Will There Be a Political Union for Europe?

By Philip Whyte

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

The underlying purpose of the 'European project' has always been clearer than its ultimate destination. Its purpose - to escape a traumatic past disfigured by dictatorship and war - has never been particularly contentious (what sane European would want a return to that?). But the same cannot be said of the EU's final destination. For much of its history, the EU has hidden behind the foggy ambiguity of its aspiration to build an "ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". The trouble is that this worthy aspiration has always meant very different things to different people. Those of a minimalist disposition, often to be found among the British, have usually understood it to mean little more than the removal of cross-border barriers to the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. Those of a more ambitious bent, more often to be found in continental Europe, have seen the ultimate goal of the project to be some sort of 'political union' (however understood).

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The eurozone crisis has once again exposed the gulf between British and continental visions of the EU. But it has done a lot more. It has also forced European leaders to speak a little less airily about 'political union' than they have become accustomed to in the past. All agree that the single currency must be embedded in a real 'political union' if it is to survive. But they are being forced to define their terms. Roughly speaking, two schools of thought have emerged. One (mostly northern European) school thinks that the crisis resulted from errant behaviour. For it, political union means tighter rules, more strictly enforced. The second school believes that the architecture of the eurozone is flawed. For it, political union means transferring a number of critical responsibilities from national to European level. If the first school frets about moral hazard, the second worries about a dearth of solidarity. The first school emphasises collective discipline, the second mutual burden-sharing.

Which of the two schools has the better story to tell? Although Greece is a convincing poster child for the first school, the balance of evidence weighs heavily in favour of the second. To start with, compliance with rules before 2008 turned out to be a poor predictor of countries' subsequent plight. Like Mark Twain's stories, the eurozone had its good little boys to whom bad things happened and its naughty boys who prospered. (Ireland never broke the fiscal rules before 2008 but is now in a slump, while Germany did and is not.) Second, despite having lower levels of debt in aggregate, it is the eurozone, not the US, which has been in the eye of the storm - strong evidence that it is the eurozone's architecture, rather than the behaviour of its constituents, which is to blame. Third, the more the principle of collective responsibility has been asserted, the worse the eurozone's plight has become: efforts to instill discipline have signally failed to restore confidence in the eurozone.

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Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

(AP Photo)

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