Now in a major crisis, the European Union has a chance to lead. But how should such leadership look like, and how strong should such a union be?
It may well be understandable that currently, during the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, its individual member states are concerned about their own safety, and that they have seemingly fallen back on national thinking. But this would be a misleading conclusion that would fall in line more with those suspicious of the EU as an overreaching enemy of national identities.
But the European Union is not such a super-state, and it should never become one. The history of Europe teaches us two major lessons: First, without some form of unity, European states will defeat each other in their selfish quests for dominance. Many a war has been fought in pursuit of this, and it took several wars of global scope to demonstrate that point eventually. The Seven Years War, the Crimean War, World Wars I+II, and the Cold War have revealed Europe to be a danger to itself and the entire world that needs to be contained by some form of structure stressing cooperative and mutual success over selfishness and deadly competition. Yet second, history has also shown that national, regional, even tribal identities in Europe need to be respected as well, and that they need to also be recognized administratively.
Accordingly, the answer to European Integration can only be a form of supranational, very weak federalism. But this is not a weakness, it is a strength, and it is recognized already in the EU’s motto “united in diversity.”
Throughout history, many a charismatic leader has tried to unite the area that could be called Europe under a single ruler. The only stable approach to this has been the Roman Empire, but this was at a different time, under completely different historical circumstances that cannot quite be compared to our times.
Reasons for the failure of Rome are manifold, and always fun to discuss. There is no one factor to pinpoint. But maybe it helps to see that the great empires of antiquity – which would include Egypt, Persia, Seleucia, and Rome, acted as developmental drivers for the entire Mediterranean region. All these multicultural empires were enabling infrastructure, local development, science, and culture; but they eventually also enabled different regions to develop their own identity. While everybody focuses on the Germanic invasions later on as a cause for the breakup of Western Rome, it is more instructive to look at local independence movements in Gaul, Britain, Palmyra, and other areas. In the end, all subsequent attempts at unifying the entire realm by force would fail, thankfully.
The lesson here may be that large empires can be established when the provinces and regions are weak, but this is, of course, no sustainable economic model. Once provinces and regions grow stronger, centrifugal forces will keep creating division if the central authority is perceived as too strong. If there is any lesson history can provide us, it is probably that.
If we apply this to the European Union, we need to first provide the major caveat that the EU is of course not a structure created by force but voluntarily so. Its creation, however, was hastened by several factors, namely the legacy of World War II, the dangers of the Cold War, the external help from the United States, and finally, the legacy of Soviet oppression. If we simplify these forces, the lesson here is that democracy and freedom are drivers of unity, while authoritarianism is a danger against which European states will eventually rise up.
This reveals the following: Any attempt at European integration that aims for a unified super-state with state-like powers will fail. An all-powerful and intransparent central bureaucracy will kill the European project just as much as any authoritarian dictator will. Brexit surely was idiotic, but predictably so. In order to retain some form of European unity, some form of disunity will need to be tolerated.