The European Union is the product of wars. Of two world wars that nearly put an end to Europe as we know it. Of a cold war that seemingly forever drew an iron curtain through it. Of the near-death experience of Europe as an idea.

For more than anything Europe is an idea: the idea of the many peoples, languages and cultures crowded together on a patchy peninsula at the western edge of the Asian landmass sharing a common home and a common destiny. Multicultural congestion is not a recent characteristic of Europe, but its geopolitical predicament and challenge. 

Many peoples have made their homes in Europe, at times on the ruins of others, but Europe itself has not managed to become home to anyone. The European Union has remained a project where only the constituent nation-states have been able to command the sense of belonging and loyalty associated with the notion of home.

This was demonstrated when the United Kingdom made its exit from the union, slamming the door shut, prompting calls for further EU-exits – Swexit, Italexit, Öxit, etc. Or as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer recently put it: “Europe resides in an increasingly dangerous region, yet it remains a confederation of sovereign nation-states that have never mustered the will to achieve true integration – even after two world wars and the decades-long Cold War. In a world dominated by large states with growing military budgets, Europe still is not a real power.”

So perhaps it was about time for the many nations of Europe to be reminded once again of the geopolitical conditions for their independence and security. Which they were on the morning of 24 February 2022, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia launched its unprovoked war of aggression, not only against Ukraine but against the security order that the nations of Europe, Nato-members and non-members alike, had come to take for granted.

Desperate nation-states

Since then, nothing can be taken for granted. The times have changed, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it three days after the massive attack on Kyiv. Once again, Europe’s nations were brutally reminded that if they cannot maintain – and if necessary defend – what they have in common, they may have nothing in common left. And, once again, Europe will become an assembly of disparate nation-states, each of them too small and too weak to assert themselves in a world in which might makes right – which is the world which a Putin victory in Ukraine would open the door to.

Certainly, the European Union has its weaknesses and flaws and suffers from a democratic deficit. But it is by far the most democratic attempt of the many nations on the European peninsula to construct a common polity to their common conundrums and challenges. Without a common European polity, so the original designers and architects argued, a well-trodden path to European conflict, war and self-destruction would once again open up. Their strategy was to have a common economic community prepare the ground. Or, in the words of the preamble to the Rome Treaty of 1957, “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. 

So successful was this strategy at first, and so many nations subsequently wanted to be a part of the European community, that it was easy to forget how fragile and vulnerable it was. Vulnerable to nationalist discontent from within. Vulnerable to divisive pressures from without. Vulnerable too, it would turn out, from its security dependence on the United States, which might again elect a president ready to break up the transatlantic alliance and leave the Europeans to fend for themselves.

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In that respect, the instant and visceral European reaction to the Russian attack was promising. The commitment to the cause of Ukraine was deep-felt and far-reaching, as was the readiness to endure the potentially harsh consequences of rapidly ceasing dependence on Russian oil and gas. The overnight decision by Sweden and Finland to apply for Nato membership was a dramatic reversal of long-held positions.

Habermas and Derrida, and the inherent weakness of Europe

It is true that the Putin reminder didn’t immediately result in a renewed debate on how to strengthen the European Union. But openly anti-EU parties and movements (in Sweden and Italy, for example) began adjusting their positions, since the perception of a common threat and a common enemy seemed to bring forth a more wide-spread sense of a common European cause.

When, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida bemoaned the lack of a common European foreign- and security policy, they were fully aware of the inherent weaknesses in the makeup of the European Union. A European polity that was ruled by intergovernmental consensus, with each member-state endowed with the power of veto, would inevitably have the scope of its decisions and actions defined by its most recalcitrant members. “If Europe is not to fall apart”, Habermas and Derrida wrote, those member states willing to proceed towards a common foreign, defence and security policy must take the first steps themselves, creating a momentum which other member states “will not be able to resist in the long run”.

Habermas and Derrida could of course not yet imagine a full-scale Russian military assault on an independent European nation. But having experienced the American superpower going it alone in Iraq, running roughshod over its European allies  with a “coalition of the willing” that pitted Europeans against Europeans, the two philosophers found it increasingly urgent to find a solution to the inherent political weaknesses of Europe.

In their quest for a stronger Europe, they were on well-trodden ground. The attempt to widen and deepen the political bonds between the nations of Europe and reduce the democratic deficit had been a recurrent companion to the ongoing widening and deepening of economic and legal ties. As so many before them, Habermas and Derrida put their hopes in the fostering of a common European identity. “The citizens of one nation must regard the citizens of another as fundamentally ‘one of us’”, they wrote. 

The spectre of a European super-state

Although by then, it had become apparent that this was easier said than done. The hope that the common European market and the common European currency would foster a common European citizenship based on an emerging European identity, had proven elusive. Time and again the proponents of a more cohesive European Union and a stronger European polity had come up against the political difficulty of transferring democratic legitimacy, trust and formal power from national to transnational institutions. 

The spectre of a European super-state trampling on national self-rule and weakening democratic control has remained an effective scaremonger in the debates on Europe’s constitutional future. Consequently, these debates have all failed to generate the political will for the creation of a federation of European nation states, represented by a body democratic, legitimate and powerful enough to be entrusted with their common destiny, in a world in which that destiny may again be determined by others – or again fall prey to their proven penchant for inner strife and self-destruction.

E pluribus Unum, one from many, a motto of the emergent American federation, is if anything more relevant to the European condition

Habermas and Derrida were both keenly aware of the “the treacheries of a European identity”, by which they meant the inherent national and cultural multitude (“the wild cacophony of a multivocal public sphere”) from which any sense a common European identity and destiny must arise. They also recognized that so far this had not happened. 

Twenty years on, with much historical momentum lost, and with much political energy spent on attacking and weakening the tenets of the European Union, the case for a stronger Europe, with a truly common foreign and security policy, has been provided with its most persuasive argument yet. Or as Radek Sikorski, a former defence- and foreign minister of Poland, has put it: “To survive and prosper in a world of battling giants, Europe must transform itself from a militarily weak confederation into a genuine superpower.”

Making the case for the f-word

We must thus consider whether a dramatically reawakened sense of common peril and purpose can translate into a renewed push for European construction and reconstruction.

If so, I believe we should once again be asking ourselves what constitutional order can possibly make Europe’s inherent plurality of peoples, languages, cultures and interests identify with and acquiesce to a common European foreign and security policy.

I know of only one constitutional order that might be capable of bringing Europe’s many communities together within the framework of a common and reasonably legitimate social order, and that is a federation.

Unfortunately, federation – the f-word – is a much maligned notion invoking the threat of an all-powerful European super-state, superseding and replacing the nation-state.  This is a clear misunderstanding, often deliberate, of what a federation is – and can be. Federation in its original Roman sense simply means a union or a treaty with nations whom you trust (foedus, from fido, to trust), and is the preferred form of government in a number of western democracies, notably Germany and United States. E pluribus Unum, one from many, a motto of the emergent American federation, is if anything more relevant to the European condition, where historical diversity is greater, the record of disunity and discord more disastrous and the need for a common order therefore more compelling.

Europe, a more advanced experiment

It is true that the federation is a sophisticated and demanding form of polity, since it is based on the assumption of diversity and not of homogeneity. The American Confederation was explicitly constructed to accommodate inherent conflicts in society, and therefore created a far-reaching division of powers – in order to make “ambition counteract ambition”, as James Madison wrote in The Federalist. 

The founding fathers of America saw their country as the laboratory for the creation of a society in which free men could rule themselves, without kings and princes, in a society based on diversity and disagreement. I believe that Europe is a similar laboratory, conducting in many ways a more advanced experiment, because of its greater level of diversity and its more conflicting memories and experiences.

A federal constitution for Europe would thus attempt to do what the founding fathers of the ongoing European project, because of lingering national hatreds and resentments, could not: create a transnational level for legitimate and authoritative deliberation and decision-making on matters of clearly perceived common interests. 

The war in Ukraine is an ongoing reminder of what those interests are. Now might be our last chance to strengthen the idea of Europe.

🤝 Published in collaboration with Eurozine. 👉 Read this article on Eurozine


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