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Germany's elusive goal of a European federal state

January 25, 2022

It's a vision that is even included in the deal underpinning Germany's new coalition government. But the dream of a European superstate has lost much of its luster and left Germany looking increasingly isolated.

An image from an art installation showing a person swimming underwater holding up a European Union flag
Image: Sven Hoppe/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's new three-party coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) shares the goal of turning the EU into a European federal state. But viewed against the backdrop of current developments, it is a hugely ambitious project and no other European government has the same zeal for integration as that expressed in the ruling coalition's governing deal.

Which is perhaps surprising given the bloc's long tradition of fervent visions for its future. Back in 1957, the Treaty of Rome spoke of the "ever closer union among the peoples of Europe." And in 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon echoed that striving for "ever closer union." Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, believed that Europe was like a bicycle moving ever closer towards further integration: "Stop pedaling and the bike will fall over!" These days, that kind of almost unquestioning commitment to a trans-European federation is rare. Indeed, the movement that came to be known as Brexit left the bike struggling to stay on track, in the biggest blow yet to a shared European future.

Konrad Adenauer (l.) and Walter Hallstein signing the Treaty of Rome
'Ever closer union among the peoples of Europe': German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (left) and State Secretary Walter Hallstein signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957Image: ANSA/dpa/picture alliance

Turning away from the EU vision

The UK had long been seen as particularly skeptical when it came to Europe. But on a visit to Berlin in March 2018, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte appeared to want to demonstrate that his euroskeptic credentials were second to none: "There has been this narrative that there is this inevitability of closer cooperation in a European federal state. This horrible language about 'ever closer Union' I don't like." Rutte rejected what he dismissed as the "romance" of an ever-closer European Union."

Even Donald Tusk, then president of the European Council, was quoted as saying at a European Business Summit in 2016: "Forcing lyrical and in fact naïve Euro-enthusiastic visions of total integration, regardless of the obvious good will of their proponents, is not a suitable answer to our problems. Firstly because it is simply not possible, and secondly because — paradoxically — promoting them only leads to the strengthening of Euroskeptic moods, not only in the UK."

And it was quite a setback when in 2005 the Netherlands and France — both viewed as staunchly pro-European nations — voted in referendums to reject a European constitution. The clear message was: the vision of ever closer unity did not represent the will of the majority of the people in these countries. A number of governments with far-right populist leadership or participation, for example in Hungary and Poland, also rejected further integration.

Federal Europe: 'Nobody really wants it'

So is it blind or brave for the coalition government in Berlin to ignore the current climate of cynicism and continue to push for a European federal state? Political scientist Johannes Varwick from the University of Halle told DW that it's not worth investing in the federal vision: "If the coalition parties really believe in this, then they will find themselves being caught up by the reality that is Europe. Fact is: nobody in Europe really wants it."

It was above all the Brexit vote that persuaded lawyer Daniel Röder to found the pro-European citizens' initiative Pulse of Europe. The aim was to come up with new ideas to galvanize Europe — and not just the politicians and bureaucrats, but also ordinary European citizens. Still, Röder admits he was "surprised" to see the goal of a federal Europe suddenly popping up in the coalition agreement.

Metsola wants to 'truly reform the European Parliament'

He is one person who certainly needs no additional encouragement to push for further integration. "When you look at the huge challenges that we're facing: climate change, integration, pandemics, the conflict with Russia and so on — well, you're not going to achieve much as an individual nation-state. And we can't leave everything up to China or the US, so we need further European integration." However, he adds: a European federal state "isn't necessarily the goal."

European or national solutions: Keep your options open

Just how much integration is ideal varies from issue to issue. In some areas, the EU has gone a long way towards becoming a federal state. Take the development of the single market, or joining forces in the export sector. In other areas, however, countries have been reluctant to give up on their sovereignty and instead focus on shared policy initiatives.

Refugees sit in an overfilled boat on the Mediterranean
Many current issues, including immigration, are not easily addressed via unilateral state actionImage: Mission Lifeline/dpa/picture alliance

The battle against the COVID pandemic has only underlined this tendency. Health policies are the prerogative of the individual countries — a reality that is welcomed by some and questioned by others. On the other hand, the EU did manage to pull together to come up with a huge economic recovery package designed to ease financial hardship caused by the pandemic.

The fund also illustrates how contentious joint projects can be. When it comes to money, the big question will inevitably remain: Who pays and who profits? For the more prosperous EU member states, the constant concern is that less well-off countries will try to draw them into some kind of arrangement that involves mutualized spending and mutualized borrowing.

The chicken or the egg

Johannes Varwick says that it might be easy to dismiss the very notion of further integration. Still, he cautions: "People should think twice before abandoning such a vision." Daniel Röder from Pulse of Europe, on the other hand, says that for him it's not about visions, but realizing that if you don't move forward, you're likely to end up going backwards.

Röder says that he sees the EU in the current stage of its development as a "fragile and often ineffective construction. Only when it is capable of assuming a more credible and effective role in the interaction of global powers, will it have more clout and greater acceptance, both internally and externally." It's a chicken and egg thing, Röder concludes ominously: "No acceptance means no advancement; no advancement means no acceptance. It's a dilemma that we must resolve — otherwise, I fear the worst for this union."

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