On Sunday, French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a stirring speech to Germany’s national parliament following the 100th anniversary of the end of the first World War. The speech, delivered in Macron’s native tongue, was a rhetorical tour de force, a moving exhortation to embrace a “new phase” in the Franco-German alliance and in the European project.
On its face, the speech was an impassioned celebration of European identity, unity and friendship. But anyone who came away from Macron’s speech with the impression that it was just a “warm and fuzzy” piece of diplomatic showmanship would be very mistaken indeed.
For this historic speech set out a bold new path for European integration, involving the ever-greater fortification of Europe’s military, regulatory and financial powers.
As far as Macron is concerned, Europe is at a crossroads. On one side, there is the path of tribalist nationalism; while on the other, a new and more humanitarian era, to be secured by a strong, unified Europe with a robust Franco-German coalition at the helm.
Macron did not tire of repeating that Europe must be more “sovereign”. Only a stronger, more fortified Europe, Macron argued, can handle the problems of global warming, security, “fanaticism”, artificial intelligence, immigration, food security and financial regulation. Each country, Macron intoned, must “share and pool their decision-making capacity, their foreign policy, their immigration and development policies, a growing portion of their budget and even their fiscal resources”.
Furthermore, for Macron the consolidation of political and financial power at the heart of Europe, more than just a nice idea, is a vital necessity. We are “at a crossroads” that compels a choice between becoming more politically, militarily and economically centralised on the one hand, and spiralling into disunity and “chaos” on the other.
Significantly, Macron did not consider the possibility that there might be a third way between a heavily centralised EU, on the one hand, and a continent of war-mongering nations, on the other.
There is. It is hinted at already in a much-misunderstood principle contained in the European Union’s own treaties: the principle of subsidiarity.
Only a stronger, more fortified Europe, Macron argued, can handle a range of shared problems
Subsidiarity, rightly understood, acknowledges that small-scale organisations play a pivotal role in the constitution of social order and ought to be properly integrated into public decision-making processes. The logic of subsidiarity is the logic of freedom and good governance. All public servants should serve at the good pleasure of their masters, the citizens, and the organisations that those citizens erect, in good faith, to advance personal and common interests. Solidarity, in this context, would be a grassroots project, not a remote, depersonalised collection agency.
An EU that took seriously the fundamental role of civil society organisations in the constitution of public order would use its policies to promote a vibrant free market, incentivise local self-government and institute robust measures of fiscal decentralisation.
The Swiss Confederation is a living example of political and fiscal decentralisation, in which cantonal authorities have generous, constitutionally enshrined fiscal and regulatory powers not easily usurped by the federal government.
Interestingly, Switzerland outperforms most other European nations on key socioeconomic indicators, including public debt, employment, net household income, life expectancy, reported health and life satisfaction. Decentralised governance generates salutary forms of tax competition and political accountability impossible to replicate in highly centralised polities.
Refusing to draw larger lessons from the Swiss success story, Macron, like many of his European colleagues, assumes that the crises currently facing Europe are due to insufficient centralisation, and that the only way to avert disaster is to tighten the reins at the centre.
Now, there may well be specific policy areas where more governmental centralisation is desirable. Political centralisation – if properly authorised by civil society actors based on a compelling need for common co-ordination and held on a tight leash – is entirely legitimate.
Macron assumes the crises facing Europe are due to insufficient centralisation, and the only way to avert disaster is to tighten the reins at the centre
However, surrendering fiscal and regulatory powers willy-nilly to an aspiring superpower, in such a way that these same powers cannot be recovered except by an extremely costly act of secession, is a different matter. Smiling strangers asking to take one’s money for one’s own good are hardly to be taken at their word.
Furthermore – a possibility you rarely hear aired by European elites – a host of governmental dysfunctions, from gross inefficiency to corruption, may be induced by an excessive concentration of financial and regulatory powers in the hands of people who have neither the knowledge nor the motivation to wield them effectively. Not to mention the perverse incentives created when centralised governments channel taxpayers’ money into “bailout” funds to clean up after financially reckless banks and governments.
Macron is right that Europe is at a crossroads. But it is not the crossroads he imagines. We are not confronted with the choice between pooling our military, political and economic resources in a European superstate, and collapsing into anarchy and brutishness.
The choice we confront is an entirely different one. We can either doggedly press on with a failing experiment in technocratic governance and top-down administration, with a fresh crisis constantly on the horizon, or repurpose European institutions within a fiscally and politically decentralised union that adapts and learns from the successes of the canton-based Swiss Confederation.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain