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Viviane Reding’s Case for the United States of Europe (and her Critique of EU “Neoliberalism”)

Summary:
In November 2012, then-European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding (mainly known to the general public for her tiff with France over Roma deportations and her advocacy of feminine quotas on corporate boards) gave a noted speech advocating a “United States of Europe.” The speech presents a history of the idea of a European federal State (mainly citing Victor Hugo, but also mentioning Washington, Bonaparte, Mazzini, Coudenhove-Kalergi, and Spinelli), and the (now common) rationale for a quasi-federal economic government to stabilize and democratize the Eurozone. I have to admit that when Reding first made her speech I did not read it. Having been a reporter in Brussels for EurActiv, I was put off by too many moralistic exhortations for “more Europe” from the Guy Verhofstadts, the Daniel Cohn-Bendits, and other professional moralizers. This was a mistake, as Reding’s speech is interesting in presenting an account of Germanic (Luxembourgish/German) ambition and reasoning for a United States of Europe in the 1990s, and for an interesting critique of the existing European Treaties’ failures (“neoliberalism” and “national sovereignty”).

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Viviane Reding’s Case for the United States of Europe (and her Critique of EU “Neoliberalism”)

In November 2012, then-European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding (mainly known to the general public for her tiff with France over Roma deportations and her advocacy of feminine quotas on corporate boards) gave a noted speech advocating a “United States of Europe.” The speech presents a history of the idea of a European federal State (mainly citing Victor Hugo, but also mentioning Washington, Bonaparte, Mazzini, Coudenhove-Kalergi, and Spinelli), and the (now common) rationale for a quasi-federal economic government to stabilize and democratize the Eurozone.

I have to admit that when Reding first made her speech I did not read it. Having been a reporter in Brussels for EurActiv, I was put off by too many moralistic exhortations for “more Europe” from the Guy Verhofstadts, the Daniel Cohn-Bendits, and other professional moralizers. This was a mistake, as Reding’s speech is interesting in presenting an account of Germanic (Luxembourgish/German) ambition and reasoning for a United States of Europe in the 1990s, and for an interesting critique of the existing European Treaties’ failures (“neoliberalism” and “national sovereignty”).

In short, the (West) Germans and a significant portion of the center-right European People’s Party (the grouping of national Christian-Democratic parties) believed that the creation of a common currency, the euro, was a prelude to a “political union,” a notoriously vague term which for them referred very specifically to a federal Europe. Reding was refreshingly frank on the weaknesses of “the rickety construction of Maastricht” and the inadequacy of Europeanists’ failure to present a clear vision of the EU’s nature and finality, arguing against the use of vague and evasive expressions like “sui generis.” Instead, she presented a clear point of view (which one can of course disagree with) meant to stoke democratic debate on where Europe should go, and that is clearly a good thing.

The admission of “neoliberalism” is important as certain prominent pro-EU authorities, such as French journalist Jean Quatremer, have thought it there role to deny left-wing and nationalist claims that the EU has a “libéral” bias. In addition to Reding’s concession of “neoliberalism,” European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has argued that his institution has remained true to its German “ordoliberal” heritage. This neo-/ordo-liberalism makes the adoption of Listian and especially Keynesian economic policies legally difficult, as pro-EU leftists like François Hollande and Alexis Tsipras have learned to their detriment.

Here follow some extracts from Reding’s speech, with my bolding:

But wasn’t [the postwar] generation soon forced to realise that a United States of Europe would never come about? Surely by 30 August 1954, at the very latest, the most enthusiastic European federalists must have seen that? That was when the French National Assembly rejected the Treaty for a European Defence Community. This meant that it was no longer possible to ratify the Treaty on a European Political Community that had been negotiated in parallel – a first draft constitution for a politically united Europe, and one that is well worth reading. So by then, you would think, the generation of post-war politicians would have buried their high-flying dreams of a United States of Europe.

But that is not what happened. Just a few years later, in 1957, a new attempt was made. The Treaties of Rome established the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. Of course, at the time it all looked at first like purely economic and technical cooperation, like a “special‑purpose association for functional integration”, as the German lawyer Hans Peter Ipsen called it. Cooperation on more political issues was deliberately left out after the unhappy experience of 1954. Nevertheless there was a firm will among the founding countries of the EEC gradually to generate such strong de facto cohesion through merging their economies in a common market that this initially limited integration would inevitably lead to wider political integration. And this spillover would then – so the founding fathers of the Treaties of Rome thought – lead directly to a federal form of government and eventually to a United States of Europe.

That, for example, is how Walter Hallstein, the first Commission President, saw it when he described his view of the state of the European Communities in his book with the telling title “The uncompleted federation”. That is also how the two major German political parties saw it. Until 1992 the goal of a “United States of Europe” was explicitly part of the CDU’s manifesto, while as early as 1925 the SPD had included it in their Heidelberg Programme, which remained in force until 1959.

So the vision remained popular among European parties. Jacques Santer, Christian Democratic Prime Minister of Luxembourg and former Chairman of the European People’s Party, said on 8 November 1988:

“We Christian Democrats in the European People’s Party want the European Community to become a United States of Europe.”

Besides the Luxembourg Christian Democrats, the strongest advocate of this vision [of a United States of Europe] was without doubt the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Hans-Peter Schwarz graphically describes in his biography of Kohl, which came out a few weeks ago, how determined Kohl was on this issue. For him the negotiations on the Treaty of Maastricht were all about a United States of Europe. While most politicians focused solely on the Intergovernmental Conference on economic and monetary union and the status of the European Central Bank, Kohl repeatedly pressed for ambitious progress at the parallel Intergovernmental Conference on political union. For Kohl both Intergovernmental Conferences were equally important. Monetary union and political union were for him two sides of the same coin.

Shortly after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, speaking before the CDU national executive on 31 May 1991 Kohl proclaimed a “United States of Europe” as an irreversible goal – although in the end the new Treaty had only achieved monetary union and not political union, as Kohl had hoped. On 3 April 1992 Kohl even spoke of the Maastricht Treaty as follows (I quote):

In Maastricht we have laid the foundation for completion of the European Union. The Treaty on European Union marks a new, decisive step in the process of European integration that in a few years will lead to the creation of what the founding fathers of modern Europe dreamt of after the last war: a United States of Europe.

It couldn’t be spelled out more clearly: Maastricht was a major step towards a common European currency. The logical next step was just round the corner: a political union that would lead to a United States of Europe.

But that didn’t happen. Shortly afterwards the dream of a United States of Europe vanished from the agenda. After 1993 the idea was hardly ever mentioned. Not even by Helmut Kohl.

How did this turnaround come about? The main reason was the special compromise that the Member States agreed in Maastricht in 1991 for the architecture of the monetary union. In the end they had agreed to establish monetary union without a parallel political union. This can be seen as a failure of Helmut Kohl’s great aim, though it was one shared by many European politicians, especially from the Benelux countries, who had striven for a parallel political union. In Maastricht a different approach won the day. An independent European Central Bank was created – but no European economic government. No European Finance Minister was installed alongside the powerful ECB President. Instead there were the 17 national finance ministers. There was a common European currency, but no sizeable common European budget that could be used effectively to pursue economic policy goals.

The asymmetrical architecture of Maastricht was the result of a historic coming together of two political trends. One was neoliberalism, in vogue worldwide in the early 1990s and embraced by many European heads of state and government. To the neoliberal mind, the asymmetrical construction of Maastricht was ideal. Because it gave power to the markets rather than to politicians. The single currency would be kept stable simply through the market discipline laid down in the Treaty. In neoliberal eyes, interference in economic or financial policy at European level could only have caused harmful market distortions. The fact that the Member States would continue to pursue their own, differing national economic, budgetary, tax, and social policies was not a weakness, according to the neoliberals, but one of the great achievements of Maastricht. Because in these policy areas decisions would have to be taken in a “competition of systems” between the different countries.

At Maastricht the predominant neoliberal thinking of the time met up with the ideas of those who were fundamentally sceptical about transferring sovereign powers within a monetary union and who in any case wished to retain as much national sovereignty as possible. Thus the British delegation in Maastricht insisted that the word “federal” be deleted from the draft Treaty provisions on political union. For the advocates of a United States of Europe this was a bitter blow.

So because of the historic coming together of neoliberalism and the desire to preserve national sovereignty, Maastricht failed to create a United States of Europe, giving birth only to an incomplete Union. In Germany the Maastricht ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in 1993 marked the final chapter in this process. Because the Court made it very clear that following the Maastricht Treaty the Member States would remain “masters of the Treaties” and that Germany could even leave the monetary union if necessary. For both neoliberals and the defenders of national sovereignty this was a triumph. “The end of the superstate. There will be no United States of Europe”, was how the liberal-conservative German philosopher Herrmann Lübbe summed up his view of the Maastricht Treaty in a monograph in 1994.

Helmut Kohl is said to have watched all this with great sadness. According to his biographer, Hans-Peter Schwarz, Kohl never again mentioned the idea of a United States of Europe in public after the Constitutional Court’s ruling. At a CDU national executive meeting in 1994, though, he apparently remarked again that it had been his great “love” for decades.

I myself felt this atmosphere of gloom in the European People’s Party, the European grouping of Christian Democratic parties. Roughly at the same time as the negotiations for the Maastricht Treaty talks had begun on whether to include the Italian right‑wing conservatives of “Forza Italia” and the British Tories in the EPP. That would have made the EPP the largest grouping in the European Parliament for many years. But there was a heavy price to pay: the EPP had to agree to delete from the party statutes the goal of a federal Europe underpinned by Christian values and the vision of a United States of Europe. I clearly remember those discussions and the conflict between basic Christian Democrat beliefs and the demands of power politics. Together with a group of Christian Democrats from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg I voted against the reorientation of the EPP. Together with like-minded colleagues we drafted the Christian Democratic declaration of Athens. But we had to admit defeat. Power politics carried greater weight than the ideas of the founding fathers of European integration.

So the experience of Maastricht explains why most of those involved – and they still make up a considerable proportion of active politicians – describe their vision of the future of Europe today rather resignedly in the following terms: “As a young person I dreamt of a United States of Europe. Today I know better, it’s simply not possible, we have to be realistic.” This attitude of resignation was reinforced when the Constitutional Treaty for Europe – the latest attempt to transform the European Union of Maastricht at least partly into a political union – was rejected by referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, even though 18 states had ratified Treaty, two of them – Luxembourg and Spain – also through referendums. “Maastricht should have been our constitution”, sighed our Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker in 2001, on the tenth anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty.

When people ask politicians today “What will become of Europe?” or “Where is European integration heading?”, we usually give an evasive answer. “We don’t want a super state” that is generally the first thing we say, for fear we might be misunderstood by neoliberals, the defenders of national sovereignty, or the German Constitutional Court. And then usually: “You know, the EU is a sui generis construction”. “We don’t want a European federation, but instead a confederal or federal construct” or a “confederacy of nation states”.

After my many years of experience I can well understand this kind of verbal gymnastics, even if it makes constitutional experts’ hair stand on end. I must admit that I have in the past often resorted to this kind of thing myself. But recently I have found that people are increasingly critical, regarding it as beating about the bush, and they remain unconvinced. For instance someone sent me an e-mail after a town-hall meeting in Austria: “How are we, as citizens, to identify with this European project that you extol so highly, if no one tells us honestly where it will lead? If you continue to define Europe in such technocratic and complicated terms, you should not be surprised that we regard you as technocrats!” The writer has a point, ladies and gentlemen. Indeed he is quite right.

And so, despite the trauma of Maastricht, now is the time to revive the goal of a United States of Europe. For some months now, the idea has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Faced with the crisis, many leading politicians of all political persuasions are suddenly coming out strongly in favour of a United States of Europe, ranging from Christian Democrats like the Minister of Labour, Ursula von der Leyen, and my fellow Commissioner Günter Oettinger, Social Democrats like the former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and Liberals such as Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, to Daniel Cohn‑Bendit, the voluble leader of the European Greens. Last year the French employers’ federation MEDEF even launched a genuine campaign for a United States of Europe. And as you probably know, I too have come out clearly in favour of a federal vision of a United States of Europe in a number of speeches and newspaper articles since the beginning of the year. Of course, initiatives like this do not always pass unopposed. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, and Volker Kauder, chairman of the CDU parliamentary party, for instance, have publicly warned against proclaiming a United States of Europe as a political goal, given the bad experiences of the past. That is a legitimate concern. But it doesn’t alter the fact that the idea, and discussion of it, is back on the agenda now. And that is a good thing.

CJW: For my part, I would say that while the Maastricht Treaty clearly reflected the neoliberal fashions of the 1980s (free movement of everything über alles), the specific characteristics and flaws of the Eurozone more reflect German ordoliberals and, especially, the fact of relative lack of solidarity between European Nations and States. (“Neoliberal” is an oddly-popular and -accepted word for criticizing the EU which I think downplays the ethno-national problem.)

Also, I think taking the United States of America as a political model, while fashionable, may reflect a certain broader naïveté or idealization. The U.S., at least over the past century, has grown to be neither democratic, nor republican, nor peaceful. It is in my opinion extremely difficult to argue that the U.S. Government wields power for the benefit of the majority of the American people. For these reasons I would be wary of raising up the U.S. as a model for Europeans, besides the well-known difference between a traditionally ethno-nationally-cohesive America and a Europe of diverse Nations.

Craig Willy
This is the blog of European affairs writer Craig James Willy. Elite and popular discourse on the European Union tends to have a weak relationship with reality. Both pundits and politicians – whether American liberals or conservatives, British eurosceptics or simply French – tend to project their national dreams and nightmares upon it. I have a nuanced analysis of Europe based on the primacy and diversity of national realities and on actual EU decision-making practices.

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