Political Union: from slogan to reality


With the crisis vital debate over the future of European integration has been launched notably regarding the issue of “political union”. This debate that started several months ago at the highest level in Germany was echoed just a few days ago by the President of the French Republic, François Hollande who declared that he wanted to take a european initiative, notably regarding issues related to “European economic government” and “political union”. However starting debate on a clear basis supposes doing away with imprecision and vagueness regarding conditions and intentions. Beyond this the project for European “political union” requires concrete proposals which are possible if political will is also real. For 20 years German leaders (Karl Lamers and Wolfgang Schäuble in 1994 then Joschka Fischer in 2000) have made proposals to their partners in France but each time there has been no significant response on the part of the French leaders. As the European elections of 2014 approach they provide a real opportunity to open this debate up at last. Let us hope that this time the chance will not be missed.

With the crisis vital debate about the future of European integration has arisen over fiscal federalism, banking union, the status of non-euro zone countries and about the UK in particular. However in spite of growing citizen mistrust with regard to the European institutions, the reforms that are underway carefully avoid fundamental political issues: how can we simplify the European decision making process so that it is more transparent and readily understandable for the citizens? How can we strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the decisions taken, which for the time being are mainly the result of a technocratic, diplomatic process? [1] However this debate started in Germany at the highest level a few months ago. Proposals from the latter about the future of the European Union have also grown in number over the last few months. Thought in this direction has also been growing in Poland.
This debate must take hold across the entire Union. However whilst many taboos are now being overcome regarding the future of European integration; a non-debate over Europe has become clear in many EU Member States and this was the case in France until recently. In this respect it is remarkable that the President of the French Republic François Hollande announced just a few days ago that he wanted to take an initiative at the European level, notably regarding issues pertaining to “European economic government” and “political union” [2], without however saying what this might entail [3]. But the re-casting of the European Union supposes clarification regarding terms and intentions so that debate can be launched on a clear base.

Federation, Political Europe, Political Union: what does this mean?

In just a few months, due to the effects of the euro crisis the issue of “Political Union” has finally been transferred from the academic arena [4] to the political agenda [5]. Under the pressure of the crisis the issue of “Political Europe” has returned to the heart of public debate in the shape of a call for progress towards “budgetary federalism” and even “political union”. Projects like this, although desirable, suppose however a certain amount of caution and a certain number of conditions if we are to prevent them becoming abstract mantras, as it has been with Political Europe and Federal Europe which only leads to further disillusion.
When on 12th May 2000 Joschka Fischer delivered a speech at the Humboldt University on the future of the European Union he pleaded in support of the European “federation” which Robert Schuman had already called for in the 1950′s. For his part Jacques Delors’ idea, which defined Europe as a “federation of Nation-States” [6], was so successful that for a time it became the political catchword, or conversely a taboo being used as a foil.
However it is not about having an “ideological” approach to the federation, it is rather more a question of demystifying it and deeming federalism simply as a means of organising powers, based on the principle of the distribution of competences between various levels of government. The problem lies in that the dominant doctrine quite wrongly assimilates federalism with the Federal State [7]. But the concept of the State is problematic and is not of much use in European affairs: the Union is not a State and the distribution of respective State and other administrative competences are contested. European integration has been built on the rejection of granting the Union sovereign prerogatives – as early as 1954, with the rejection of the European Community of Defence; France refused the constitution of European defence – because of the States’ protection of their sovereignty. The Union is now devoted to tasks of redistribution (CAP, cohesion policy) which cause appropriation disputes.
However on a less theoretical and a more empirical level it is easy to see that the European Union already disposes of federal tools: one currency for the Eurozone, one central bank, a budget, a civil service and a Parliament elected by direct universal suffrage, just to name a few. Moreover, and in spite of the failure of the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, which at first led to an obvious wish on the part of the national political elites to relinquish all reference to any kind of “federal” future for European integration, by a sort of a trick of history, the current crisis is pushing towards a federalisation of the European economic policy: implementation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM); strengthening of the European Central Bank (ECB), a federal institution ‘par excellence’; strengthening of economic governance mechanisms (“six-pack”, “budgetary pact”, “two pack”, are all elements that define genuine budgetary federalism, which is now vital if we are to overcome the crisis [8]. With this in view we can easily see the double drawback that lies in the unfortunate expression of “the federal leap”: its anxiety generating nature (because it sounds like the “leap into the unknown”, which is never reassuring) and the gap between it and the reality of the European Union, which is of a federal nature. [9]
However, if the idea of federation might be applied to a certain degree to the Union [10], we have to note that the choice of the word itself is far from being shared by all Member States and they cannot even be pronounced, nor are they acceptable in some places. Some Member States – like Germany and Belgium – are at ease with this political idea because their contemporary political and judicial culture is based on a system of shared competences which form the heart of the federal idea; conversely, and also for cultural reasons, it is often considered a taboo in France since it is incompatible with the “obsession for unity” on the part of the authorities in office – so typical of French political and administrative centralisation [11]; in the UK the term is even deemed a swear word (the f-word); in other Member States, notably in Central and Eastern Europe, the idea echoes submission to the USSR, which stood as a federation (whilst its political form was naturally closer to that of an empire). For many countries in the Western Balkans the use of the word is problematic and conjures up the history of the Yugoslav Federation.
For its part the expression of “Political Europe” is affected by ambiguity, and even by an intrinsic contradiction [12]. On the one hand Political Europe conjures up a “federalist” ideal that aims to go beyond national sovereignties to the benefit of community institutions that are supposed to guarantee a common European interest, starting with the European Commission. On the other it conjures up the determination of some States, notably France – of maintaining and consolidating a world position marked by a strategy of differentiation and even sometimes of opposition, vis-à-vis the USA and which goes together with a discourse on national exception. From this second standpoint the States, and more specifically the “main capitals” (Berlin, London, Paris) – have to play a leading role which leads to the primacy of intergovernmental logic and the pre-eminence of the Council over the Commission.
The confusion over political vocabulary in terms of European issues can lead to harmful misunderstandings. In the economic area, to quote just one topical example, it affects thought about the reform of the Union’s economic governance. The proposal of “economic governance” [13] finds much less of a consensus than at first it would appear whereas it pinpoints the real issue: the need for clarification, simplification and legitimisation of the European economic policy. But the fractures which this debate causes are the same as those which run through national political cultures in Europe. “Government” is synonymous to politicisation and interventionism in France, and conjures up the idea of independently implemented rules in Germany and raises the spectre of a Federal State in the UK and in Central Europe. Since they cannot agree on a common design for their political and economic system, i.e. in reality for federalism – the Member States cannot agree on a common government and ultimately on a collective management of European public goods (macro-economic stabilisation policy, climate and energy, European defence, etc.) [14]. And yet not only is an agreement like this now necessary but it is a matter of urgency!

Political Union: a priority

For the last four years priority has been given to settling the economic crisis and at first this was understandable. To recover sovereignty over the markets and thereby the ability to decide over their future, European States, notably those in the Eurozone – understood that they had to form a more coherent entity. Hence stricter common rules have been adopted in budgetary matters and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) has entered into force; furthermore the project for banking union has moved forwards over the last few months.
During the European Council of December 2012 Herman van Rompuy presented a roadmap for the achievement of real economic and monetary union [15], drafted together with the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup. The economic strategy had been clarified: on the one hand macro-economic and financial supervision should be exercised Europe-wide with the necessary corrective tools in order to be credible and effective;