After the Snowden leaks: Why Europe needs a true federation

Even though the Economist was right when it recently called for Europeans not to throw the first stone in the diplomatic row over American spying on them, the argument behind this comment – that America still protects Europe, so Europeans should stay quiet – was wrong.

The problem with American spying is not just the use of clandestine methods; it’s the fact that European states on their own are too weak to do anything about it, and too unwilling to cooperate to change that fact. Instead of accepting their lot as tributaries, the inhabitants of the old world should start making American protection unnecessary.

There are different opinions on the benevolence of the American hegemon that has been part of giving Western Europe peace for the last 68 years. While some see it as a capitalist empire, no better than the British one whose dual role in world-policing and self-enrichment it overtook, others see the American umbrella as the only entity capable of saving Europe from itself and its Eastern neighbors. No matter the relative verisimilitudes of these claims, one thing is for sure: contrary to what Europeans continue to believe, the American government is not there to keep Europe and Europeans safe, and neither should it be.

Of course that would surprise only few Americans, but many Europeans seem to have grown so used to living in client kingdoms that they have de facto assumed American neighborliness to suggest that the American government is also theirs. The due attention that American elections get is a powerful symbol of this: it sometimes seems that Europeans forget that they are not eligible to vote in American elections.

Having long left their own great power status behind, even the intermediate European powers have been content with only weighing forcefully in against much poorer or outnumbered opponents. The principled stance that the French and British governments took when facing the Libyan crisis is hard to find when the matter is Russia intimidating its neighbors. Such bigger matters are safely left to the Americans to handle. If that means being subject to the unbounded desires of the American security apparatus, so be it.

The most docile European states are those that need a narrative of their intimacy with the United States as a plausible threat against the cooperation with their European neighbors. Northern European countries with the United Kingdom and Scandinavia in front have long played this game.

As of lately, Central and Eastern European countries with Poland in front have joined that camp as well. They are not swayed by Western European promises to keep them safe from Russian aggression, and they, too, see the benefit of making credible the threat of disengagement as a lever to get a better deal in the EU budget negotiations.

 Poland, of course, has especially bitter experiences with depositing her national security in the hands of others and has, at the same time, been especially keen to play the role of a major European Union player, on par with Spain and Italy or even with France and Germany (Poland fought a long battle over the Common Agricultural Policy as part of its accession agreement). All this is understandable given the short-term interests of European nation-states. It has little to do with serving European interests, however.

 After Edward Snowden made facts of assumptions on the American policy of intelligence gathering in Europe, however, Europeans should be reminded that America ultimately sees itself as alone in the world. That is probably why Charles de Gaulle’s old dictum that ‘France has no friends, only interests’ is often – ironically – attributed to Henry Kissinger speaking of the United States.

Nonetheless, it is true: with Germany apparently classified as an intelligence object in the same rank as China and Iran, Europeans should be reminded that there it bears a cost not to be able to protect one’s sovereignty. If this was not abundantly clear from the negotiations with an increasingly self-assured and hostile Russia, there should be no doubt left when a supposedly progressive American president is behind a program much more comprehensive than anything Putin would have been capable of on Brussels soil.

 This lack of a European entity that is able to stand up for its own interests is largely attributable to the internal politics of EU member states. While all inter-state bargaining is difficult, the last decade and a half of progress for the national-conservative movements of Europe has made it even more difficult. By now, all Northern European countries have far-right Eurosceptic parties that must be taken into consideration by the major parties of the political center when they express their stance on European matters.

Bizarrely enough, even though majorities of the European population support the real cornerstones of European cooperation, such as the free movement of labor, centrist politicians seem to keep believing that keeping your mouth shut until the topic goes away is the best way to counter criticism of the European project.

The American and European Union Flags - copyright:

The twin flags of the Western Alliance

For a long time, this might have been true, at least electorally speaking: criticism of the European Community came from both left and right, and no matter where centrists moved, it was like walking in a minefield. However, in the same period of time that criticism from the right has blossomed, much of the isolationism on the left has died out.

This is probably not least attributable to a change of strategy: instead of merely seeing the European project as a neoliberal plot to overthrow national welfare schemes, progressives started working through the European institutions to work for their own results on a grander scale than what could be achieved in member state parliaments. They have slowly started to realize that instead of promoting ever more protectionist policies doomed to ultimate failure (if capable of giving small amounts of instant gratification from voters), the European Union is a polity that as well as any other can be used to promote key agendas of the left.

Not so on the far right. As yet, the national-conservative movement still seems to feel that it has the momentum among voters and party members to simply increase its criticism of the supposedly antinational scheme that is the EU. In this way, mainstream conservative parties have taken over paroles once only heard on the political fringe; nowhere is this more obvious than in Britain, of course, where conservative backbenchers continuously threaten Prime Minister David Cameron with causing his downfall if he doesn’t ‘stand up to Brussels’.

Although these junior conservatives cannot threaten mainstream party members with primary election challenges – a favorite tactic of American Tea Partiers – their pressure has been enough to make Mr. Cameron lead Britain even further away from the Continent (which is, in practice, almost synonymous with ‘France’). However, mainstream conservatives everywhere from France to Sweden have started to appropriate some of the policy of the far right in an attempt to cover their flanks. In some cases minorities in the conservative parties now propose anti-federalism not only as a pragmatic measure to ward off the far right, but as a core project to supplant the many false starts that their parties have had lately (and who now remembers much of the Big Society?).

However, Northern-European national-conservatives still seem to be in such a state of euphoria over having found a cause for struggle which is not just anti-statist that they have left even the most obvious implicit questions about the potential outcomes of their policies unanswered. Primary among these is the question of what status European states have in the world.

As was also recently noted in the Economist, America’s share of the world economy might be shrinking, but Europe’s economy is shrinking in absolute terms. With it goes most of its already rather diminutive political clout. And with clout goes security and self-determination. Eastern European states have long been bullied by their old imperial master to the East. Estonia was the victim of the most comprehensive cyber-attack on a sovereign state in 2007. And before that, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder left many shocked when he took up the position as the chairman of Nord Stream AG, the consortium set up to build a pipeline leading gas directly from Russia to Germany, creating a feeling that the former German Chancellor might not keep his loyalties straight. Schröder’s was nominated to the position by the national Russian gas giant Gazprom, which he himself had insured against financial risk a few weeks earlier while still in office.

Hence, far from being a hypocritical outcry about the purported villainies of the United States, a strong reaction from the European populations to the American spying scheme would be a healthy one. But it should be directed where it hits home: at national parliaments. Much good would come out of the security crisis if it became part of the European population finally forcing their state parliaments to give up federal issues to Union politicians, who then would have to be elected in Union-wide elections. Contrary to what nationalist politicians repeat over and over, there is nothing that European institutions would like better than to be ruled by elected officials who would then have the mandate to wage Union-wide politics on appropriate matters. But they have to be given that mandate first, and only national governments and parliaments are able to give it to them.

An outcry over the spying scheme is appropriate, not because the American government is doing anything that is more despicable than what European states are doing themselves. (This dictum could be repeated with regards to foreign colonial wars as well, about which Europeans still forget that not only the United States knows how to defend its imperial interests.) But in European societies, such activities should at least be committed by somebody who can be held accountable to the European population. As fond as Europeans might be of him, Barack Obama is not.

This cannot become reality, however, as long as Europeans keep insisting on living in a continent of micro-kingdoms, which will ultimately be met with the same fact of life that the ancient Melians did, neighboring both Sparta and Athens: “That justice in human reasoning only gets considered in a relationship based on equality, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on politics and religion from sociological and political science perspectives.Ask Foldspang Neve