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Union Due

TRB from Washington.

There is a classic issue of Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, whose cover photograph portrays two elderly Brits fast asleep, jaws agape, in a couple of deck chairs in a park. The headline? “Europe: the great debate begins.”

Well, the truth is, it has just begun. On April 29 the increasingly confident German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, released a blueprint for the future of the European Union. It is, I think, the most important document hardly anyone in Washington has heard of. It’s important because it ends any doubt about the new Germany’s commitment to a federal European state, modeled closely on Germany’s own constitution. Not only will the new European Union have a single currency by next year; if Schroeder’s proposals are implemented, it will soon have a single government and a real parliament. Or, put another way: By the end of Bush’s term, the United States could well be the second-largest economic and political power in the world, playing second fiddle to a European behemoth powered by Germany, handled by France, with Britain as a mere province within. The United States will have lost its most critical ally and gained its most formidable competitor since the Soviet Union. And you thought China was a problem.

The current EU—an intricate bureaucratic structure created over 50 years of incremental growth—has only one truly democratic institution: the European Parliament. The Parliament doesn’t have much power, though. The ruling body, for all intents and purposes, is the Council of Ministers, a rotating group of elected politicians from different member countries who meet on an ad hoc basis. Then there’s the bureaucracy: the European Commission. Schroeder wants to beef up the Parliament and give it direct control over the EU budget, now handled by the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. He’d enlarge the Council of Ministers into a Senate, to balance the Parliament, which would become a lower House. Then he’d have the Parliament directly elect the head of the Commission, and turn it into a de facto European government. Member states would retain many powers—as many powers are retained by the various Lander in federal Germany. Sure, the Commission’s budget would remain tiny compared with most member countries; but there’s no mistaking the direction of it all. The architecture of a new European federal state would be in place. All that would be needed is some defining event or person to bring it fully to life. Think Bismarck, with focus groups.

Ominously, the French seem enthusiastic about the endeavor. On Wednesday, President Chirac gave a speech in which he rhetorically asked, “Is it not the moment to grace the European Union with a constitution?” (When one gets to be president of France, most of one’s questions become rhetorical.) Even the Brits are warming up. The British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, was just elected president of the Party of European Socialists and happily signed a declaration calling for “a new definition of the role of national Parliaments in the building of Europe, while strengthening the European Parliament.” Sounds like Schroeder’s scheme to me.

To the worries of nationalists across Europe—in places as far afield as France, Denmark, and Britain—the EU elites have a pretty good response. A colloquial rendition might be: What did you expect? The logic of the European Union has been pretty clear since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. From mere economic cooperation to a single market and then a single currency, from treaties by sovereign countries to a single parliament and pooled executive, from wholly sovereign nations to a European Court of Human Rights that overrules national Supreme Courts month after month, the EU is to a single European state what acorns are to oak trees. It’s only a matter of time. Or, as a German European commissioner said on German television this week, “The British think that [the Schroeder proposal] is a German federalist concept intended to give the European Union a federal organization. But what is the EU Council other than a federalist instrument?” Exactly.

What does this have to do with American foreign policy? Quite a lot. We saw an illustration of the mischief a united European bloc can wreak when the Europeans conspired last week to boot the United States off the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The enormous power of a single entity comprising a population and a GNP greater than the United States’ will make future embarrassments even more likely. And Washington will find it increasingly difficult to play one European power against another. Take America’s reliable military fig leaf, Britain. In the Gulf war, the Balkans, and the United Nations, Britain has been the indispensable nation, to coin a phrase, when the United States needs a patina of multilateralism to cover its intervention abroad. What happens when that fig leaf has to ask permission from Brussels, Berlin, and Paris before it can shield America’s privates?

But the military question is in some ways the least worrisome. The EU is a military mess. If Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell expect the EU to shoulder the military burdens of the United States, they’ve obviously forgotten Bosnia. But the EU is still a diplomatic power—able to tilt decisively against the United States in tense situations in the Middle East or China. And if the euro stabilizes, the EU may also have a medium-term shot at a global currency to rival the dollar. Once that happens, the enormous benefits the United States accrues from having the dollar as the world currency could disappear. During the Kyoto kerfuffle, European columnists talked of withdrawing support for American foreign debt in retaliation. One day the EU may be organized enough to make those words count.

I’m not saying the EU is all bad. Postwar economic and political cooperation—pioneered by the Marshall Plan and the Treaty of Rome—was vital to Western Europe’s democratic revival and success in the cold war. But the cold war is over, and the most telling feature of the current EU is its undemocratic structure. Schroeder wants to rectify this, but even a stronger European Parliament, without an extant European nation, cannot replace the true democracy of national assemblies. In all likelihood, Schroeder’s plan would give a democratic sheen to what has been a profoundly autocratic, post-national exercise. Most Germans, for example, opposed trading in their marks for euros. But they had no real choice and no referendum. Almost half the French population opposed it as well, but it was rammed through. The Brits will vote on the euro within two years, but they know the long-term die is cast. They can’t afford to leave the EU altogether; and as long as they’re in it, the federalist momentum will slowly eat them alive. If Tony Blair gets his way, the United Kingdom will shortly be better described as the Appended Province. I can’t see much good in this for the United States, although some may differ. But, whatever your view, it’s time we took notice of what is actually going on—if only to begin, however cautiously, to expect the worst.

This article appeared in the May 21, 2001, issue of the magazine.