United States of Europe

Spiegel Online, November 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

The Avant-Garde

Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer wants eurozone countries to form a powerful block in the European Union as an "avant-garde of the United States of Europe."

The financial crisis is the turning point in the history of European unification. The bureaucracy in Brussels has failed. National governments are dismantling the old Europe. German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy forced change in Greece and put Italy under guard. Old Europe no longer exists.

Why shouldn't the Europeans pull together, just as the new American states did in 1787 for their constitutional convention? The East Coast states were jostling for power and money, but they constituted themselves under the motto "We the People" into a powerful, democratic, federal state.

Charles Grant, founder of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank, envisions a democratically united Europe in which member state citizens vote directly for their European commissioners. The EU president then selects the 10 best of the 27 winners, with the remaining 17 becoming deputies. This concept would produce a strong and democratic European government.

The idea of a single, robust Brussels government for all EU countries or for the eurozone is discussed in the European Parliament. Most agree that citizens in any future United States of Europe must have a stronger voice and Brussels have greater powers, which means a transfer of sovereignty from individual countries to the European Union.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas says the difference between domestic and foreign is beginning to blur and that international law and domestic law are starting to resemble one another. On issues from finance to climate, energy and immigration, he finds it "simply foolish to assume that Europe's voice will still count if it doesn't learn to speak with one voice."

Joschka Fischer: "Those who want Europe should finally say where they want to go." Europe cannot "continue to be something diffuse, abstract, some sort of legal entity. What we're talking about is the realization of the United States of Europe."

A European federal state would go far beyond the Europe of the Lisbon Treaty. The Brussels technocracy would be replaced by political institutions with the power to shape economic and social policy for all of Europe. This can only work if what happens at the European level is both fair and democratic.

Fischer supports a de facto communitization of national policy at the European level. Instead of engaging in lengthy treaty negotiations, European leaders should just go ahead and coordinate their policies. Fischer sees how the 17 leaders of the eurozone countries can move forward. When they gather in Brussels, majority leaders and opposition leaders from national parliaments would come along too.

The bigger gathering would have great parliamentary power and its results would likely be accepted by domestic parliamentarians. It would be a kind of parallel democracy. Such a core Europe could at least work until a more permanent structure were established. The European Council, Commission, and Parliament would be out of it.

Fischer: "When the others see how successfully the avant-garde operates, many will want to participate." It would be a major step toward the United States of Europe.

The Merkel Method

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was wrong to tell the European Parliament that his commission was the economic government of the union. Europe is running increasingly without Barroso. The most important decisions on rescuing the euro were hammered out by national leaders. The Berlin-Paris axis presented the Brussels machine with a fait accompli.

The national heads of state and government reign supreme in Europe. Key European decisions, like the Greek bailout, are negotiated by individual potentates in back rooms. In this European democracy, those with the money call the shots.

The drawback of the intergovernmental method is that decisions among the participating countries can only be reached unanimously. The Merkel method is unsustainable in the long term. Barroso: "Any idiot can block everything."

The Merkel method also lacks transparency. Jürgen Habermas warns against the decline of democratic culture in Europe. He sees the Merkel method as "a disenfranchisement of European citizens" that puts a "gray veil" over the national parliaments.

The bailout fund for insolvent euro countries, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), and its permanent successor, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), were built using the Merkel method. But they may lead to new institutions at the European level, even to changes in the Lisbon Treaty.

Italian constitutional judge Sabino Cassese says the financial crisis has given the entire European Union a big push: "The new agencies to control and supervise the financial markets have expanded the efficiency of the community."


The German Federal Constitutional Court says the German constitution sets limits to the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. But the high court justices know they cannot block a European solution to global problems by citing their interpretation of the German postwar constitution. Provision 146 of the German constitution states that the German people, "of its own free will," is entitled to give itself a new constitution. Germany could reinvent itself for a United States of Europe.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble anticipated Fischer's avant-garde idea in a 1994 paper with CDU foreign policy expert Karl Lamers: "The key issue is that it should not be possible for countries that are more willing and able than others to take cooperation and integration a step further to be blocked by the veto power of other members."

Long ago, German chancellor Helmut Kohl felt that the idea of a European "solid core" that became more and more solid over time was an "academic concept." Now there are many in Berlin who hope that the idea of a "core Europe" will bring about accelerated integration and simplified intergovernmental cooperation. Everyone agrees that the idea is charming.

But the Germans have a problem with an exclusive club. What about Poland? Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called separate agreements within the Euro Group insulting to neighboring countries. The Poles like Europe. They feel threatened by plans to tighten the economic criteria for joining the eurozone before they join. Poland has so far been firmly on Merkel's side in the euro crisis.


Jean-Louis Bourlanges chaired the Budgetary Control Committee and the Judicial Committee of the European Parliament and was involved in drafting the European constitution. He proposes a new committee to monitor joint budgetary targets and sanctions for violations. It would include the chairs of the national budget committees. This committee would reach decisions by a qualified majority of the eurozone countries.

Hubert Védrine is a former French foreign minister who finds a United States of Europe and a comparison with the United States of America absurd. He says French voters are in favor of Europe, but only as a means of boosting French pride. He advocates strategic alliances without loss of sovereignty. Euro bonds should be introduced under strict conditions set by the German paymasters. Countries should voluntarily agree to clean up their budgets and stimulate growth.

Jean-Dominique Giuliani is head of a Paris think tank and hopes the German-French axis will rebuild Europe. If Germany and France move forward with integration, others will follow. He says Britain and others are blocking the path toward federalism. He thinks the Germans and the French deserve more respect.


Part 2


Europa is the name of the new European Council building in Brussels. It will cost €300 million and may be ready by 2014. At the euro rescue summit in June, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy put brochures for the futuristic building on the desks of European leaders, but British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was a waste of money. So Europa will not be mentioned for the time being.

Saving the euro comes first. The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) building in Luxembourg is the focus of the action. Member of the European Parliament for the German Free Democratic Party (FDP) Alexander Graf Lambsdorff: "Something is going to go bang soon."

European citizens are already outraged over politicians who seem unable to resolve the financial crisis. European policy is being shaped over their heads in closed-door meetings between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then executed in the EFSF data center.

Lambsdorff says the "threads of legitimacy of political decisions" in Europe are pulled "tightly enough to break, and things are squeaking and crunching everywhere." Philosopher Jürgen Habermas warns of a "disenfranchisement of European citizens."

But many see the crisis as an opportunity. Former NATO secretary general and subsequent EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana says it is a chance to make a great leap forward to more democracy for Europe in an approach he calls "legitimacy through action."

Europe is stuck in a crisis of legitimacy. The democratic credibility of the European project was intact as long as it was successful. But now hardship prevails. Flensburg professor of sociology Hauke Brunkhorst: "The checks made out for integration, solidarity, and democracy by the political ruling class were only backed by output legitimacy." Without that backing, those checks "will invariably bounce with a large bang."

Solana: "If we are not intelligent enough to complete this integration, there will be a privileged economic relationship between the United States and China, and we'll be out."

Small Men

As long as Europe is being run by national leaders, no citizen will understand that we are all citizens of Europe. The dream of a united Europe will remain vague as long as European governments try to promote integration by way of intergovernmental agreements. National leaders will always focus on their voters at home.

Constitutional and European law expert Christian Calliess believes that many elected officials are out of their depth on complicated European issues: "Europe is simply hard to understand."

Often, party politicians who are no longer much use in domestic elections are sent to the European Parliament. Florence professor of European law Mario Chiti: "Europe is governed by many small men and women with small visions."

European Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso acts to benefit his own power rather than the future of Europe. The European Commission is the executive arm of the European Union. Headquartered in the Berlaymont building in Brussels, it comprises 26 commissioners and the president. Plans to restrict its membership to 20 commissioners were thwarted in 2008 when the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

European Commission commissioner Michel Barnier gave a speech about the future of Europe at Humboldt University in Berlin last May. He wants to see:

— A European president
— A European finance minister
— A European foreign ministry
— A European defense policy
— A European immigration policy

The Crocodile Club

The Crocodile Club is named after the Strasbourg restaurant where Italian politician Altiero Spinelli and others once hatched lofty plans for a united Europe. Spinelli died in 1986 but his heirs are still at work. The group includes former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and former European Commission President Jacques Delors. The main goal of the Crocodile Club is to create the foundation for a United States of Europe.

Crocodile Club driving force and former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt: "Look at California, the biggest economy in the United States. It has enormous problems, and it can't even pay its civil servants. And why doesn't this put the dollar under pressure? Because California is part of the political union of the United States."


Part 3

Implementing the United States

A United States of Europe organized could be organized along the lines of the Federal Republic of Germany. An executive government in Brussels, the European Commission, with members elected by the European Parliament, would be backed up by the European Council as a legislative body.

Some would prefer to emulate the United States of America and replace the European Council with a senate. As in Washington, the emissaries from the individual states would not simply be members of the government but would be elected representatives of their respective states.

A European constitutional court at the head of the USE, modeled on Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, would contain and correct the power held in Brussels. To minimize objections from national constitutional courts, the higher Brussels court would consist of judges appointed by the member states.

Forming a European Identity

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas: "Territorial growth and numerical expansion of the population already changes the complexity of the process of formation of public opinion and the political will." He says the cooperation of the citizens of all the countries involved requires a functioning deliberation process and a widened public sphere offering inclusion for everyone in a society of Europeans.

Habermas: "The claim that there is no European nation contradicts the systemic convergence of multicultural global society." Many agree that the world's societies of the 21st century will be completely mixed up, and while traditional identities will remain in place, they will lose their influence.

Frankfurt constitutional law expert Erhard Denninger says a shared European identity will develop in tandem with national identity. Even today, he notes, there is a "consensus on basic ethical issues."

British political consultant Robert Cooper: "The ethical exclusivity that characterizes a nation state is no longer appropriate in an era of no borders." Cooper now feels that eurocrats are "more patriotic" than his fellow Britons.

The patriotism of global citizens who are concerned about human rights is based on their shared political values rather than a shared ethnic identity or language. It is also on an international consensus that has produced such institutions as the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

With this much commonality, cultural differences are no bar to a shared society. Germany's pluralistic federal society has experienced this first hand. The global community on the Internet already shapes the hearts and minds of younger European citizens more decisively than the traditions of the family home or the local pub.

Switzerland shows that democratic discourse functions across language barriers. Such discourse works best when led by charismatic leaders. Only then will the national media do the job that Habermas calls their "responsibility for the success of Europe."

MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff says most of the people sent to Brussels are too boring and the stories they tell are too complicated. Politics in Brussels is boring and complicated because the participants are not forged in the fire of democratic elections. And Europe is increasingly being led not in Brussels but by agreements between national leaders. The process of delegitimization continues. Elections to the European Parliament are now little more than a tedious chore for national parties.

Direct Elections

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble: "I would like to see the direct election of a European president. Then we will already have a much stronger European consciousness by the time of the first reelection." He sees a president for Europe who would head the European Council and Commission and have real power. A European public space would emerge in the fight for the post.

Lambsdorff wants to divide the European Council into two parts. One would be a legislative body that would debate in public and make decisions by a majority vote, like the Bundesrat. The second body would handle the "daily operational business of government agreements."

At present there is no European public sphere. Parties in the European Parliament still lack a common platform. As a result, coalitions are as vague as the concept of a Europe of citizens. Voters cannot become members of these coalitions, and no group offers transnational lists of candidates for European elections.

To break up the provincialism of the parties, the Reflection Group, an international organization of European thinkers led by former Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González, proposes that each EU citizen should be permitted to vote in the national elections of any EU country, provided he or she has a fixed residence and pays taxes in that country.

The result could be a beneficial shake-up of national politics. German politicians would suddenly find themselves confronted with the issue of foreigners living in Germany, a group that has largely been ignored in the past.*

The next step, according to the Reflection Group, would be for the parties to establish cross-border lists for the election of members of the European Parliament. Many members of the European Parliament show that it is possible to practice democracy at such a high level yet stay in touch with national voters.

European law professor Christian Calliess: "The European Parliament must be given the rights to elect and supervise a European government that answers to it." The parliament in Strasbourg is a veto parliament that can only accept or reject proposals by the Commission.

If a parliament wishes to become the representative of the people, it must seize those rights. Professor Stefan Collignon: "The members of parliament must withdraw their approval of the Council and Commission until their role is strengthened."

Tax and Money

The unifying effect of a direct EU tax would be overwhelming. Every citizen would be paying directly for Europe. A one percent surcharge on VAT plus a tax on pollution could finance the EU budget of about €130 billion a year. The central government's legitimacy increases with its right to collect its own taxes.

Perhaps Europe is too big and too diverse to form a nation like the United States. To do so anyway, the Monnet method foresees a chain reaction of practical constraints that each step toward integration triggers when problems that are created in the process are solved with another integration step. It's the principle of suck it and see.

The Monnet method was applied to create the euro. From the start, it was clear that this could not happen all at once, and that the common currency would expose the need to build a political union.

Two Europes

Lambsdorff poses the fundamental question for the EU: "What exactly do we want?"

Germans, want a problem-solving EU, one that guarantees security, a good life, clean air, and a functioning market. Others such as Great Britain want "the union as a geopolitical stabilizer with as many members as possible" to create a global power that can export peace and freedom around the world.

Two Europes are needed: one for the world and one for Europe. The geostrategic Europe is oriented toward expansion, while its continental version is oriented toward further integration.

Lambsdorff speaks of a "differentiated integration" with a fixed core, which can be achieved if the core sacrifices sovereignty for strong European government. Backed by the will of a majority of European citizens, it could pursue climate protection programs and a common energy policy on a massive scale, and it could organize the economy and even national budgets. Such a government would the power and the legitimacy to mandate financial transfers between rich and poor member states.

The Germans have two problems with this, in the shape of the Federal Constitutional Court and the German voters. In their decision on the Treaty of Lisbon, the judges on the Constitutional Court ruled that the German state must retain a core area of national sovereignty. This sovereignty core would be affected if the Germans were deprived of "their ability to influence their living conditions in a responsible political and social manner."

University of Cologne political scientist Wolfgang Wessels: "You have to ask yourself whether national sovereignty actually exists anymore. The individual countries haven't been in control of events for a long time."

Hauke Brunkhorst says countries like Italy or Germany were not even intended as classic nation-states but instead as "transnational" entities from the very beginning. He cites the preamble to German constitution: "Inspired by the determination to promote world peace as an equal partner in a united Europe."

Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler says Germans are awaiting "with bated breath" the Karlsruhe judges' "interpretive feat" of reversing the strict provisions of the Lisbon verdict in their next decision. German sovereignty was not being protected for its own sake, but merely so that the rights of citizens to participate in politics were not eroded. To the extent that decisions in Brussels are better legitimized by the people, Karlsruhe can accommodate a transfer of competencies.

German lawmakers are considering an amendment to the constitution to allow the transfer of competency to Brussels on fiscal issues. Article 79, the "eternity clause," prohibits any change that affects the more clearly defined foundations of German constitutional law. But Article 146 provides that an entirely new constitution may be "freely adopted by the German people," and even the eternity clause cannot prevent them.

Habermas says Europeans have never been asked their opinion about Europe under fair conditions. Who knows what they think? They don't even know themselves.

AR  Long live the United States of Europe!
* The disenfranchisement affects me.