The EU has a major problem. It is an economic union lacking political unity. While this awkward dynamic yielded surprisingly stable governance during times of prosperity and peace, the lack of a central, powerful decision-making body has proven disastrous during times of crisis. As the EU has come under increasing strain from debt, Russian revanchism, and refugees, it has begun to buckle. Britain has threatened to leave, German voters are outraged that they are paying for other’s prosperity and security, and the EU seems incapable of checking the extremist tendencies of countries like Poland and Hungry.
This presents a deeply concerning situation. After all, Europe is a vital partner in the fight against terrorism, the EU is a major economic hub fueling the global economy, and the pan-European project represents a vision of a more peaceful and unified world. In short, a weakened Europe will result in a less peaceful, less prosperous world.
Thomas Piketty of Capital in the 21st Century fame recently wrote a piece in Foreign Policy in which he outlines his vision for the future of the European project. Specifically, he argues that the EU must become more homogenous and integrated, seeing itself as a common political union instead of an amalgamation of differing, competing interests. His piece is incredibly well written, especially for someone who is a native French speaker (trust me, writing essays in a second language is quite challenging; I know from experience), and I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already. In particular, Piketty argues that a new pan-European legislative chamber should be created. He calls it the “European Chamber.” Piketty argues that this chamber should be composed of members selected by national parliaments, with countries’ seat allocations being determined by population. According to Piketty, these members would represent European interests, not national interests. Moreover, Piketty argues that this chamber will help link national parliaments to the multinational European Parliament, solving the EU institution’s “democratic deficit.”Nevertheless, his arguments are unpersuasive. For, while his sentences are beautiful, his proposal is almost certainly insufficient to solve the intractable issues facing Europe today. It would indeed be fantastic if “Europeans… see beyond the dichotomies of having national sovereignty or European rule,” but why would they?
Piketty’s piece reveals that he is an economist, not a political scientist. While his ideas are a good start, they don’t come close to actually rectifying the Byzantine and underpowered political apparatus of the European Union. Two arguments in particular strike me as bizarre. First, his assertion that the members of this “European Chamber” will not be beholden to national interests boggles the mind. After all, in his model representatives would be directly appointed by national legislatures. Why would a sovereign government appoint a representative who is not absolutely loyal? It just makes no sense. Second, his proposal would certainly not end the gridlock and infighting that has emerged in the European Parliament. While a new chamber might help in creating a more effective forum for airing grievances and debating issues, it wouldn’t be able to impose its decision on member countries. Moreover, because Piketty argues that seats should be allocated by population, the same major countries that dominate European politics now – France and Germany – would still be the dominant powers after Piketty’s reform. The small countries like Greece and Italy would still feel cheated and oppressed by their northern neighbors.
Piketty agrees with me that the fundamental problem of the European Union is the lack of political power. He specifically argues that “[the] central weakness [of] the union… is its feeble bicameral system.” The problem is that his reform doesn’t strengthen the political institutions of the union. It streamlines them and changes them, but in the end, it is nothing more than moving deckchairs around on the Titanic. States will never willingly give up sovereignty unless under extreme duress. The IR literature base is pretty clear about this, and the recent spat of secessionist movements in Scotland and Catalonia demonstrate that even in established political unions there exists a desire for increased autonomy and self-determination. Until Piketty can explain how his reforms will convince European states to subordinate themselves to a multinational legislature, his proposal isn’t even close to sufficient. I applaud his article for it’s innovative and bold thinking; I just hope it inspires even more creative solutions to a seemingly impossible problem.