countries joined, however, they expected the EU to stay the same—to not demand anything of them in the future that they did not set as a requirement when they joined. 

But Eastern Europe is not alone in this sentiment. Perhaps for historical reasons, support for European unity has traditionally been the strongest in Germany, France, and the Benelux countries. Long before Brexit, the U.K was putting the brakes on European federalization. The U.K. viewed the EU mainly as a free trade zone rather than the ever more powerful political union that continental Europeans wanted. The Nordic countries, while for the most part not Euroskeptic per se, have also over the years carved out opt-outs from several EU federalist projects such as the euro (which Sweden and Denmark have refused to join). 

A two-tiered Europe.

Under this model, the EU would consist of two tiers: In Tier 1 would be countries that seek a closer union with the eventual goal of establishing a European Federal Republic with a common currency, military, and an extensive judiciary. In Tier 2 would be countries that would maintain freedom of trade in goods and services as well as free movement of capital, and possibly also free (or less restrictive) movement of labor, with both Tier 1 and each other. 

Other than that, Tier 2 would be a looser association, lacking most of the political union aspects of Tier 1 membership. One can imagine a system where Tier 2 countries can opt in to specific programs otherwise exclusive to Tier 1 membership, in exchange of course for chipping in toward those programs. This would be similar to how Norway and Iceland, neither of whom are members of the EU, none the less pay to participate in the EU-organized Erasmus student exchange program.

A two-tiered European Union was first proposed decades ago after the Cold War, as leaders at the time recognized both the necessity of integrating Eastern Europe with the rest of the continent and the difficulties that this would bring. Ironically, at the time, German politicians were the ones to bring up the concept for discussion. Unfortunately, this pragmatic view of the future of the European project was soon overtaken by the end of history-style unbridled optimism that characterized the 1990s. 

During the Eurozone crisis in the years leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, variations of the idea were again brought up for discussion. Supporters of the EU hoped to keep the U.K. in the union by guaranteeing that the U.K. could remain in its own tier together with like-minded countries and not be forced to give up ever more power to Brussels. Many soft Euroskeptics agreed, and considered a two-tiered Europe to be the best bulwark against full-fledged federalization. Unfortunately, no detailed proposals were ever developed, likely due to the complete lack of interest from EU leaders who were confident in winning the referendum without promising or enacting any major reforms.

During the exit negotiations after the 2016 Brexit vote, many, including the EU’s chief negotiator, accused the U.K. of cherry picking, wanting the future relationship with the EU to contain only the “good” parts like freedom of trade, without getting the “bad” parts like free movement. The EU argued that these freedoms were indivisible. This is of course nonsense, and the EU knew it: Free trade agreements exist between different countries all across the globe without clauses allowing freedom of movement. NAFTA did not allow Mexicans unrestricted entry into the U.S., and the Trans-Pacific Partnership would not have allowed citizens of Brunei to immigrate freely to New Zealand, the U.S. or any other first world signatories. While one may be able to make an economic case for many types of migration, the issue is fundamentally separate from that of trade.

Rather than be enraged by the Brits attempting to cherry-pick the parts about the EU that everyone agrees are the “cherries,” maybe we should ask why we do not all cherry-pick these parts, and leave the rest behind? Or rather, leave the rest for the countries that are truly committed to a United States of Europe (exactly how many countries that would be is up for debate).

Europe consists of 50 sovereign states in total, all with their own separate history and culture and in many cases, until recently, with very little in common. There are more than twice as many Europeans as Americans, and we differ far more from one another than Americans—we don’t even have a common language. To believe that a one-size-fits-all union could ever work here, when a much looser union than the one imagined by European federalists only barely manages to hold America together, is truly the height of naïveté, and it risks driving our new friends and allies in the East straight into the welcoming arms of Vladimir Putin.

John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and has a Ph.D. in economics.

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