We the People of Europe

by Laszlo Bruszt and David Stark Laszlo Bruszt is Professor of Sociology at the European University Institute in Florence.
David Stark is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

FLORENCE – Europeans who are eager to revive the continent’s unification process have recently turned their attention to the founding of the United States. Many, however, reject the US precedent on the grounds that today’s problems are too dissimilar from those encountered then. Others, who accept that federalist principles might be well suited to addressing the problems of a European common market, despair that the “European people” who could bring about this new political structure are missing.

Laszlo Bruszt

But there are striking parallels between America’s founding years and the European Union’s ongoing political and economic crisis. In fact, the creation of the US Constitution and the birth of the American people offer reasons to hope that some of the most difficult issues facing Europe can one day be resolved.

The years following the American War of Independence were difficult. Under the Articles of Confederation, the 13 former British colonies had created a common market, with common institutions, including a central bank. Nevertheless, they spent a great deal of time squabbling over fiscal policies, in disagreements between creditors and debtors, and fights over the currency. Schisms emerged between northern and southern states, and between smaller and larger ones. It seemed as if the young country was on the verge of tearing itself apart.

David Stark

In the 1780s, a small group of American political leaders completely reframed these problems. Their key insight is as relevant in Europe today as it was in the US then. The problems facing the country were not the result of politicians acting in bad faith or of an ill-informed or ignorant citizenry; they were a direct consequence of an ill-suited political structure.

Under the Articles of Confederation – as in the EU today – all politics was truly local. Individual states held elections for their officials, but there were no elected officials (or parties) who ran on platforms and programs that transcended the boundaries of the sovereign state units. What leaders like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and George Washington understood was that this structure rewarded parochialism and provincialism at the expense of the “national interest” – the shared interests of the union’s member states.

Addressing these problems, the drafters of the US Constitution proposed the creation of a national government accountable to the people of the US, empowered to attend to the interests of the entire union and to mediate conflicts among member states. To do so, they rooted the sovereignty of the US in its people – a truly novel concept.

But, having located national sovereignty in “the people,” they did not insist on a single principle of sovereignty. Instead, they invented the idea of shared sovereignty – the system of federalism that allows for multiple levels of government and for local, state, regional, and national loyalties to coincide, rather than compete.

To be sure, no one is proposing that the EU simply copy the US Constitution. But the principles developed by its drafters have clear relevance for those attempting to resolve the challenges confronting Europe today.

The conflict between Greece and its creditors has highlighted the mismatch between an ever-more-integrated continental economy and a European political structure built primarily around the interests of sovereign states. In the absence of a transnational government with the incentive, legitimacy, and capacity to resolve the conflict, Greece and the other eurozone countries have resorted to challenging each other’s sovereignty.

Greece first tried and failed to use a referendum to impose its preferences on its creditors, which then used their superior leverage to render the referendum’s outcome moot. According to the most recent deal between the two sides, the Greek government must seek its creditors’ approval on all relevant draft legislation before seeking public consultation or even submitting it to its own parliament.

Open almost any European newspaper, and you will find criticisms of ministers and politicians on all sides in the Greek crisis. But, as in the early years of the US, the problem lies not with the quality of Europe’s politicians, but with the EU’s political structure. As long as no politicians or parties offer programs that compete for votes in Germany and in Greece, in Finland and in France, and across the European continent, future crises are inevitable. What Europe needs are European politicians.

Some might argue that an appeal to create a European national government in the middle of the current turmoil is unrealistic. Others might insist on waiting for the emergence of a European identity before devising ways to create a single European polity. But here, too, early American history provides a reason to ignore the doubters.

The first words of the US Constitution are, “We the People of the United States.” And yet, in his book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, the American historian Joseph J. Ellis points out that at the time that phrase was written, few in the country had a strong American identity. The vast majority of the country’s citizens had lived their lives within a 30-mile radius of where they were born; their political attachments, if they had any, were to their state – not to the union.

It took the creation of a national government to change that. The US Constitution may have been rooted in “the People of the United States,” but it was only after it was drafted that those people came to think of themselves that way.

It is difficult today to know how much support in Europe – with its schisms, suspicions, and passions – could be mustered for a document starting with the words, “We the People of Europe.” But the situation on the continent is no worse than that of the US in the 1780s. It took bold political action to change the course of history and give birth to a new and stable union. Europe requires no less today.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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