31 Mar

Still Dreaming of a United States of Europe?

Posted By Politybooks

Suddenly, it appears, the future of Europe, specifically the European Union, is back at the centre of the region’s politics, just in time for elections to the European Parliament in May. One reason for this is undoubtedly Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea, achieved during protests in Ukraine triggered by President Yanukovych’s about turn on an agreement to seek closer ties withthe European Union, favouring instead to look towards Russia. Russians make up over half the population of Crimea, mainly in the south and east, and many saw closer ties to the EU as a threat to their identity. The 2001 Census reported that 58 per cent of the population of Crimea identified themselves as ‘Russian’compared to just 17.3 per cent in Ukraine. In a hastily organized referendum, 97 per cent of voters were in favour of Crimea seceding from Ukraine to Russia.

[BBC Report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26387353

However, the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath have also hardened opinion on the EU. The crisis saw Germany emerge as key to the survival of the European Union and its currency, the euro, though this was not universally welcomed in countries such as Greece and Portugal which were forced to accept austerity policies as part of ‘rescue’ or, more derogatively, ‘bailout’ packages. Then, in French local elections just last week, the right-wing National Front (FN) made strong gains, again in part as a result of its anti-EU, tough immigration policies. Tensions and fissures within the EU community of states seem to be growing and spreading.

[Economist Analysis: http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2014/03/french-politics-1?fsrc=rss

In Britain, the relationship with the rest of Europe hasbeen particularly fraught for a very long time. Many Brits seem to understand that their country is somehow in Europe,but is not of Europe. Current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an ‘in or out’ referendum during the next parliament if his party wins outright in the 2015 General Election. The rise of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), with its explicit aim of taking Britain out of Europe, has put pressure on the Tories to take a harder line as many Conservative MPs and voters support that position. Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have always been the most pro-European of parties and their leader, Nick Clegg, has been tempted into two debates with Farage on the subject of staying in or leaving the EU.

For all pro-EU politicians and voters, it is clearer than ever that the EU must be reformed if it is to be saved let alone become genuinely popular.

[Watch the first debate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6hy8KyedJA

Anthony Giddens (2013) suggests that both the currency union (the euro) and the EU as a community of fate are in trouble. The euro is a currency without the necessary backing of a sovereign power. During the 2008 financial crisis the consequence of this situation was exposed: the dominant EU nation state, Germany, had to play the major role. In a strong statement on the issue, Ulrich Beck (2013: vii) concludes: ‘The fact is that Europe has becomeGerman’ by which he means that ‘… in the light of the possible collapse of the euro, Germany has “slipped” into the dominant role of the decisive political power in Europe’. Highly indebted countries, mostly in southern Europe, accepted economic assistance but austerity policies led to demonstrations and protests, often against Germany and Chancellor Merkel. The euro crisis has receded somewhat but the damage to public support for the EU and its currency is evident in opinion surveys and increasing votes for right-wing, anti-EU parties and candidates.

[Anti-German protest in Greece: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2232706/Greek-anti-austerity-protesters-hurl-coffee-German-diplomat-riots-sweep-Europe.html

Similarly, the EU as a set of institutions – primarily the Commission, Council and Parliament – lacks democracy and effective leadership, says Giddens. Especially during times of crisis a small group of leaders effectively make the key decisions ‘out of sight’ creating a divide between the formal, legitimate decision-making process and what actually happens in specific circumstances (Giddens calls this the difference between EU1 and EU2). The result is a lack of transparency and democracy, a concomitant withdrawal of public trust and a weak commitment (if any) to ‘the European project’. Dangers abound. The euro crisis has not been ‘solved’, anti-German feeling is growing, resentment of the EU is spreading and outright opposition to EU membership is finding wider political expression. Winston Churchill’s post-1945 dream of ‘recreating the European family’ in ‘a kind of United States of Europe’ has just not materialized and the very idea now strikes fear into many people right across the nations of Europe. In his own words, Giddens (2013: 3) argues that ‘Europe is no longer mighty but has again become turbulent …’.

Beck and Giddens acknowledge that the fate of the EU involves high stakes and both argue that a reformed EU is badly needed. Beck suggests that if the European dream or ‘project’ is to survive then it has to be a different and positive ‘citizens’ Europe’, not merely a group of states held together by the fear of chaotic break-up. Yet it remains difficult to see how a European identity and citizenship can compete with national forms. Individuals of member states do gain EU passports and entitlements including freedom of movement and non-discrimination across states. However, the Lisbon Treaty (2009) itself says that EU citizenship is ‘additional’ to existing national forms, an acceptance of the primacy of national identities (Isin and Saward 2009). EU citizenship seems to lack precisely the kind of deep-seated, emotional bond and identification that ties individuals to ‘their’ community of fate.

Yet it is important to remember that national identification, however strong or ‘natural’ it appears today, is not innate but has developed over time. As Norbert Elias has argued, in the past it was clans and tribes that formed the basis for fundamental ‘we’ group identities and the idea that there could be a far larger ‘national’ identification would have been literally ‘unthinkable’. In contrast to most politically driven analyses of the prospects for a European identity which privilege short-term policy changes, Elias (1991: 228-9) cautions that ‘The we-image of human beings has changed; it can change again. Such changes do not take place overnight. They involve processes that often take many generations’. The idea of creating a citizens’ Europe is, in principle, a good one but we are only at the start of what will be a very long-term process of change. And therein lies the hard reality for policy-makers looking for short-term functional fixes.        

Philip W. Sutton


Beck, U. (2013) German Europe (Cambridge: Polity).

Elias, N. (1991) The Society of Individuals (Oxford: Blackwell).

Isin, E. F and Saward, M. (2009) ‘Questions of European Citizenship’, in Isin and Saward (Eds) Enacting European Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 1-18.

Giddens, A. (2013) Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe? (Cambridge: Polity)

There is no discrete chapter on Europe in Sociology, instead the EU is discussed across the full range of chapters in the 7thEdition. Therefore the best way to explore what the book has to offer on Europe is to use the Index to find particular subjects. For example, the European Parliament can be found on pp. 983-5 and other EU institutions on pp. 991-4, but there is much, much more. Another option is to look for specific countries, such as ‘Germany’, and within this entry you will find references to, say, ‘electoral democracy’ or ‘welfare provision’.    

Reading 53 (Archibugi) in Sociology: Introductory Readings discusses post-national forms of democracy and identity, including the EU, whilst Reading 50 (Kaldor) looks at some recent conflicts in Europe and elsewhere.