Sam Seitz

As an idea, the E.U. has been a great success, but its practical achievements have been more limited. As Andrew Michta puts it, “the past enthusiasm for ever-deeper federalism and supra-nationalism is fast giving way to warnings of nationalism, the breakdown of authority, and the deepening public rebellion against the elites.”[1] The fundamental problem is that Europe’s political institutions are ultimately subordinated to E.U. member states’ national interests, and this disconnect between intuitional ambitions and power means “Europe” will likely remain a nebulous ideal unable to realize its true potential. As a result, Europe’s influence will continue to be constrained across all elements of power: diplomatic, economic, and military.

The failure of Europe to speak with a united voice is predictable given that the E.U. is more of a loose federation than an actual union. When Obama met the “leader of Europe” in 2014, two men showed up: President of the European Commission Jose-Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.[2] Thus, despite continued integration through the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, it seems that Kissinger’s famous quote – “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” – still applies. This convoluted system of diplomatic representation makes for awkward summits, but it also has real consequences for European diplomatic efforts by undermining collective action. For example, while the European Council has voted to extend sanctions on Russia, a large minority of EU member states, including Germany, have had prominent politicians calling for an end to Crimea-related sanctions.[3] This undermines European credibility and creates avenues through which Russia can work to manipulate European foreign policy to its benefit. The lack of European unity was also apparent during the 2011 intervention in Libya. France sought EU leadership, Norway wanted the operation to be conducted under the auspices of NATO,[4] and Germany did not support the intervention at all.[5]

Economic disunity, which became painfully apparent during the 2010 Eurozone crisis, also continues to be a vexing issue in Europe. Perhaps the biggest problem for the EU is the lack of a fiscal union, as this prevents governments mired in debt from adequately stimulating their domestic economies. Normally this is not a problem because central banks can devalue currency or engage in debt monetization. However, these strategies are either very difficult or not possible at all in the Eurozone monetary union.[6] There are, of course, steps short of fiscal union that might ameliorate this dilemma. For example, common Eurobonds backed by all European governments could increase investor confidence, allowing indebted countries to borrow relatively cheaply. But this proposal, much like the more expansive fiscal union, has proven politically unpalatable.[7] This is understandable, as wealthier countries like Germany do not want to create a financial instrument with the potential to generate moral hazard and excessive profligacy. Nevertheless, it presents a serious problem for European economic stability and political solidarity. The problem applies to trade as well, which is a policy area where the E.U. – as a customs union – has clear authority. During the Canada-E.U. trade deal negotiations, for example, the Walloon parliament nearly sank the entire negotiation because they sought protection for their farmers. To put it another way, a regional parliament representing 3.5 million almost blocked an agreement affecting the 508 million citizens of the European Union.[8] Much as in the diplomatic sphere, then, Europe’s potential economic might is undermined by half-baked institutions and nationally-focused, as opposed to union-focused, policymakers.

Military collaboration is no better. In 2017, total collaborative defense R&D spending summed to only 168 million EUR (at 2018 price levels). For reference, this number stood at 425 million EUR in 2008.[9] This means that as a percentage of total European defense R&D, collaborative work makes up only 9.5%. The numbers for collaborative acquisition efforts are not much better. In 2017, just over 6 million EUR (at 2018 price levels) were spent on collaborative equipment acquisition, or 9.5% of all 2017 European procurement expenditure.[10] As Bastian Giegerich and Alexander Nicoll convincingly argue, this failure is largely the result of infighting over equipment requirements, complex national funding processes, and national defense industry protectionism.[11] European military collaboration is, therefore, no more robust than its diplomatic and economic cooperation.

Europeans, especially those in the political class, tend to be quite proud of the E.U. and the extended peace on the continent it has helped to create. This pride is certainly justified, but it must be tempered. For all its efforts, the E.U. has failed to overcome Europe’s nationalism bias. Simply put, no European leader will subordinate the interests of his or her constituents to Brussels’ demands. This is true for major issues like trade and security, but it also applies to relatively petty and inconsequential issues. For example, there are constant battles over the location of E.U. agency headquarters, as leaders want the prestige and minor economic bump of hosting European organizations in their country.[12] Perhaps this parochialism could be overcome if European voters came together and demanded greater cooperation. But given that turnout for E.U. Parliament elections stands at only 42% – as compared to an average turnout of 68% in national European elections – this seems unlikely.[13] Indeed, it seems European voters share the nationalism bias of their leaders.

There is simply no will for a much more tightly integrated Europe, and this limits the E.U.’s ability to exert international influence. From the cacophony of voices speaking for Europe to the lack of economic solidarity to the failure to seriously collaborate on defense, there is little evidence that the emergence of a continental European superpower is in the offing. The E.U. has much to be proud of, and it should absolutely continue to promote cooperation on the margins. To continue to push for a United States of Europe, however, would be to wish away the current nationalist impulses without offering a serious strategy for overcoming them.




[1] Andrew Michta, “The Twilight of an Era in Europe,” The American Interest, Oct. 16, 2017.

[2] Guy Verhofstadt, Europe’s Last Chance (New York, NY.: Basic Books, 2017), 189.

[3] Gernot Heller, “Germany threatens retaliation if U.S. sanctions harm its firms,” Reuters, June 16, 2017.; “Germany and Austria warn US over expanded Russia sanctions,” Politico, June 15, 2017.

[4] Jeremiah Gertler, “Operation Odyssey Dawn (Libya): Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2011, 16.

[5] “Who’s in Charge? Germans Pull Forces out as Coalitions Fall Apart,” Daily Mail, March 22, 2011,

[6] Helge Berger, et. al., “The Euro Area Needs a Fiscal Union,” IMF Blog, February 21, 2018.

[7] “Germany rejects idea of joint Eurobonds after Macron victory, Reuters,” May 8, 2017.

[8] “EU trade deal with Canada on brink of collapse after Belgian disarray,” The Guardian, October 24, 2016.

[9] “Defence Data: 2016-2017,” European Defense Agency, September 7, 2018.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bastian Giegerich and Alexander Nicoll, “The Struggle for Value in European Defence,” Survival 54, no. 1 (2012), 69.

[12] Verhofstadt, 184-185.

[13] “Election Results,” European Parliament, July 1, 2017.; Drew Desilver, “U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout,” Pew Research, May 21, 2018.