European Council for Foreign Relations director Mark Leonard’s excellent piece in today’s FT on Europe’s “cycle of enfeeblement” might be seen as outlining as a sort of flipside to US decline. In the EU, sovereignty resides in the member countries and is exercised by them, so the Union stumbles when its collective ideals don’t align with pressing needs of member states. In the US, sovereignty resides in the states but is exercised by the federal government, so the nation stumbles when resolution of pressing needs of individual states is retarded by the straightjacket of central governance.
That is, Europe suffers from too little central government and the US from too much.
For Europe, a way forward might be for groups of compatible member states to pool some sovereignty for the achievement of specific aims (the common currency crisis looks to be caused by a pooling of aims without a pooling of sovereignty). This approach need not undermine the universal benefits of the EU, namely its standing as a free-trade zone whose members enjoy freedom of work and travel and share common standards for goods ranging from food safety to human rights. The recent UK-France defence alliance – which will see the EU’s two largest military powers share assets such as aircraft carriers and also command and control structures – may evolve to be a means of giving them a more influential foreign policy than could be achieved separately, without involving or being held back by contrary wishes of other EU members. Such a collective future is some way off, but politically achievable.
For the US, one solution to the paralysing Washington impasse might ultimately be formation of a looser federation of states or groups of states which can take big decisions independently of the other members. With any luck, such an arrangement would even spawn some new political parties. Republicans may delight in a notion of a smaller Washington relegated to the role of arbitrator, though they would no doubt be repelled by the notion that such a Washington would look a bit more like Brussels.
For both EU and US, the trick is going to be to stay together – the benefits of union are too great to abandon – while recognising that people of different countries or states, and regions within, can have very different needs, demanding degrees of local autonomy not compatible with a very tight federation.
Visionary politicians step forward – please.