This week in his State of Union address, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, set out his vision for a United States of Europe. For an organisation which has haemorrhaged one of its most important member-states this is an ambitious vision. But with the United Kingdom now out of the Union, Juncker has set his sights on a more integrated EU which puts the single currency, banking union and Schengen at its core.
Those interested in American history will be all too familiar with the conflict between centralising federalists and defenders of states’ rights. Alexander Hamilton, fierce advocate for the federal government and champion of the national bank said that ‘vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty’. In stark contrast, his political opponent Thomas Jefferson was of the opinion that ‘even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.’
Here we have two competing visions for the role of government; they are the key to understanding American politics and they are essential for understanding the competing visions of Europe today. The UK has long resisted fully integrating into the European Union, and, after failing to secure the guarantee that it could still resist further, it voted to leave the Union itself. This is because it has persistently struggled with the concept of “Ever Closer Union” – not because of economics (the UK has taken in hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Continent), but because of politics, and history.
Try as it might, the United States of Europe cannot replicate the United States of America. The latter was the product of imperial rivalries and united successfully precisely because of the fact that distinct local identities were not yet strong enough. In the Constitution member-states pooled sovereignty in a powerful federal government; the small state of Rhode Island felt threatened by this, but it still joined the Union. The European Union, in contrast, faces the impossible task of uniting different countries which have lived with independent nationhood, in some cases, for thousands of years.
History shows that nations can be formed out of states; but states cannot be formed out nations. Jean-Claude Juncker would do well to remember this.