The future of Europe
Down with Westphalia
From The Economist print edition
SCEPTICS and enthusiasts for the European Union are united in one thing: they do not like muddle. The Europhobes want to boil the union down to a free-trade zone. The Europhiles want it to turn into a federal state. But Jan Zielonka, an Oxford-based political scientist, thinks this is a false choice. His new book suggests that Europe should adopt a “neo-medieval” way of looking at itself. It should have soft borders rather than hard ones, multiple overlapping structures rather than neat tidy ones.
That would have seemed very familiar to the continent's inhabitants in the centuries before democracy, capitalism and nation-states. Mr Zielonka believes that modern market economies too can co-exist and co-operate in a neo-medieval framework. Some will have the same currency, some may share military alliances, others will co-operate in law enforcement, but there will be no one single model, because there cannot be.
Mr Zielonka was born in Poland, and his polemical book is shaped by the idea that the eastward enlargement of the EU is not only unstoppable (not just Turkey but Ukraine too), but has changed forever the ordered world of the old EU. The new union is too big and too inchoate to act like a state, now or ever. Instead of “fortress Europe”, he argues, there will be “maze Europe”.
Muddle and incoherence are a hard sell. Jacques Delors, the brainy, spiky French president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, rudely referred to EU as an “unidentified political object”. Mr Zielonka may be right in his attack on the wishful thinking of federalist commentators who long to discern state-like features in the EU's evolution.
His shorthand for such thinking is “Westphalian”. The treaty signed in that German province in 1648 broke the Holy Roman Empire—which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, but the kind of fuzzy political entity that Mr Zielonka likes. In its place, the treaty created a Europe of nation-states, which survived for the next three centuries.
Mr Zielonka thinks that the Westphalian model is out of date and impractical. He has a point. But it is hard to see his ingenious neo-medieval model working smoothly. Fuzzy, overlapping political authorities are easy prey for powerful lobbies, especially protectionist ones. The EU's most Westphalian features are also its most vital ones: the commissioners who try to keep the internal market operating freely, and who try to unscramble cartels and allow cross-border mergers. That hints at a missing ingredient. Mr Zielonka's model would work more smoothly if there were an outside guarantor of free trade and competition, especially if perceived to have divine authority. A medieval empire with a free-market papacy? Perhaps Brussels is worth a mass.