The Future of the European Union
Will the war in Ukraine finally unite it?
“There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations.”—Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen, talking about the UK in the conference Road To Brexit, 2017
The surface of the entire EU is about the size of the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil, or Canada.
With 450M inhabitants, the EU sits between China’s and India’s 1.4B and the US' 330M.
Its GDP of $17T is slightly lower than the US’ $21T, but is the same in ppp1. It’s in the same order of magnitude as China’s ($14T; $24T ppp).
In summary, the EU has what it needs to be a global superpower. It’s a geographic unit like the US, China, or India, and similar in size to them. It has the money, population, military spending, potential... And yet it has acted in the past few decades like a backwater: barely consulted in decisions made between Washington, Beijing and Moscow; bullied militarily by Putin until the war with Ukraine… Why?
The EU is small because each one of its countries think they’re big.
The country with the biggest surface in the EU, France, is smaller than Texas. It’s about 40x smaller than Russia.
Germany’s population, the biggest in Europe, is 15x smaller than China’s. It’s a third smaller than the population of the Chinese Guangdong region.
Within the EU, only Germany has a higher GDP than the state of California. Italy’s GDP is between those of New York and Texas.
The European Union is like other superpowers when considered as a whole. But its individual countries are comparable to regions within other superpowers.
If European countries are so small, why do they think they’re at the same level as the US or China? Stories and histories, of course.
Europe was lucky to develop faster than most regions at the right time, birthed the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and with that type of power, it conquered the world. Within the last 300 years, European countries have colonized nearly all of America, Africa, Australasia, and big chunks of Asia, including all of the Indian peninsula, Indochina, Russia, and parts of the Middle East.
It had an outsized impact on the economy of the world: together with its American offshoot, at its peak its economy was 80% of the world’s, less than a century ago.
Just before World War 2, Europe was still the dominant power in the world. One world war and 70 years later, its countries can’t move past their former glory, they can’t unite into one single country, and as a result, it’s weak.
How is this history preventing the EU from uniting?
The European Disunion
1. Military Build-Up
This is what a British journalist thought about Europe just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
“Vladimir Putin likes to say that playing chess with the United States is like playing against a pigeon: It struts around the board, knocks over the pieces, shits everywhere, and then declares victory. Playing chess with Europe, in contrast, must be like playing with a child who has forgotten the rules of the game, claims to have invented new ones, and then sulks when no one wants to play.”—Tom McTague, The Battle for the Future of the West, The Atlantic.
Unable to defend itself after WWII, two superpowers—the US and USSR—split Europe in two and defended their half.
For the last 70 years, and especially the last 30 since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has just focused on prosperity, letting the US (and until 1990, the USSR for the east) take the lead in security. This works in a world led by trade. Not one led by violence.
But violence is always there, even when you don’t see it. The threat of violence is the reason you pay your taxes, why you don’t break the law. At any moment, the government can seize your assets and your freedom.
So it is for countries. Trade makes everybody richer, and makes physical violence appear less relevant. Technology pushes lives to remote work, metaverse living, and mathematical currencies, making physical violence feel odd, abstract. But the threat of violence is always there, lurking. It feels surreal until an armored vehicle rolls over a car2 or a missile hits your central square.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine, Europe had forgotten this reality3. It was escaping from the PTSD of WW2. But the more it ran away from its nightmares, the less it could open its eyes and realize that it only takes one side to make war happen.
Nowhere is this more true than in Germany, the richest, most populous, most powerful country in Europe—and the cradle of Nazism. Germany has looked at itself in the mirror, and its conclusion is that it can’t be violent, ever again. It prefers economic development. Russia knew this and took advantage of it with their gas pipelines and disinformation campaigns. Europe will be prey to its nightmares until the unwilling leader of Europe wakes up and decides to face reality again.
The UK is another culprit of this. Its biggest historical nightmare was a united continental Europe. It spent centuries playing European countries against each other to weaken them, lest it be overwhelmed by a European behemoth—as it nearly was with Napoleon and in both World Wars. As a result, for as long as it was in the EU, it pushed the brakes on any military union while having the biggest military spend in Europe.
Until Europe unshackles from this type of military fear, it will be at the mercy of those with guns. You can’t be a world power if you don’t control your destiny.
2. Cultural Union
This is the European Union’s motto: United in diversity.
This is the actual motto of the EU! The only thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common.
It assumes that Europe is just a bunch of countries that matter more than the whole.
Europe adopted this motto because of its very different, very strong regional differences, including its many languages and nationalities. But that’s the same for every empire: the regions of China, India, Russia, or the US all had striking differences before they united. They’ve just been at it longer than the EU.
The Han have been unifying China under their power for 3,000 years.
Moscow has been unifying Russia for over 400 years (and yet it’s still ultra diverse).
The US had 13 independent colonies when it declared its independence, and added over time regions that were Native American, Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, Russian, Hawaiian, British, Filipino…
The fact that many see these as a unit, but not Europe, is the result of an accident: the fact that we live in the early 21st century.
Of course there are differences! Focusing on them is banal. It shows that Europe cares more about highlighting the differences than what it has in common.
Of course France is not like Hungary! Of course the north is colder and richer than the south. Of course some countries are more liberal than others. But as a citizen of the US and two European countries, it’s clear to me that European countries are much more alike than they think. Here’s a quick list of ways this is the case:
America obsesses about not regulating anything. Europeans understand some industries are better liberalized, and others are better regulated. For example, every European has access to quality public healthcare and nobody questions the system. Meanwhile, the US enshrines that life is an inalienable right—with a $2,000 deductible.
America is torn by culture wars, suggesting that race or gender are some of the biggest sources of inequality, forgetting that wealth concentration is probably a bigger driver of inequality. Europeans are much more comfortable understanding that redistribution reduces inequality, and that increases social harmony. The cost is worth it.
America is so hell-bent on its right to bear arms that Americans have more weapons per capita than Afghanis (or any other country). The murder rate is also higher in the US than in Afghanistan. To face an armed citizenry, police must be well-armed, and they are given obscene powers in the United States. As a result, I’m much less likely to question authority in the US than in Europe—exactly the opposite of what the right to bear arms was meant to achieve6.
I gave a shot at stand up comedy at one point. This was before Brexit and Trump, but despite all the time that has passed, it’s still relevant—very unfortunately. I am glad I did not continue walking down the path of standup comedy…
Europe has a shared past that dates back 2,000 years. Its influences have been the same, from Greek culture to Roman culture, the Church, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, the emergence of Nation-States, the colonial period, the world wars… Despite recent immigration, its countries are racially and culturally similar, as Europeans quickly discover in their Erasmus student exchanges. It isn’t united in diversity7. It’s united in values.
As long as it focuses on its differences, each country’s sovereignty will prevail. And the more sovereignty stands at the country level, the less power the Union has. Until European citizens realize that their nationalism weakens the European Union, the region will be weak.
So Europeans must put Europe first. For that, though, you need a common project that everybody is excited about. But what is that project?
3. What Does Europe Stand For?
When Turkey asked to join the EU, it received empty promises for decades. Why?
Some say it’s because Turkey is far into Asia. It shares borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran. Can Europe extend so far?
Why does that matter? Ask a European, and 9 times out of 10, they will stutter.
Some say it’s because Turkey has not made enough legislative progress towards the principles of the European Union. But which precise laws does Turkey not respect? Ask any European citizen on the street, and they won’t be able to tell you.
What most European citizens think, but fewer dare to say, is that Turkey’s problem is that it’s a majority Muslim country. To many, this is a deal breaker, because European countries, they say, are Christian. That’s true historically, and it’s true it has influenced its values. But not all European countries are majority Christian8, the vast majority of European citizens don’t identify as Christian, and the Enlightenment ideas that birthed the EU are rooted in secularism. So what, exactly, is the problem with being Muslim? What values does Europe stand for that Turkey doesn’t live up to9? I’ve had this conversation with dozens of Europeans, and not once have I been able to get an answer.
France has Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
The US has Life, Freedom, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
These values are burned into every citizen of these countries. They help them make their big decisions. They are top of mind when they identify their enemies, who to fight, and what they're fighting.
What is the equivalent for the EU? The equivalent is human rights10.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts with the equality of all human beings, including according to gender and religion, and emphasizes throughout its articles freedom and no abuse of power by the government.
Equality of religion is the reason why Turkey should be a candidate to the EU, and why the European knee-jerk reaction against it isn’t right. But this goes both ways. All of the above are questionable in Erdogan’s Turkey, who has been in power for over 20 years, and who has led the country down the path of more authoritarianism, less freedom, and less equality. These are the issues that don’t make Turkey an imminent candidate to join the EU. Not the fact that it’s a Muslim-majority country.
Europeans’ inability to explain this is a calamity, rooted in the fact that Europe doesn’t talk about its common values, focused as it is on diversity and trade. The European Union doesn’t fight for anything. It doesn’t stand for anything. Until Russian tanks invade Ukraine.
Turning the EU into a Superpower
European nations have been so obsessed with their own glorious past, avoiding war, and pushing economic growth, that most of them—especially the big ones—haven’t realized they are small nations yet. Once they realize it, they will be ready to shed their baggage: their national identities. Only when they build a European identity stronger than the regional ones will Europe be ready to unite. Will they become a true nation.
The weird thing is that Europe invented the playbook for nation-building. It started applying it early on: a beautiful flag, soundbite motto, a milquetoast anthem, a capital… But after some time, it was led astray and forgot to finish.
The first rule of a nation is that you need to decide what you stand for. The EU stands for human rights, but you never hear that. It’s not central to the discourse. Human Rights are not encapsulated into a catchy little sentence that everybody can recite. Until they become central to everything the EU does, Europe won’t unite around its values.
The second rule of nation-building is that you need every citizen to understand the same sources of information and to debate their ideas. You need one single language to unite everybody. Here, national pride is the perfect illustration of Europe’s weakness. Every language is spoken at the EU level, and everything is translated into all languages, so that every country feels it’s at an equal footing with every other country. I think it’s ridiculously inefficient: it wastes a massive amount of time and resources, reduces mutual comprehension, and highlights national differences rather than European unity. So the EU should stop wasting people’s time and accept that while everybody should have their own languages, everybody should also speak one common language—and the only valid candidate is English. Make it co-official in all countries, teach it to all kids, and within a generation you’ve got half a nation.
Historically, the very first thing that regions do between themselves is trade. But trade doesn’t make countries. What makes them is military unity. This is what transformed the United States of America from 13 colonies into one country. The only justification is to support their own foreign policy. But isn’t the very point of the EU that we’re too weak separately? Aren’t we stronger together? What’s the point if the EU doesn’t share its foreign policy? Sure, sometimes some EU countries won’t have it their way. But the point of unity is you win more power than you lose sovereignty.
So here are five necessary ingredients to make the EU into a global superpower:
Focus more on what Europeans have in common than on their differences.
Put universal human rights at the center of European discourse.
Make English co-official across the EU.
Unify the military.
Unify the foreign policy.
Without that, the EU will remain a backwater.
Ukraine Bleeding Blue
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a terrible crime. But it could turn out to be the best thing that happened to the European Union.
Having a neighbor that fights an existential war for your values at your doorstep, begging for help and wiping their blood with your flag, can change your mind and heart.
For the first time in a long time, the European Union is united in defending its values. All countries are condemning Russia, supporting Ukraine, and most are sending weapons, including France, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Poland, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Greece, Romania, Czechia, Croatia... Even Luxemburg chipped in. And, for the first time in its history, the EU is financing the purchase and delivery of weapons to a non-EU country.
Germany’s volte-face is probably the most radical, going from the post-Nazism, forever-atoning country, to committing to reach 2% of GDP in military spending, and immediately raising the military budget by €100B in 2022.
Aside from its military commitments, the financial and economic sanctions that the EU is applying are historic and game-changing. Accepting higher gas prices, Russian assets write-offs, and lower sales across the continent would have been anathema just days ago. Now, European citizens demand to cut gas from Russia, celebrate SWIFT bans, and rush to welcome its refugees.
Over the years, comfy Europe learned to put well-being before values. For the first time in decades, the EU acts according to its values.
In Chinese, the word for crisis is represented as the combination of “danger” and “change point”. This crisis, and the change of heart of Europe’s citizens, is an opportunity for unity the EU can’t waste.
Changing hearts can help the EU move in the right direction. But the reasons why the EU is where it is are not just due to values. There are systemic issues that have prevented it from forming a superpower. What are they? Why are they the way they are? What can be done about it? These are the topics I will cover in this week’s premium article.
Purchasing power parity
Even though, apparently, this was not a Russian tank but a Ukrainian armored vehicle. Still, this is the kind of image that makes war real, which is the point I tried to get across.
It’s not just resting on the US’ power. France has been trying to appease Russia for decades, because it sees it as a natural neighbor of the Northern European Plain. Germany, created out of thin air full energy dependence on its neighbor, and only when it saw the guns closing in did it turn around.
The Dunning-Kruger effect can be vulgarly translated as “dumb people are so dumb they don’t realize they’re dumb”. Interestingly, this effect might in fact be simply the result of a statistical effect, and not truly exist.
And like the Dunning-Kruger effect, apparently it doesn’t exist, like the intelligence of this motto.
And don’t tell me it’s meant to make a government tyrannical takeover impossible…
“United in diversity” either means that diversity is the thing that unites Europe (how can it? Diversity might make you better, but it doesn’t unite! Every single place on earth with diversity is less united); or that Europe is united despite diversity, in which case the motto doesn't call out what unites Europe or what it stands for.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania are majority Muslim. Does that mean they won’t ever be able to join the European Union?
Or used to, before Erdogan.
I personally don’t think this is as good as it could be. One day, I’ll contribute a more substantial position on this, but in the meantime, here’s a quick opinion on what I think it should be: building on its anthem, the Ode to Joy, the European Union should fight for the pursuit of happiness. Things like life, freedom, equality, or justice are just the best tools to achieve them.