The history of the EU has registered both remarkable achievements and embarrassing failures. The earlier phase of that history focused on the creation of a common market through the elimination of trade barriers and the harmonization of business and financial law. The EU's greatest achievements lie in those areas, despite the irritations sometimes caused by seemingly petty directives.
The immediate aim in the earlier phase was to increase shared economic prosperity, but many of the protagonists had a higher and nobler aim: to make future European wars impossible. More recently, therefore, the EU has focused on creating pan-European political institutions. These cover all three areas of a constitution: legislative, executive and judicial. Here too, there have been achievements, despite the debacle of the so-called "European Constitution" of 2004.
Also the Euro project, which embodies both aims, may succeed. The verdict on the costs and benefits for the so-called PIIGS group of countries is not yet in. Certainly, it is convenient for those who, say, spend a few hours driving from northern France across Belgium and the Netherlands to northern Germany that they no longer need to carry four kinds of loose change in their pockets.
In short, many European politicians would like to create a federal Europe on the lines of the United States of America. But it is in the area of the political system that the failures of the EU are most evident. Besides the absence of a European defense policy and the incoherent attempts to conduct a common foreign policy, there are serious failures even in areas where at first things seemed to be going well.
The Façade of Pan-European Parties
One central feature of the US system, of course, is that there are just two political parties that operate at all levels of government, one leaning more to the Right and the other more to the Left. For some decades, Europe seemed to be going in the same direction. Power alternated between the CDU and the SPD in Germany, the PP and the PSOE in Spain, New Democracy and PASOK in Greece, the CDA and the PvdA in the Netherlands, etc. Not to mention the UK's Conservative and Labour Parties. Even in Italy, most of the multitude of political parties combined into a Center-Right alliance and a Center-Left alliance. The latter coalesced around the chief heir of the former Partito Comunista Italiano; this post-communist alliance has paid the US the ultimate compliment by renaming itself the Democratic Party (since 2007).
Emboldened by the apparent end to European history, the respective parties in the various countries banded together into pan-European Center-Right and Center-Left parties: the European People's Party and the Party of European Socialists. These are the labels under which they operate in the European Parliament. They hoped to enjoy the same cozy alternation of power, at both national and European levels, as the US Republicans and Democrats, whereby whichever party you belong to, your turn in government will come around. Alas, not long after these flimsy constructions were stitched together, they started to lose support among their various electorates -- and for very natural reasons.
Nationalism has always been a motive in the parties of the European Right. So the dilution of nationalism in the major parties of the Right has led to desertions by voters and even by prominent members to new parties of the Right. The list is growing: UKIP in the UK, the National Front in France, the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the True Finns in Finland, the Golden Dawn and the Independent Hellenes in Greece. Likewise in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria. While fascist leanings are manifest in some of these new parties, this cannot be said of the Independent Hellenes or the True Finns, for example.
Add to this the phenomenon of local nationalisms in various countries. The UK, Spain, Belgium and Italy are only the most prominent examples (see Addendum 1). Even in Germany the CSU replaces the CDU in Bavaria. It may be only the admiration commanded by certain CDU leaders, from Adenauer to Merkel, which has hindered the reemergence of nationalist rivals to the CDU on both local and federal levels in Germany.
The Left, of course, always had an internationalist orientation, but above all its aims were utopian. Participation in a united Europe, however, makes it harder to realize Utopia in one country. This explains how in Greece the Euro-skeptic SYRIZA has almost blotted out PASOK on the left, but also how the Dutch Socialist Party currently threatens to do the same to the PvdA. Both SYRIZA and the Dutch SP are ragbags of Trotskyites, Maoists and other militant utopians. In Germany, the SPD now has two serious rivals on the Left: the Greens and the ex-communist Die Linke. In the elections of February 2013, Italy's brief two-party system was shattered by the sudden appearance of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, which appeals to Trotskyite and chauvinist Euro-skeptics alike.
In the upcoming elections for the European Parliament (May 22-25), an even bigger surprise may be caused by a new Greek leftist party, "The River" (To Potami). It was formed only weeks ago (February 26), but rivaled New Democracy and SYRIZA in a recent poll (all three c. 13%). Other polls put The River well behind both of them, but leading the rest of the pack. The biggest surprise of all, however, is that an opinion poll in the UK has put UKIP ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives. This, although UKIP has never held a seat in the House of Commons, members of it have committed embarrassing gaffes in recent weeks, and it is a Euro-skeptic party competing in elections to the European Parliament.
Among further absurdities of maintaining a façade of transnational parties, George Papandreou was reelected President of the Socialist International in August 2012, although PASOK, his once mighty party, had been reduced to some 12% in the elections of that year. Today PASOK barely reaches 5% in Greek opinion polls.
One consequence of all this is the emergence of national governments in which former main parties on the right and the left, which used to alternate in power, are now united in a last stand against their new enemies all over the political spectrum. So New Democracy is in coalition with PASOK in implementing the unpopular reforms in Greece, just as old rivals are jointly ruling in Germany and Austria. The current Dutch government is a coalition between the largest parliamentary faction on the Right and the largest one on the Left (see Addendum 2). Also in Italy, the Center-Left and Center-Right ruled in coalition between April 2013 and February 2014. Similar scenarios are now imaginable in France (because of the National Front) and in Spain (as more and more regional nationalists enter the central parliament).
As if none of this were happening, those pan-European concoctions, the European People's Party and the Party of European Socialists, are campaigning all over for their respective candidates for President of the European Commission: Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg and Martin Schulz of Germany. They assume that, as in previous years, one of them will have it in the bag. But they, too, may be forced to unite behind a single candidate if the upcoming European elections produce a vast spaghetti of miscellaneous parties. And if not this time, then sometime soon.
Other Obstacles on the Path to a "USE"
So the vision of European counterparts to the US's Republicans and Democrats may be an illusion. As a sign of that, Democrats 66 -- which was founded in 1966 with the aim of creating a US-style political system in the Netherlands -- now seeks to emulate Germany. But there are also other obstacles to a "United States of Europe." Some of these obstacles are evident, some are known but underestimated, while others are unnoticed.
Consider the absence of a common language. English is now used as a second language everywhere, but there are more native speakers of German and almost as many of French and even of Italian. EU institutions have complex rules for the use of the continent's mass of official and semi-official languages. In the US, by contrast, Spanish is an official language only in Puerto Rico, although the total number of Spanish speakers has doubled since 1990 to nearly 40 million.
One consequence of polyglossia is that most Europeans have little idea of what is happening in other EU countries than their own. For example, the Greek crisis has long disappeared from European headlines everywhere except in Greece, where it is in the headlines every day. Nor is it surprising, since this is the first Greek government in history to have seriously tackled the institutional problems that have plagued the modern Greek state ever since its inception in 1832.
Another factor is the great difference between the electoral system for the European Parliament and the many systems used in individual countries. Indeed, the short-lived appearance of two-party systems in Greece and Italy was based on manipulation of the electoral system. In Italy the largest party, however small, is given an automatic majority of seats in the lower house. The same happens with the representation of each region in the Italian Senate. (This electoral law was declared unconstitutional in December 2013, but without retroactive effect.) In Greece, the largest party gets a bonus of fifty seats. In earlier years, when New Democracy and PASOK accounted for some 80% of voters, the bonus ensured that one of them would have a comfortable majority in parliament; now it gives an absurd boost to some party that gets less than 30% (June 2012) or even less than 20% (May 2012) of the votes.
Even the arrival of large Muslim populations has been handled differently in the two continents. Whereas Muslim ghettos and no-go areas have sprung up in Europe, the US has been more successful in integrating Muslims, despite recent worrying signs.
As an example of unnoticed factors, consider the phenomenon of party discipline, which is severe in Europe but hardly exists in the US. In the Greek parliament, whoever votes against the party line is immediately expelled from the party faction. An instructive recent case was Dora Bakoyannis (see Addendum 3).
British political parties are not so savage toward those who cross party lines. But unless you are Winston Churchill (who switched parties twice during his early career), if you ignore party discipline you severely dent your prospects of ever becoming a government minister.
It may be that the absence of party discipline is the secret of how the US has maintained a two-party system ever since the Republicans obliterated the Whigs in the 1850s. That flexibility facilitates the emergence of political consensus without disrupting party structures. But we do not expect to see it soon in Europe.
Addendum 1. Since 1997, the UK's House of Commons has had at most one Conservative member from Scotland in four elections. Currently, the Scottish Nationalist Party has an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament and has organized a referendum on independence for Scotland, to be held on September 18, 2014. Nationalist parties also have a majority in the Catalan Parliament, but the Constitutional Court of Spain will not let them to hold a referendum. So on September 11, 2014 the Catalans manifested their wish for independence by organizing a human chain from one end of their country to the other (half a million people along 400 kilometers of roads). In Belgium separatism is so advanced that there are distinct Flemish-speaking and French-speaking parties in the Flemish and Walloon areas respectively; if you live in the one area, you cannot vote for a party in the other (Brussels and its surroundings are the only exception). The Italian Northern League suffered severe setbacks after a financial scandal in 2012, but support for separatism remains high and nostalgia for the Venetian Republic (726-1797) is particularly strong. In the US, by contrast, even Puerto Rico's separatist movement polled barely 5% in the 2012 referendum; a near majority voted to increase the territory's integration into the US by becoming a state.
Addendum 2. In August 2012, as an earlier article noted, the Dutch Socialist Party was poised to become the largest party in parliament. A poor performance by its leader in the television debates led to a last-minute switch back to the PvdA by leftist voters, who were desperate to defeat the VVD (a party that has displaced the CDA on the right). To the fury of those same voters, the VVD and the PvdA thereupon entered into coalition. Today the PvdA is again behind the SP in the polls, but highest is another left-wing party, Democrats 66, which trounced the PvdA in the recent local elections. Nothing like this happens in the US, of course.
Addendum 3. Dora Bakoyannis, as a leading member of New Democracy, served as Foreign Minister during 2006-2009. In 2010, PASOK's George Papandreou, the last Greek prime minister to command an absolute majority in the Greek Parliament, negotiated the original rescue plan for Greece with the Europeans. New Democracy decided to vote against it, thinking that it could profit from popular fury against the plan and thereby win the next national election. But Bakoyannis decided to make a principled vote in favor, for which she was thrown out of the party. By 2012, however, the Greek Right was badly splintered and the voters furious with PASOK had gone over to SYRIZA. The elections of May 2012 produced a parliament so fragmented that no government could be formed. Then New Democracy belatedly formed an electoral alliance with the new party founded by Bakoyannis, giving it a slight edge over SYRIZA in the repeat election of June 2012. Had SYRIZA polled a mere 3% more and grabbed the 50-seat bonus, the Greek reform program would have finally collapsed. Such a scenario is inconceivable in the US Congress.