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A Common Defense Could Make the European Union Great Again

30 May 2019

Doug Bandow

The European people have voted and left political devastation in
their wake. The established ruling order continues to collapse. To
do more than simply survive, the European Union needs to reconsider
its geopolitical ambitions.

European leaders need to abandon their attempts to create an
ever more intrusive continental government and instead emphasize
tasks that only international cooperation can achieve. The most
obvious EU responsibility should be sustaining a free European
market. The most transformational would be developing a serious
European security system.

The EU began in 1951 as an organization limited in function and
membership. It was designed to help reconstruct the continent after
World War II and reconcile long-time enemies France and Germany.
Six years later came the European Economic Community, or Common
Market, which freed trade among the organization’s members.
Still, old antagonisms refused to die: French President Charles de
Gaulle blocked membership for his wartime allies in London.

The supranational giant
has assumed unnecessary powers-but protecting the continent should
be its responsibility.

In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty transformed the so-called
European Project, setting the objective of an “ever-closer
union among the peoples of Europe.” The EU’s
institutions came to resemble those of an actual government,
including a parliament and various executive bodies and agencies.
The EU also expanded its legal and regulatory supremacy over
national policy.

The organization still was not a real state, but more than a few
European leaders envisioned creating a United States of Europe. A
growing gaggle of bureaucrats, politicians, lobbyists, and
journalists filled Brussels. A new Eurocratic elite continued to
expand EU authority and even created a common currency, the Euro.
When tying together economies with substantially different fiscal
and monetary policies resulted in crisis, Eurocrats pressed for
further political integration, including oversight by Brussels of
national budgets, the core responsibility of any sovereign

Still, even Euro-friendly Germans were not willing to turn
control of their economy over to the fiscal wastrels in Rome,
Athens, and elsewhere. And the EU is no country. It has a flag that
no one salutes and three squabbling presidents whom people mock. No
one roots for a European football (soccer) team: fan enthusiasms
are strictly national.

The greatest gulf between theory and reality is the EU’s
pretension to be a Weltmacht even though it has no military. And
despite decades of proposals to develop a formal European defense
and security policy, little of substance has occurred.

EU members remain deeply divided on many international issues.
Much more separates European countries than American states, which
had independent identities but shared cultures and histories; the
colonies also fought together to win independence and forge a
nation. Despite the Civil War, they did not constantly battle one

Yet despite creation of an EU foreign minister, major European
nations continue to make their own decisions. Even more important,
though, few Europeans see much reason to devote resources to and
take risks for their own defense when the U.S. is willing to do it
for them. America’s defense dole has become very

What is the balance for the EU? The organization’s
greatest strength remains the continental market, though business
regulation, regional subsidies, and agricultural bailouts are
negatives. More problematic is the organization’s impact on
national sovereignty. EU standards have promoted liberalization and
democratization in former Soviet republics and satellite states.
However, the EU has also overridden national decisions in many
areas, including on issues as important as immigration and
government budgets. America’s experience offers a dramatic
warning: the more the EU looks like a United States of Europe, the
less liberty European peoples will enjoy.

Most worrisome may be what has oft been called the
organization’s “democratic deficit.” EU policy is
dominated by a bizarrely fragmented yet largely unaccountable
executive. The European Parliament is popularly elected but lacks
normal legislative powers and is almost universally ignored by its
own constituents. People typically use their EP votes to punish
unpopular governments for domestic failures. Legislative blocs are
diffuse with little policy coherence.

Moreover, Eurocrats are determined to achieve their ends
irrespective of what the people want. When two nations voted down
an EU constitution, the body switched to a treaty to achieve the
same end. When Ireland, the only nation to hold a referendum on the
latter pact, voted no, the EU demanded a revote.

Argued outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude
Juncker: “It is time we had a little more faith in
Europe’s ability to provide collective solutions to problems
felt acutely and independently by each EU member state.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders continue
their campaign to consolidate power in Brussels. The standard
mantra is that Europeans need “more Europe,” meaning EU
authority centered in Brussels.

However, few Europeans want more intrusive economic controls.
Poorer southern and eastern Europeans desire increased subsidies
from their wealthier brethren, but they do not want to cede
authority to Brussels. This was driven home by the migration
crisis, which sparked electoral upheavals, including in
traditionally stable Germany. While a majority of Europeans value
continental cooperation, there is little popular sentiment to give
the Eurocrats more power.

The latest European Parliament elections resulted in more
changes in policies than personalities. Contra the claim of
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini that “a
new Europe is born,” not much of substance is likely to
change in Brussels.

However, the traditional ruling parties have continued to
collapse. The largest EP party aggregations, moderate conservatives
and socialists, lost substantial support; for the first time in
four decades, they lack enough seats to form a “grand
coalition” majority. The Greens, (market-friendly) liberals,
and populists gained while more right-leaning conservatives fell

At the national level, Germany’s Social Democrats were
humbled and its Greens advanced. Britain’s hapless
Conservatives were crushed by the newly formed Brexit Party.
France’s and Marine Le Pen’s populist National Rally
surpassed President Emmanuel Macron’s party, while the
traditional ruling socialists and conservatives each lost more than
half their EP seats. And Italy’s right-leaning populist Lega
took a strong first place. The Left won only in Spain and Portugal,
while losing in Greece, whose prime minister had called a snap
election. As Belgium’s electorate further fractured, the hard
right nearly quadrupled its vote share.

The EU will survive, but it can do little more in such an
environment. To regain public confidence, it needs to redefine its
responsibilities. That is, it should focus on doing what individual
countries cannot do, or at least not do well.

The most obvious continental task is defense. Some observers
worry that Europe with a weaker or perhaps no EU would become
isolationist or align with Russia, neither of which is likely.
Moscow no longer inspires much fear except along its borders;
moreover, the Europeans obviously enjoy their independence. More
fantastically, some EU fans suggest that without the supposed firm
yoke of Brussels, World War III might break out. That seems
especially unlikely on a continent filled with countries that
refuse to create serious militaries. Europe’s once
overwhelming propensity for war is thankfully gone.

However, the EU could take on a more positive role, offering an
affirmative defense strategy and force. Today, NATO plays that
role, but in practice that acronym stands for North America and The
Others. Only the United Kingdom and France have serious militaries
capable of meaningful independent action. Most European governments
spend little and poorly on their armed forces because they see few
threats and expect the Americans to take care of any dangers.

Which, as President Trump has articulated imperfectly but
loudly, is unfair to the U.S.—and no longer necessary, 74
years after the end of World War II. Alas, badgering and
begging—modus operandi for Republican and Democratic
administrations alike for years—won’t change anything.
The Trump administration has won only symbolic military spending
hikes, while actually increasing America’s
contributions of manpower and materiel to Europe’s defense.
Only the credible threat of leaving is likely to change the
Europeans’ behavior. But why only threaten? Washington should
plan to leave, handing over ultimate responsibility for the
continent’s defense to Europe. The EU could even help create
a European-run NATO.

The vision of a United States of Europe still burns bright in
the hearts of many Eurocrats. But as the latest elections
highlighted, the continent continues to fracture politically. The
European Union could best reclaim a vital role by taking over
Europe’s defense from America.

Doug Bandow
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special
assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign
Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal