Frances Cowell adds to the debate started in a recent piece by Ken Sweeney on a European confederation and it should be considered as next stage in the development of the EU.

More agreement than disagreement – the army debate

Indeed, Federalism could be viewed as a sort of continuum. I for one do like the idea of a United States of Europe. But realistically, the operative word there might be “idea”. And my liking this idea may have a lot to do with the fact that I am European by naturalisation: I was not born French or Irish or German, and I identify as European (I was born Australian and still am). Ask me if I think a European army is a good thing and I will say Yes, I certainly do. Were I born French however (or Czech, or Polish), the idea might conjure images of German troops billeted in French (or Czech or Polish) homes. (I am from the generation whose parents fought in WWII – indeed my father stopped a bullet in the Mediterranean.) Imagine a European army with servicemen and women drawn from each EU country according to population. Now imagine introducing conscription to that army. Stop there and take a deep breath – nobody is seriously proposing it!

But politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. While I agree that it is high time Europe started to use its heft in global affairs (and I’ve written to this effect, on occasion), it can do so only with the consent of its citizens and, alas, in that respect there is much to do before we can think about, for example, a conventional European army.

Europe is facing many urgencies, including security, fiscal, demographic, commercial…. I would argue that the most pressing is to (re)win the hearts and minds of it citizens. This is where we get into practical possibilities.

While European army may sound just plain scary to many, security cooperation and even joint training and military exercises sound much more benign. Joint R&D and procurement, interoperability of equipment. These are areas where Europe’s scale introduces possibilities that are unthinkable for individual nation states. To start with, current defence budgets can be made to go much further. Much of this of course is already being done, without major objections, but more can and should. Whether that ends up as a European army or not will depend on whether it is seen by Europeans as necessary and desirable.

The fitness program for health

A similar story holds for health care. Combining R&D and procurement resources can bring costs down massively, making existing budgets stretch much further. You don’t have to impose a European health system from above to offer someone a more speedy hip replacement in, say, Germany than could be had where that person lives. For that you need not another European bureaucracy, but cooperation between national systems. Again, we already have our European health cards, so you can go to the doctor while you’re on holidays in Spain without worrying about how much it will cost. Much more can be done to make people’s lives better in very practical ways.

And the rest…

Anybody noticed we don’t have roaming charges any more? We didn’t need a United States of Europe for that, and plenty more integration of telecommunications can happen without uttering the Fed.. word.

Next stop is get banking charges down. Won’t we be pleased when that happens and we don’t get stung by extra credit card charges because we used our MasterCard on holiday? Again, lots more to do on that before we start talking about political integration. The euro has many critics, and is hardly problem-free, but nobody really wants to go back to francs, lire, peseta and drachma.

I haven’t started on things like infrastructure, development of disadvantaged regions, which do more to combat inequality than any amount of social welfare transfers. Here again, the possibilities at EU level dwarf the resources available to individual states. All of these achievements are happening continuously and quietly. You get the picture.

Two divisions

I also haven’t mentioned the two-speed Europe. One can see the appeal, but I fear it would do the hearts and minds challenge no good, as it would risk being perceived as the A team and the B team. But it would be a good debate to have I think.

The hard bits are immigration and fiscal union. Both do conjure fears of “loss of sovereignty”, so are likely to precipitate lively debate and acrimony, I think. Unfortunately, both are also pressing, which nobody really pretends to have a solution to these (or not a serious one, anyway), and of course neither do I. But I would say that both could become much less neuralgic with more hearts and minds won over to what Europe does for ordinary people in their everyday lives – such as security, health care, telecommunications, education for their children, employment possibilities.

Europe has many urgencies, but the one that gets talked about too little is, in my view, the need to remind Europeans why they are better off with Europe than they were, or would be, without it. Get that right, and the other challenges become a bit more tractable.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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