Europe’s “United States”: Stuck in Ivory Towers

Article published on May 11, 2004
community published
Article published on May 11, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Four years ago, speaking from a personal point of view, Joschka Fischer (now German Foreign Minister) argued in favour of a European Federation. Since then, however, there hasn’t really been a public debate about the future of Europe. An initiative led by intellectuals could breathe new life into the discussion on Europe’s destiny.

“The day will come when you France, you Russia, you England, and you Germany, all you nations on this continent will come together in a higher unity, without forfeiting your different qualities and your rich uniqueness. You will create a European brotherhood.”

This is how French author Victor Hugo saw the future of Europe back in 1850. Today, many European politicians wish that they could present the vision of a federal Europe in such a poetic manner to the public, something that they have not once been able to do in official speech. However, such an idea was suggested four years ago, by Joschka Fischer, when, speaking solely as a European intellectual and not in his current “restricting role” of German Foreign Minister, he gave his well-respected Humboldt speech on the destiny of Europe. What has happened since then? Where does the debate on European federalism stand after the breakdown of discussions on the draft constitution?

For the most part, the attitude of the major European newspaper supplements to the topic of federalism is characterised by disinterested silence. Leading articles and intellectuals seem to be have no time on their hands for anything but the division of Europe over the Iraq war, enlargement and, last, but not least, the new threat of terror. Fundamental discussions on where European integration will lead or should lead are mainly to be found in the limited circles of academia.

Gathering dust in academia – the federalism debate

In spite of all the setbacks, the Swiss politicist Dusan Sidjanski believes that a new era for European federalism has began, as states will realise that “Federalism is the only form of political and societal organisation that makes the preservation of regional and national identities possible”. His vision of a federal Europe was the model for the type of federation that Fischer put forward in his speech – a move from the confederation that makes up the European Union today to a European federation, as Robert Schuman and Spinelli called for 50 years ago. That means nothing less than a European parliament, complete with a government that has legislative and executive powers. However, Fischer did highlight that “the image that has been created up until now of a European federal state which would have sovereignty and therefore dissolve national states and their democraties, has proven to be completely artificial in view of the established European orders”. What would actually be put into place is “a central sovereignty and a federation that would only rule on strictly European matters, leaving everything else within the competence of national governments”.

This idea comes closer to that of Swiss author and essayist Denis de Rougemont, who sees a Europe made up of regions, a United States of Europe whose “golden rule” is to leave national and regional identities in such a federation enough room for creativity, because “the European culture is the basis for a European federation”. This striking message follows what the neofunctionalistic co-founder of the European Coal and Steel Community, Jean Monnet, believed: “If we could go back to the beginning then I would start with culture”. Everything was well thought through, brilliantly analysed and eloquently written. Only, in his role as Foreign Minister, Fischer, already seen as a figurehead for federalists, has unfortunately forgotten the federal intellectual in himself. And so, since the failure of the new constitution, the debate has been gathering dust in the ivory towers of European and political sciences. Our European academic elite seem far from being able to bring the theme of European federalism to a wider public or even to put it on the political agenda. Like other European intellectuals who didn’t want to be labelled as “old Europeans”, do the European federalists need a push from their model of federalism, America?

The intellectual Old Europeans

The review supplements enthusiastically called it the start of a European public debate. Last summer in half a dozen European newspapers, seven intellectuals mobilised by Jürgen Habermas, took a stand on the current situation of things on the continent. Habermas himself was joined by his long-standing philosophical opponent Jacques Derrida, the writers Adolf Muschg and Umberto Eco and the philosophers Gianni Vattimo, Fernando Savater and Richard Rorty.

It was staged with great panache and the message was fiercely discussed: according to Habermas’ counter proposal to the “letter of eight” there should be no more separatism within the framework of a future European constitution because Europe’s role is to “counterbalance the hegemonial unilateralism of the United States of America”. Only a “core Europe” with increased cooperation between those states willing to integrate would be able to achieve this with the help of a common foreign and security policy.

As much as these ideas are criticised, with this debate on Europe, the public intellectual Habermas has managed to show how a European debate can work. If the federalists among the intellectuals actually want to achieve their ideas then they should be brave and try something similar. If not they will only be accused of what Habermas self critically remarked in his article: “If the issue has not made it on to at least one agenda then we, as intellectuals, have failed.”