The Surrealist Political History of Europe


By Joseph Colomer.


Intervene. O descend as a dove or
a furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend.”
W. H. Auden, Spain (1937)

In order to understand the current political instability and uncertainty in several European countries, we should realize that after six or seven years of economic crisis the European Union is stronger and more efficient than ever. The Union has more member-states and more candidates than before; the euro has not only not broken down, against many odds, but has expanded to new countries; the Commission now controls the states’ fiscal policy and takes the initiative to lead investments on infrastructure for growth; the banking union moves forward and the European Central Bank is more active than expected just a couple of years ago; even the common foreign policy is taking steps forward.

Many reactions against “a closer union”, as put by the founding Treaty of Rome, are of traditionalist type, in defense of state powers that have already ceased working. Many citizens of the oldest and most successful large national states, that is, Great Britain and France, seem to retain the pride and memory of historic achievements and support parties that yearn the past, respectively the UK Independence Party and the National Front.

At the same time, the southern periphery risks being left behind the increasing continental integration, so in Italy, Greece and Spain many disappointed people resort to protest-parties that blame the euro, the troika and globalization, as Cinque Stelle, Syriza and Podemos. At the same time, in some territories emerge the illusion of separation from large states that have lost power in order to start a new journey, as in Scotland and Catalonia.

What all these disparate movements have in common is that they would like to restore state and nation, economic and political sovereignty. Fortunately, thanks to modern means of communication and transport, as well as the European institutions, sovereignties have ceased to exist.

The great nineteenth century English constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, analyzed comparable processes during the building of the American Union, namely the United States of America. The states are no longer sovereign –he noted—but they attract the loyalty of the people and are “prerequisites” to run the whole system.

They are, as the current European states, “dignified parts” that people still voluntarily obey because they retain “historical and theatrical” elements in their political ceremonies, including parties and elections for recruitment of personnel. But the “efficient” parts, which, in fact, work and rule,are in the nascent Union, which he recognized as “new and unattractive” yet.

This also happens in today’s Europe, where state democracies support the selection of rulers for the Union, but it’s the latter that makes many relevant decisions and that governs, in part, indirectly through state and local governments. Indeed, as also noted Bagehot, the Union concedes certain subordinate powers to the states, while it takes some ceremonial, dignifying elements for itself, but only as a supplement to the main design. (…)

Emerging from the crisis requires adopting the efficient model of the European Union also at state level. First of all, state rulers and representatives should share and participate in public policies developed in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Second, partisan confrontation should be replaced with super-majority coalition governments, following the example of the Union itself, as well as of Germany and other countries in the heart of the continent, in order to make European consensus policies implemented at state level.

This has been the way in Greece, where conservatives and socialists govern together and seek the reinstatement of the country to the European economic dynamics, as well as in Italy, where, after two years of governments of competent and independent experts, the center-left and the center-right also govern together and regain electoral support.

Rather than states dignified with traditional rites, the solution is the European model of consensus and efficiency. Although perhaps it is, as the American Union at the time was, still “new and unattractive”, the European Union works and rules.

This article was also published in El Pais. 

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