Amid a world that has slowly become less liberal, democratic, and global in the past few years, there have been an increasing amount of calls for the strengthening of an organization that embodies all of those modern traits: the European Union.
The European Union, or EU, is a political and economic entity that consists of 28 member states (soon to be 27, as the United Kingdom voted for a British exit from the EU on 23 June 2016). It is a supranational entity whose membership promises free trade with other EU countries and free migration for the citizens of an EU country to any other member state among other smaller benefits. Members are typically required to have a liberalized market economy, hold a strong record in human rights, and have a stable and reliable democratic process for electing government representatives.
The call for an EU army is one of the latest in a series of requests for greater EU integration and strength. With the election of U.S. president Donald Trump, and the coming exit of the U.K. from the EU, Angela Merkel remarked that Europe could no longer rely on help from “foreign partners” to guarantee its safety. In response, she believes that EU members must come together for their common security interests. Otherwise, Europe could fracture into a warring continent that is reminiscent of the two world wars.
Merkel is not alone. French president Emmanuel Macron has also called for a stronger defense union between member states, and on 13 November 2017 the EU released a statement that says 23 member states (excluding Denmark, Ireland, and Malta, which have yet to commit, and Portugal, which aims to join before 11 December when the program launches) have signed on to join Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, the EU’s official defense office. Merkel and Macron are currently considered to be the most pro-EU heads of state in the organization and are driving most of the current developments within it (along with EU officials).
An EU report claims that many eventually hope for a ‘United European Superstate’ (although there are many reports that claim the opposite): a completely federated supranational organization (something which many in the U.K. were wary about before Brexit) of which contemporary European states take on roles such as states in the U.S.. An EU release in 2014 also detailed potential plans for further democratizing the election of the various EU presidencies (the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament).
The concept of large, integrated governments is not a new one, though it has had wider support in the past century than it did in pre-World War I times.
Historical support for such enormous government is as varied as the proposals. In the Medieval era, the Christian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri proposed that humanity should be united under a single monarch to put an end to all wars; he bases his argument largely on religious premises, believing that a united people under a Christian king is divinely ordered in addition to being in our best interests for security and happiness.
Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who lived during the English Civil War, also believed that large governmental structures are possible and even desirable to protect human security and liberty. It is important to note that Hobbes believed government’s purpose is to protect citizens after their formulation of a “social contract,” a common political trope in Enlightenment-era thinking. He believed that society without government is akin to a violent free-for-all where people regularly steal, lie, and murder to get by. To rectify this, Hobbes proposes a strong government that has full authority over punishing citizens to protect society and enforce the social contract. Similar to Dante, Hobbes further argued that a monarchy (although not a necessarily Christian one) was the only proper way to guide subjects towards a safe and productive life. The wider this society can be, the more people who are saved from his idea of a lawless, baseless society.
There have also been criticisms of such large government structures. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan philosopher and another social contract thinker who lived during the Enlightenment, thought that nascent society was much different than Hobbes; Rousseau believed that people are naturally good and that regimented, artificial social structures such as fame, money, and political power are what corrupt human nature. He, similar to Plato, advocated for small, autonomous nation states, believing that large governments were antithetical to human flourishing, claiming that the loss of human dignity from the ensuing corruption would be disastrous.
Immanuel Kant, a major German philosopher, somewhat straddled the two positions. He believed that nature was slowly pushing humanity towards consolidating under a great federation of all states, large and small. However, he claimed that humanity’s moral constitution in the 18th century was ill-equipped to transition towards a stronger form of union. In his eyes, the march towards a united humanity would be a slow and painful one as we grow out of our onset moral decay towards an enlightened existence.
It is unclear whether Merkel and Macron share some of the ideas of the aforementioned thinkers; Merkel’s distrust of certain international powers—namely the U.S. and U.K.—and calls for a strong Europe certainly have a Hobbesian ring to them, and Macron’s thoughts on the inevitability of a united Europe sounds rather Kantian. But they are only the latest in a long line of thinkers to advocate for a ‘more perfect union’. Given the present state of the world, some would be skeptical of the possibility of such progress in governmental affairs, especially in a fractured Europe.
Regardless, the concerns of Merkel and Macron are well-placed. The U.S. has, at least temporarily, hung up its moral authority and resigned as the leader of the free world. In an increasingly unstable world, this signals trouble. The vacuum of power that the U.S. has left will want to be filled, and China and Russia are the obvious illiberal contenders. Despite the relative strength of both Germany and France, Merkel and Macron would do well to show a united liberal front against the other two powers instead of potentially squabbling about who should be the beacon of liberty; illiberal countries rarely need to work with another to upset the world order, but liberal ones always need to in order to preserve it. Bringing other liberal European countries into the fold would only serve to fortify themselves against such threats, and Merkel and Macron could use as much help as they can get with America on the sidelines. The first step will be developing a united military front; Europe cannot prosper if its physical security is threatened. The path towards a formal state or comparative power is still ambiguous and will depend on the success of the military union, but it would seem to naturally follow in the name of greater integration.
The challenge will be addressing the often-repeated British claim that the EU erodes national sovereignty—which also assumedly implies national pride. The common idea of a federated, versus a unitary, European government would continue to be the best response to this claim. Making countries feel like they are a valuable part of the European process awards a feeling of responsibility and (healthy) pride; allowing an authoritative Brussels to simply bark orders at state governments would quickly instill a feeling of hatred between subjects and ruler. It would not be long at all before the foundation begins to crumble.
This will not be an overnight occurrence. Democratic processes and developments are slow, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Similar to a building, rapidly constructing a European framework will expose it to structural flaws that may be overlooked by the sheer lack of critical overview that comes with slow, methodical progress. Allowing the organization to deliberately and cautiously develop allows it to feel like a more natural and stable entity in people’s lives. An organization that spans decades and even generations has an aura of permanence that young institutions cannot capture. The EU was founded in 1993; it would be tragic to see it burn out so quickly.