Since I am in Europe — Spain, to be precise — I shall do as the Europeans do and fret over the future of the European Union.
As my tepid opening sentence suggests, I don’t really care much about the future of the EU. In this, I’m a lot like the average American, who probably spends less time fretting about the EU than about what to have for lunch next Tuesday.
But just as one can care little about the fate of the neighborhood Taco Bell, one can care a great deal if it meets its demise in some undesirable way. If it goes out of business because of competition from the new Chipotle across the street, so what? If it’s burned down by a mob, that’s a graver issue than the availability of a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Likewise, it would be bad news if the European Union were undone by an uprising of angry nationalism.
Indeed, part of the argument for the EU itself was to make sure that Germany never again reprised its role of Continental aggressor by making it part of an interdependent economic and political order. Lord Ismay, an aide to Winston Churchill, said the aim of NATO was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”
The EU has done anything but keep the Germans down, economically speaking, which in itself isn’t a bad thing (though many poor European countries, particularly Greece, that have lost the ability to print money to eliminate their debts might disagree).
The real problem is that the EU has something like a genetic flaw. As with many genetic flaws, it’s not a death sentence, but it could be.
Most European countries are little empires made up of what were once smaller nations. For instance, the United Kingdom has Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, of course, England. But even England was once comprised of many different kingdoms (Mercia, Essex, Northumbria, etc.). Germany was once a grab bag of principalities, duchies and free cities, as well as juggernaut states such as Prussia. Over centuries and countless wars, most of these entities bound themselves to the national project. But others were bound by force, sometimes over and over again. In the modern era, compromises were reached, but often on terms that left lasting resentment.
Catalonia, the Spanish region struggling to break free of Spain, has its own distinct language and culture. The Catalans haven’t resorted to the terrorist tactics made infamous by Basque terrorists a generation ago, but some worry they might (and some Spaniards claim they might as way to crush Catalonia’s political movement under the rubric of “anti-terrorism”). But the Basques and Catalans both can make defensible claims that they were kept under the Spanish yoke unfairly and, in some eras, cruelly.
So here is the problem in a nutshell: The more the EU takes up the traditional responsibilities of a national government — foreign policy, taxation, control of the currency, etc. — the less need these subnational nations have for their own governments. Before the EU, if you lived in Catalonia, you might like the idea of independence, but you might think it impractical given the cost of secession and the difficulty of going it alone. But the EU lowers the cost of independence precisely because nation-states can farm out a lot of the hard stuff to the “government” in Brussels.
That’s why the Catalonian separatists want to leave Spain but stay in the EU. On paper, that’s an eminently reasonable position.
And that’s the genetic flaw in the whole project. Spain, France, Germany et al. will not stay in a United States of Europe if member nations can get carved up into smaller member nations.
But the more the EU saps power and authority from national governments, the less these local regions feel the need to be part of a country they were forced to join in the first place. Worse, the more the EU acts like a real government of all of Europe, the more it arouses nationalist and populist ire among the majority populations of member states, as we’ve seen with Brexit in the U.K. A recent EU court decision supporting the legal rights of Catalan separatists sparked nationalist outrage among Spaniards, intensifying calls for “Spexit.” The more passionately nationalist the majorities become, the more alienated national minorities feel. It’s a vicious circle.
I don’t think the EU’s failure is inevitable. But avoiding it requires the kind of statesmanship the EU is not known for.