The First World War, the Great Depression, the collapse of most European democracies, the Second World War: a continent in ruins and—with the Cold War—a divided continent at that.  What to do?  One answer came in a movement toward Western European unity.[1]  In 1949 came the European Coal and Steel Community (France, West Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries); in 1957 came the European Economic Community (same countries with a common external tariff, but no tariffs within the EEC); in the 1970s and 1980s came new members (Britain for example); in 1992 came the Maastricht Treaty that committed the members to ride the process as far as they could go; and the collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe.  The European Union (EU), as it is now called, started out with 6 member countries; now it has 28 members.  It also added various institutions of government.  These included a European Commission representing the member countries, a European Parliament, a Council of Ministers, a European Court to settle conflicts between national laws and EU laws, a President and a Foreign Minister, and a kinda-sorta common currency called the “Euro.”

Did it work?  Yes it did.  First, no wars have been fought between member states since 1945.[2]  Second, incomes have risen for ordinary Europeans: a recent estimate reported that the per-family income effect over just ten years has been a $6,000 increase.

So, people are in love with the European Union, right?  Well, no.  No?  Well, why not?

First, because the French used to count for a lot more than they do today,[3] so they had a large voice in designing the institutions.  These institutions bear a certain resemblance to the constitution of the first French Empire created by the military dictator Napoleon I.  The European Commission, with one appointed representative for each country, writes legislation.  The Commission then sends the proposed legislation to the popularly elected European Parliament. The Parliament can amend legislation or it can approve it or it can reject it, but it cannot initiate any legislation.  Legislation approved by the Parliament must then be ratified by the Council of Ministers, which is made up of more appointed representatives of the member states.  So, elected governments take forever bargaining with one another to achieve a moderately acceptable outcome.

Second, the EU’s government often fails to take action, but the “Eurocrats” issue regulations all the time.  Hundreds of thousands of them.  The regulations create common standards across all member states.  The European Court regularly decides that these regulations are superior to the laws of any protesting country.  To take one really absurd example, EU regulations banned bananas with “abnormal curvature.”

Third, because the Europeans have never settled the conflict over who they want to be.  On the one hand, many people see themselves as “Europeans-all-in-this-together.”  On the other hand, many people see themselves as, for example, “British-first-and-Europeans-second.”  The EU created a community where goods and services, but also people and money, moved around inside the community without any national boundaries.  Citizens of EU countries don’t need a passport to travel anywhere or work anywhere inside the EU.  Younger people often like this, but it freaks-out older people who still feel patriotism.

[1] “The endangered European Union,” The Week, 19-26 August 2016, p. 11.

[2] OK, you wouldn’t want to try to jump ship on the French Empire, but otherwise..

[3] Back in the day, the West Germans felt bad—or pretended to—about the whole unfortunate Nazi thing.  So, “working their passage” back to international respectability involved the Germans putting up with a lot of guff.  Now, they’re over it.

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