Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

Philadelphia Inquirer -- September 26, 2004

Superpower? Not for the EU

It has the size and strength, but not the solidarity. For the European Union to become as powerful as the United States, its 25 members need to unite at a level much deeper than economic integration.

by Ian Garrick Mason

Given the last two years of transatlantic jousting and recrimination over Iraq, would it be logical to expect the European Union to eventually try to become an independent superpower? Indeed, last spring's announced development of nine regiment-sized EU battle groups for deployment outside Europe and the signing next month of a new European constitution make a superpower future for Europe seem more tangible than ever.

Certainly, the European Union is now a huge entity. Ten countries joined this summer (for a total membership of 25), and total EU population stands at 456 million, compared with America's 292 million. The EU GDP is $12.3 trillion ($11.6 trillion for the United States), and it has 1.9 million military personnel (compared with America's 1.4 million).

But for all its size and strength, the European Union will never become a superpower - at least, not without its own Alexander Hamilton, the driving figure behind the need for a completely new constitution and conception of the United States to replace the Articles of Confederation of 1777.

Under the Articles, the Continental Congress was empowered to conduct foreign relations on behalf of the states, to run an army and navy in case of war, and to settle interstate disputes. But the states themselves remained free and sovereign.

The fragile system was almost guaranteed to break down. Trade friction between the states was intense, and interstate tariff barriers grew numerous. Congress had no power to tax the American people directly and was therefore dependent on the states for all of its revenue - and the states had a disconcerting tendency to miss their payments.

Many Americans, including Hamilton, a former aide-de-camp to George Washington in the Revolutionary War, found this national weakness intolerable. At an ill-attended conference convened only to make economics-related changes to the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton called for a new meeting to discuss all the problems faced by the states. The result was the Constitutional Convention of 1787, whose final document Hamilton strongly championed.

The government created by this constitution - with its elected executive, bicameral legislature, independent judiciary, and its power to directly tax the population, declare war, and raise and command an army - would provide the framework for America's evolution over two centuries into today's military and economic superpower.

In many ways, the European Union has already gone well beyond the American Articles of Confederation. Its inter-state trading rules (the "European single market") are deep and well-enforced, enabling full mobility of goods and services, labor and capital. It has developed a single currency, the euro, managed by a European central bank. A directly elected European Parliament exists, as does a Court of Justice and an executive branch, the European Commission. Furthermore, the EU has direct and automatic access to a share of VAT (the European sales tax), so it is not dependent on dues paid by member states.

This sort of integration will increase with the adoption of the new constitution, to be signed in Rome on Oct. 29. But not by much. Although it creates a post of "union minister of foreign affairs," consolidating two existing foreign affairs posts, for the most part the constitution clarifies and tweaks procedures and powers, and still requires unanimity among the 25 members on important matters such as taxation. Technically it is a treaty among the European countries, requiring unanimous ratification by the 25, casting doubt whether it will even go into effect.

From a military point of view - the essence of what being a superpower is - Europe remains much more fragmented than America was under the Articles of Confederation. All of the EU members remain explicitly sovereign nations - members can leave if they want to - and each maintains its own armed forces and conducts its own foreign policy, as can be seen in the widely diverging approaches of France and the United Kingdom with respect to the Iraq war.

Though all states are bound through both the EU and NATO to help each other in the event of a foreign attack, participating in a European-initiated war or peacekeeping operation remains completely optional for each member state. Even the union's famous "Common Foreign and Security Policy" is formed by unanimous decision of a council of member states, not by the union's executive branch.

These are not the attributes of an emerging superpower - when America goes to war, after all, California does not get to opt out of it.

To become a superpower, the European Union would have to persuade its member states to make fundamental changes to its power structures: an active-duty military would need to be recruited and paid by the executive (the Commission); member states would have to give up control of foreign policy; and the power to declare war would have to be vested in a majority vote of the European Parliament.

These would be immense changes - but without such changes, Europe will remain what it is today: a unified economic giant, with 25 armies and 25 foreign policies. Not a superpower.

But is there anything wrong with this? The forces that drove America together in the 18th century were quite different from those that are driving Europe together now. America had just fought a war against a world power, Britain. Another world power, France, was a potential enemy. America was vulnerable, so simple economic union wasn't sufficient.

Europe moved toward unification as a way of eliminating the threat of internal war, which has killed uncountable millions over the centuries. Because deep-rooted nationalisms could not be expected to simply evaporate, unity has been achieved by gradually implementing a variety of mutually supporting political and economic mechanisms: free trade, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

For this kind of project, a single army controlled by a powerful federal government is not needed. Though some European generals and the American administration may complain that Europe is not pulling its weight in interventions around the world, the elimination of war on the battle-scarred continent is surely a great victory in itself.

One day, Europe may decide that the time is right to become a superpower - perhaps motivated by some external threat against which America will not or cannot defend it. One day, perhaps, a European Alexander Hamilton - a Dane? Spaniard? Pole? German? - will be able to transcend centuries of nationalism to effect a more complete integration. A more perfect union, one might even say. But until that day, the American superpower will be neither supplanted nor balanced by a European rival.


A summary of changes in the proposed European constitution can be read at http://europa.eu.int/comm/press_room/presspacks/constit/oth250604_2_en.pdf.