2016 has been a year for the study of intergovernmentalism. In June, Britain voted to remove itself from the European Union, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to resign from his post. In September, Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland, a populist party opposed to the European Union, made major gains in the country’s state elections. Last week, François Hollande announced that he will not run for reelection in France’s upcoming campaign cycle, leaving the door wide open for Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front, another anti-establishment and anti-E.U. party. Finally, earlier this week, Italy’s Matteo Renzi resigned as Prime Minister after his constitutional reforms were definitively rejected in a popular referendum. Although these governmental shifts can all be framed by unique contexts, one theme unites them all: euroscepticism and an overall aversion to big bureaucracy is rife throughout Europe, and it could spell real trouble for the European Union.
Despite repeated efforts to create a “more perfect union” of their own since the inception of the European Commission in 1951, the countries of Europe have consistently failed to agree on many of the fundamental components necessary for integration to flourish. European governments could never agree to the terms by which they would increase the power of the European Union’s legislative bodies. Efforts to form a joint military virtually ceased before they even began, and a risk sharing safety net within the Eurozone only came to fruition after the Eurocrisis threatened to tear the Union apart. To this day, the E.U.’s annual budget sits just under the annual revenue of Apple at 145 billion euros, which is just a fraction of the U.S. federal budget. The populist trends that have proliferated across the continent during the past few months are a direct testament to these underlying issues. The countries of Europe have long refused to forge Winston Churchill’s utopian “United States of Europe” based on grudging compromises and false pretenses; only now has this issue finally come to a head.
The people of Europe have spoken, choosing far-right political leaders in lieu of more traditional “establishment” figures with the intention of reclaiming their respective nations and the perceived glory of the past—a past where the E.U. did not exist to interfere with national sovereignty. Perhaps these people have forgotten the devastation of the two World Wars that drove their nation states to abandon this fierce brand of nationalism in the first place, but such is the relationship between distance and collective memory.
So as more and more states inch towards secession from the European Union and Robert Schuman’s dream of a united Europe continues to unravel at the seams, we must address the question of why the European Union has failed. I argue that a sense of complacency has overcome the body of Europe; without the threat of a common enemy and with the luxury of exploring other pursuits besides war, the countries of Europe have diversified in such a way that their interests no longer align. Even where their security interests do align, E.U. member states have decided that they are better off confronting challenges on their own. While these observations are perhaps easy for us in the U.S. to make from a distance, the challenge is to keep them in mind when we consider our own divided political reality.
Watching the electoral map morph into distinct blocks of blue and red the morning of November 9, I realized that the United States was certainly not exempt from the brand of disaffiliation recently championed by Europe. While the european devolution appears much more drastic, especially considering a “United States of Europe” never came to fruition, the underlying sentiment is the same. The United States is no longer a like-minded conglomerate of states; the European Union never was. Both are unions divided.
Threats from states such as Texas and California to secede from the Union are often dismissed as laughable impossibilities. For the sake of the argument, however, we must consider secession as a viable option. Would individual states, and potentially the American people themselves, be better off for it? A smaller band of like-minded states would almost certainly be more efficient in terms of legislating and implementing reform. There would absolutely be fewer deadlocks in the process, and government officials could more easily represent the interests of their constituencies. Devolution may seem appealing at times, but it would likely come with dangerous consequences for national security and continued economic prosperity.
Representative democracy as a political philosophy does not work well with large and diverse populations. It functions most effectively on a small scale, as in the Roman Republic and the earliest years of the United States. If representatives cannot feasibly understand and execute the interests of the citizenry, the system falls apart. In a nation of 318.9 million people, it is no wonder that half the population feels hung out to dry every four years. Perhaps, then, we are no different than the European Union in this regard. Perhaps we are no longer the republic for which our flag is meant to stand. Perhaps we have become too diverse to be indivisible. Perhaps we have grown too large to be one nation. Instead of looking to the division of the European Union as an isolated incident, we should search introspectively with the intention of avoiding a similar fate.