What Europe can learn from American History

By Doctor Michael Herron
The fundamental problem facing Europe at the moment and since at least the time of the French Revolution, if not earlier, is the issue of competing nationalisms. This has been most starkly seen since 1870 in competition between France and Germany for hegemony on the European continent.
French and West German diplomats thought they had resolved this problem with the formation of the French and German Coal and Steel Union after the Second World War. When the European community consisted of France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries, the issue of nationalism could be quietly contained especially since many were all too aware of the potential dangers of allowing nationalism to get out of control. After all Nazism was not just an extreme racist ideology it was also an extreme manifestation of German nationalism.
As the European Union has grown to encompass practically the whole of Europe, European institutions have sought to deal with the issue of nationalism by reserving sovereignty to member states that existed as nation states when the European Union was formed, despite what Brexiteers have argued. The problem arises when there are competing nationalisms within European member states. In this instance the European Union has no mechanism or authority to resolve these disputes as in the case of Catalonia.
Partly the reason for this is that the European Union is a Confederation of States and not a Federal Union with all the problems of a union of states and hardly any of the advantages apart from facilitating trade between member states.
As the European Union has grown the issues of nationalism and populism have become more difficult to manage as in the case of Brexit. On the surface the rise of populism is due to the perception of loss of sovereignty of member states to the EU. However, isn’t the real issue a lack of accountability of the EU institutions to the populace of the EU? Leaders of the member states have not been honest with their electorates since, in reality, these leaders in the conclave of the Council of Ministers make the decisions governing EU policy through majority voting, which the European Commission then enacts while these leaders then, effectively, hide behind the Commission.
These rolling Congresses of Vienna where latter day Metternichs and Talleyrands tinker with the torn fabric of Europe need to be replaced with a more permanent structure. Not least because it would leave less leeway for the current successor to Lord Castlereagh and George Canning to turn the Concert of Europe into a chimps’ tea party with broken crockery strewn across the room.
One fundamental problem with the structure of the EU is that there are virtually no checks and balances between the different European institutions. The real power of decision making lies with the Council of Ministers and the Commission. The European Parliament has been reduced to a virtual talking shop with no real scrutiny over the Commission or the Council of Ministers. This is because sovereignty has been retained by the member states and the job of scrutinising the decisions made by the Council of Ministers is supposed to lie with the parliaments of the various member states. In reality, the parliaments of the various member states do not do a very good job of scrutinising the decisions of the Council of Ministers, so the electorate is left with the perception that there is no accountability whatsoever.
The US Supreme Court has historically performed the task of preserving the checks and balances within the US Constitution by ensuring that laws concerning human rights and the economy are consistent with the Constitution. In Europe there are two separate courts supervising these areas. The European Court of Justice oversees trade and economic affairs and the European Court of Human Rights oversees the protection of human rights of citizens of European member states. There is a problem with this division of responsibility. The European Court of Justice makes rulings on economic and trade issues that are legally binding on member states as long as they wish to be members of the single market. The European Court of Human Rights is not actually an institution of the European Union. Its rulings are merely advisory and are not legally binding on member states. This is also partly because sovereignty is preserved by member states and the rulings of the supreme courts of the member states are the ones that are legally binding upon member states. However, this division of responsibility could be advantageous at some point. If the European Court of Human Rights’ decisions did become legally binding in the future, it would avoid the record of the US Supreme Court that applied laws that were meant to protect the human rights of freed slaves after the American Civil War to, instead, protect the economic rights of corporations.
Concerning this record and on other issues, arguably, Europe could learn lessons from the American experience to address the problems it is facing now. This may appear laughable to some given the turmoil in Trump’s America at the present. However, one could argue quite convincingly that America’s current problems stem from the legacy of slavery and the Civil War, but also the power of money in American politics, which this author will explain in greater detail later.
How Europe can learn lessons from the American experience derives from the establishment of the United States in the first place. After the War of Independence, the American former colonies attempted to maintain their newly won sovereignty as individual states. However, their policies became contradictory as they imposed tariffs against each other hampering trade, refused to accept responsibility for the debt caused by the war and virtually pursued their own relations with foreign states, thus preventing a common foreign policy.
The former colonies drafted the Articles of Confederation to attempt some form of unified approach, however, many of the problems still remained largely because each state wished to preserve its own sovereignty. Eventually, these states found the Articles of Confederation unworkable and decided to produce a more efficient system of government. A number of delegates were sent to a Congress in Philadelphia in the Spring of 1787, ostensibly to reform the Articles but they decided to create a completely new system of government, but a republic rather than a pure democracy. The dilemma facing these delegates was how to persuade the colonies to give up some power and still approve the new Constitution. They arrived at a partial solution by outlining what powers the new federal government would have while reserving other powers not specifically to apply to the federal government to belong to the individual states instead.
One significant failure of the founding fathers of this new constitution was that they fudged the fundamental problem of slavery and this problem grew gradually worse until it split the country resulting in civil war. Once the Civil War resolved the issue of where ultimate sovereignty lay, with the federal government, rather than the individual states, clear lines of responsibility could be marked out. The individual states still retained a great deal of autonomy despite lacking ultimate sovereignty. This was problematic in some instances where after federal troops withdrew from the Southern states when the South “won” the presidential election of 1876, these Southern states imposed “Jim Crow” laws that disenfranchised African Americans. These laws would only be overturned with the advent of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.
The American federal system is underpinned by checks and balances both at the federal level and also between the individual states and the federal government where states maintain a high degree of autonomy. One strong argument against this system of checks and balances is that it leads to gridlock where nothing substantial is achieved. Clearly this has been the case in recent years where partisan Republicans and Democrats have been at daggers drawn rather than seeking practical solutions to American problems. This situation underlines the fact that the American system of government requires a degree of bipartisanship to work where compromise is the order of the day rather than crusaders on either side unwilling to bend their principles.
One reason for this situation is the power of money in American politics. As the cost of campaigns has increased exponentially mainly due to the need to have TV advertising, American politicians have had to raise more and more money from lobbying groups’ political action committees and from private donors. As the restrictions on campaign funding have decreased the power and influence of donors on policy-making has increased. This has had two effects. It has hardened the unwillingness of the two parties in Congress to compromise especially since the rise of the Tea Party and the influence of its backers on the Republican party. It has also encouraged both Republicans and Democrats to listen to their donors and support their interests over those of ordinary voters. Arguably, disenchantment with this state of affairs was a major factor in the election of Donald Trump.
There are a number of measures European politics could take to avoid this situation. There could be strict controls over campaign finance, perhaps through public funding of campaign advertising, strict limits on such funding and greater control on funding by private individuals to political parties.
One advantage the European Union has over the American colonies when they established the United States of America is that it does not have the issue of slavery within its borders to undermine the establishment of a new federal system or the legacy of the Civil War to take into account. However, it does have the legacy of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War and the Irish Troubles that all afflicted the continent in the last century to manage. Many of these issues have not really been addressed by various member states who have attempted to paper over the cracks. It is not enough to argue to just move on, especially if events force these cracks to re-emerge and to deepen as in Catalonia.
The forces that caused many of these traumatic events still exist albeit in somewhat different form. It is complacent to think they are all behind us since an event such as another economic crash greater than in 2008 could strengthen such forces. A move towards federalism could arguably diffuse many of these old historic antagonisms by refocusing power and attention away from traditional sources of power to a new system based on the rule of law rather than raw power.
Such a system would mean member states having to give up some power to pool sovereignty at the federal level. If the EU followed the American example although sovereignty would be pooled at the federal level, each member state would retain a great deal of autonomy. The powers not specifically defined to the federal government would be reserved by the member states. A bicameral legislature should be created to augment the existing European Parliament in which a Senate comprising two Senators from each member state would balance the representation in the lower house of the European Parliament. The European Parliament would be given real power of scrutinising a reformed executive branch just as the US Congress oversees the Executive branch of the US government.
The two member states that, arguably, would have most to lose from the introduction of such a system would be the two states that have been the engine of the European Union, France and Germany. However, French and German officials need to be aware that events can change the political dynamic drastically. While the primary goal of creating the European Community for French officials was to prevent war with Germany ever again, a secondary goal particularly of French presidents de Gaulle and Mitterand was to use the European Community as a vehicle to project French power and influence. French officials now especially need to be careful not to prioritise the secondary goal at the expense of the first. As French influence has been overtaken by German economic power, the entry of the German Far Right AfD into the Reichstag should concentrate French minds. Another economic crash could open the door to a very different occupant of the German chancellery than Angela Merkel with all that entails.
The key issue is that since member states retain sovereignty there is still no guarantee that disputes between these states will always be resolved politically rather than by other means. A federal system would provide greater guarantees of peaceful resolutions to any disputes. Since the Civil War, the American federal system has provided a forum for disputes between the states to be debated politically rather than to be settled by violent means.
There could be one compensatory factor to France and Germany losing some of their leading positions in the European project. Just as the governors of New York, California and Texas can stand for election for the US presidency there should be a position of president of the European Union that the president of France or the Chancellor of Germany amongst others can stand for election, who would be elected by the voters of all the member states of the European Union.
A federal system could also offer a solution to the border issue in Ireland. Northern Ireland could remain a separate region within the EU with representatives at the federal level while still maintaining a degree of autonomy. This might go some way to allaying the Unionists’ fears of becoming a minority in a Catholic majority united Ireland while all nationalist representatives could take their seats at the federal level.
The main argument that nationalists in all member states make against the creation of such a federal system is that people in Europe’s traditional identification is with the nation state not to an entity called Europe. However, Americans have no such dilemmas by identifying as both, say, Californians as well as Americans. Historical tensions and questions over borders threaten to plague this union of nation states and possibly presage the return of violence to resolve these contradictions. If we try to preserve the status quo without radical change we run the risk of the whole system blowing up in our faces. Don’t forget that the perceived impotence of the League of Nations in the face of aggression in the 1930s was a strong contributing factor to the slide into the Second World War. It is this author’s belief that it is only by moving to a fully federal system with an EU that is truly accountable to its citizens that Europe can ward off internal and external threats to its integrity and way of life. E pluribus unum, “Out of many one” is the slogan on the seal of the United States of America. Let it be Europe’s too.

Natalie Nougayrede “The EU has tied its own hands. That’s why it cannot intervene in Catalonia” The Guardian 4th October 2017
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