Europe and America: parallel lives, centuries apart: The Union gets larger

By Adrian Taylor

The European Union is increasingly mentioned in informed media as playing a role in global politics and business. Most often it associated with trade policy disputes and anti-trust actions, but recently attention is also turning to its foreign policy role. Over a series of articles, the author, an English expert on EU affairs living in the US, seeks to outline how the development of the EU parallels the historical development of the USA, and thereby to enlighten the often confusing debates on what the EU is and does.

Moving east?

Endless US reports accuse the European Union of dragging its feet in expanding to Central and Eastern Europe. But the prospect of the Union nearly doubling in size from 15 member states to 27 makes the mind boggle. For once, a European’s sense of history can perhaps help to explain why.

The situation…

Today’s Europe has already added nine states to the original six in the last thirty years. Each and every enlargement was accompanied by soul searching, especially on how strong the central Union institutions should be The problem is magnified tenfold this time given that the expansion will almost double the number of member states. Indeed, more than ever before, this expansion is revealing some of the deeper feelings that are held towards the Union. Patently there is a split: some believing in strengthening the Union, whilst others ardently defend the member states’ rights. In consequence certain member states adopt key policies like monetary union whilst others refuse them, splitting the Union between “ins” and “outs”.

As if this were not enough, there is a north-south split on free trade versus protectionism in trade policy, sapping the strength of Union negotiators at a time when the world economy appears to be at the edge of a new technological era. On the geopolitical front, the former threat of Russia, which has a direct frontier with the Union in Finland, now seems peaceful. But what will be its longer term intentions? How will it react to the accession of its former imperial territories, like the Baltic states, to the Union?

…is not unique

More curious still: many of the factors describes above were also true of the United States of America between 1850 and 1861. That is to say, prior to what is variously called the “American Civil War”, the “War between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression”.

Just like the EU, the US had already expanded a number of times by then to include new states. One result was the “Missouri Compromise”, which some would compare to Europe’s “Luxembourg Compromise”, inasmuch as with both agreements each side agreed to disagree over just what states’ rights were, but accepted a working formula to carry on the daily business of government without solving the fundamental issue. Still states rights’ smouldered and faced with ever greater expansion, the South felt that its identity and economy was threatened by the North’s desire to abolish slavery and adopt mercantile protectionism. Likewise in the mid 19th century, the industrial revolution was unleashing its force in the US, much as the knowledge economy is doing today, destabilising many of the traditional social and political identities in the process.

As with the EU post-cold war, the Mexican threat had collapsed. However, would Mexico remain at bay permanently ? Indeed, would it accept the incorporation of more parts of its former territory into the US? Yet despite the geopolitical imperatives, the US hesitated for purely internal political reasons. Texas was forced to wait for annexation as Northern States were unhappy to allow another slave owning state into the Union. A shadow was also cast over the much bigger task to the West, as Southerners became more and more worried that the admission of more non-slave owning states would gradually reducing the veto power of the South.

The differences are important

Happily the EU is not the US of the mid 19th century. Some of the differences have already been hinted at. The “ins” and “outs” polarise on a single currency and judicial space instead of accepting or refusing slavery. The states which are potential members are well established societies with years of history behind them. The role and empowering ability of technology is very different, allowing instant communication over long distances. And most importantly of all, even if the EU’s institutions and law are clearly federal in nature, it has not sought to become a single nation state.

But hereby lies the key. The danger today for the EU is not civil war between existing states, but rather that centrifugal forces will tear the Union apart. This risk is reinforced by the failure of member states to perform sufficiently radical “constitutional” change in the current treaty reform process.

Lessons for the US

Today America should not be surprised that the very same fears of enlargement weakening the Union and the fight between “big” and “small” states are being voiced, echoing these US concerns of yore. In any case, given what happened next in US history, the State Department would do well to tone down its criticism of how slowly Europe is moving on enlargement.

Adrian Taylor is a Research Associate of the EU Center, University System of Georgia, and holds an honorary Professor’s position at the Sam Nunn School of International Relations, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA. He is currently working for Think Tools A.G. a software firm in Zurich, Switzerland. He can be contacted at The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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