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A union without unity

This was originally published on 31st March, 2018, and was republished here on 4th January, 2022.

A report has recently been published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, detailing the change in cohesion across the European Union in the past decade. As anyone following European politics will know, things are looking much more grim for the future of the EU today than they were in 2007, but the way Josef Janning measured the internal friction of the member states of the EU caught my eye.

Janning uses two measures: structural cohesion and individual cohesion. Structural cohesion measures the degree to which institutions are integrated into the European Union, including trade and legislation. Individual cohesion measures the degree to which people are integrated into the European Union, according to their attitudes and experiences. Have a look at which countries rank positively in both, and see if you notice anything.

While I would argue that individual cohesion is a more important measure of the success of European integration, both measures are necessary for the EU to complete its vision of a federal Europe. Structural cohesion is relatively easy to create. It comes from the top and flows down, being strengthened or weakened by the actions of government. This does, however, means that it is subservient to both national history (as a complex web of legislation may be difficult to integrate into the EU) and national opinion (as democratic governments are dependent on the will of the people as expressed in elections, though this can to some degree be overcome if the people aren’t give any viable options that fundamentally disagree with the European Project.

By contrast, individual cohesion is difficult to create. Historically, the European continent has been full of governments attempting to implement it from the top down, only to be slowed or stopped completely by communities and individuals who disagree with whatever new culture they are trying to create.

To make a comparison, the structural cohesion of the Napoleonic Empire took place after the individual cohesion had already been established in the French Revolution. The Revolution was popularised across France, particularly in urban areas (read: Paris), over a decade before Napoleon took over and began codifying the culture of the Revolution. However, in the nations he conquered, the structural cohesion came, but the individual cohesion meant that the Empire could not maintain control over the different countries it had conquered, even though the Napoleonic Code remains the defining legislature in many of these countries to this day.

In the case of the European Union, it is not so much the Napoleonic Empire that I am reminded of, but rather the Holy Roman. Look firstly at the countries where there is neither high individual nor high structural cohesion. The United Kingdom is an obvious one, as is Italy in hindsight (following an election where the biggest party and the biggest bloc are both genuinely Eurosceptic), as well as Greece, which is still in a fairly miserable state and plainly is unhappy with the way it was treated during the temporarily abated Eurozone crisis.

But there are also three countries which they would, perhaps, have not expected to be on that list. Croatia is the most recent member to join, having been granted membership in 2013, which is why their structural cohesion is still quite low, and like other eastern/central European nations, the values of Croatians don’t necessarily accord with the western liberalism that defines much of what the culture of the European Union is about.

Portugal’s own political discontent has been mostly hidden from the world, but the Germans aren’t necessarily that happy about their economic recovery, which has been nothing short of a slap in the face to the austerity gospel that has been peddled by German leaders from both major parties (to varying degrees). The Portuguese are among the more comfortable western nations with socialism, owing to the 1974 revolution — though like in every Western nation there has been a shift towards liberalism across the parties that has not been matched by the party labels — and were (just) willing to give it a shot rather than continuing down the German-imposed liberal route, which they had seen work its ‘magic’ in the other PIIGS nations. No wonder they still feel somewhat discontent with the EU, even though their big neighbour is less so.

The really big fish, though, and the cause of most concern for EU leaders, has to be France. A year ago, Emmanuel Macron was voted in as what I called the ‘saviour of the European Union’. France’s continued support for and approval of the EU is meant to place it as the great bulwark against German dominance, in a different way to what Britain was meant to (and has grown tired of). France and Germany have been the great European rivals across history, even when the latter was not yet called by that name. Between them they could, theoretically, balance the power shifts of Europe in such a way that paneuropeanism becomes a possibility. At least, that is the idea behind the EU.

Yet here we stand, not that long after the saviour of the EU came to power in France with a host of pro-EU policies and a desire to promote the goodness and usefulness of the EU…and France reports a negative individual and structural cohesion with the EU. This is not quite as surprising as it may sound. The French presidential election had enough anti-EU sentiment to suggest that the French are none too pleased with the direction it is heading in. Anyone who thought that Macron’s win was just about the EU was misguided, as it probably had far more to do with lingering distrust of the soon-to-be-renamed National Front than it did with anything else.

What appears to be happening in France is that the new political divisions that emerged last year are becoming crystallised, and there is little movement between them. Supporters of Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon are happy where they are, leaving it to the two old parties with confused identities — the Socialists and the Republicans — to decide what they want to be. worryingly for the EU, only one of the three candidates with a firm position is pro-EU, and that’s the president.

What would the EU look like without France? Italy has been making noises about leaving the EU, while it tries to sort out who exactly is going to be governing the country, because the two ‘winning’ parties are both genuinely Eurosceptic. Could the European Union really be such a thing without these two countries?

What does a ‘united’ Europe look like without all the countries that are negatively inclined towards the European Union (ie. low individual cohesion)?

It’s hard to see Spain being willing to cling on to an EU that all their neighbours are no longer part of. Bear in mind also that a lot of the most northern nations have some kind of agreement to not be fully integrated into the EU (which the southern states don’t have and didn’t want). What happens when those with low structural cohesion are therefore also removed from the mix?

It is quite remarkable, so long after the Holy Roman Empire fell apart, just how much this resembles it. The Holy Roman Empire, loosed of its quarrelsome Italian parts, consisted of a German core (Germany), Habsburg rulers (Austria+Slovenia), the Kingdom of Bohemia (Slovakia) and Dutch traders (Netherlands+Belgium), while supporting the Catholic Holy Orders bordering Rus (Lithuania+Estonia).

Is it any wonder that critics of the European Union call it the newest version of ‘Greater Germany’? The German question has plagued the continent for centuries, and looking at how the various European nations see the EU, it appears the 21st century is no different.


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