'Never waste a good crisis' goes the saying in the European Union corridors of power, in Brussels. During the unfreezing of the old world order in the 1980s, when the Cold War ended, the supranational project saw an opportunity to propel itself forward with an expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. Again, when environmental crises like the hole in the ozone layer and climate change came to prominence in the 1990s, European institutions saw a gap in the market to show transnational leadership. They carved out a reputation for the EU as a green role model for other laggards, like the United States of America, to follow. As a result, the EU started to speak for member states on environmental issues and green regulation.
Now, with yet another unfreezing of the world order caused by the collapse of western economies and the rise of emerging powers – popularised by economists with imaginative acronyms such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) and MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey) – the EU may be ready to pounce again. The argument among federalists for a full scale 'United States of Europe' goes like this: the eurozone crisis is simply a symptom of shifting geopolitical power from the west to the east and advanced globalisation - meaning that European nation states need to gain critical mass by 'speaking with one voice', in order to remain as a global actor in this new multi-polar world where the G20 could actually end up being a G100. Such a diverse new world order could mean that it is not enough to be in a clique with America, via bilateral relations conducted through the separate diplomacy channels of each EU member state. No, European nations instead need to speak collectively to powerhouses like China and India - is the federalist thought process.
And in the febrile atmosphere of the single currency crisis, while Eurosceptics continue shout for a break-up of the eurozone – their Europhile counterparts serenely call for a deeper and wider EU. They are now quietly angling for a more comprehensive political, economic and federalist union. This argument is rarely reported by the media – partly because it is purely intellectual and hypothetical at the moment and not yet based in everyday reality. Unlike the possible domino collapse of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), which dominates the headlines. A doomsday scenario of EU implosion - as opposed to another creeping EU expansion in the form of debt mutualisation, Eurobonds and more besides - is much more likely to pull in the viewers and readers, editors and producers feel. Nevertheless, the integrationist sentiment is gaining momentum once again. Our Brussels correspondent Justin Stares wrote
this week: "So it goes that the next great leap on the road to a federal Europe - debt pooling - will inevitably play to the strengths of the EU institutions. These views are reflected in the European parliament, where diehard federalists also believe their moment has come."
Indeed, federalist poster boy and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt MEP previously told PublicServiceEurope.com
: "Either we stop the euro and go back to the nation state and we make a sort of confederation of nations as the Americans started to do in 1776 with the unanimity rule and so on. Or you go in the opposite direction, which is my proposal, and you create a real federation. Never waste a good crisis. This is the moment to do it. If we don't create a European federation now, it will be a huge mistake."
Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment when it comes to the grand federalist plan. Citizens are unlikely to back a downgrading of national sovereignty and democracy. Especially, when the European institutional elite shows no interest in tackling the long-standing 'democratic deficit' of the EU. Eurobarometer data has shown, time after time, that the 'permissive consensus' - which has existed since European institutions were created 60 years ago - is on shaky ground. People were happy with the European project when it simply prevented another war and boosted trade, but now as the EU seeps into every element of their daily lives without any possible recourse at the ballot box – they feel completely disenfranchised. It speaks volumes that the one democratic EU institution, the European Parliament, is the weakest of the union's organs.
A survey published by the Pew Research Centre this week describes a "full blown crisis of confidence" in the ideology and institutions of the union. Most voters are against further pooling of sovereignty and strengthened EU oversight of member state policy-making. Of course, history tells us that this lack of political credibility and legitimacy has never stopped the European super tanker from charting a new daring course in the past. Whether this technocratic approach is sustainable, though, is another matter. Rather than a European Utopia, it may instead bring about systemic collapse. It would be much wiser for political leaders to introduce effective democratic accountability chains now. An empowered EU politics and an empowered European demos would help to prevent federalist blowback further down the line. But do the great and the good in Brussels have the nerve to take the radical measures needed to achieve such a goal? It seems unlikely, despite the risks of not doing so.