The case for a federal Union: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Guy Verhofstadt, Debout l’Europe!

The authors’ call for radical reform of the European Union, in effect turning it into a United States of Europe has, regrettably, more passion than reason. A very worthy cause is not adequately served by inconsistencies in logic and tactics. Read on…


The case for a federal Union: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Guy Verhofstadt, Debout l’Europe!

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Regular visitors to these pages will be aware that I have earlier this year issued two open letters to MEP Guy Verhofstadt which are deeply critical of his public positions aimed at discrediting elections in Russia and the legitimacy of its government. I have called his statements ill-informed and suggested that he is being manipulated by the close-minded Russophobes from the Baltics who are his allies in the Liberal bloc of the European Parliament over which he presides.

In the present essay, I take a rather different stand. In writing about a federal European Union, Verhofstadt is working in a domain he knows perfectly well and where he has been a pioneer for many years. Moreover, his basic cause is one that I completely share.

Debout l’Europe, which Verhofstadt co-authored with the leader of the Green bloc in the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, is an impassioned call for radical reform of the European Union, in effect turning it into a United States of Europe.

Though the exact matrix of power in the new federal Europe is only sketched briefly and is described variously in the first third of Debout l’Europe (the Manifesto) versus the latter two thirds (recorded conversation of the authors with Jean Quatremer, a journalist for the Belgian newspaper Libération), the guiding principles are the surrender of most sovereign powers by the Member States to the new federal entity and the democratization of the EU’s central institutions. The European Commission, presently consisting of technocrat commissioners appointed by the heads of state acting as the European Council, would become a genuine cabinet of ministers drawn from and answerable to Parliament. The President of the Commission would be either appointed by the Parliament or elected directly by the people. The European Council would be merely the upper house representing the States in a bicameral legislature.

The new federal entity would be given taxation authority, collecting for its own needs 10% of the European GDP. It would command its own armed forces and its own diplomatic corps. It would have responsibility for setting socio-economic, budgetary, fiscal, foreign policy for the Union.

The book, which came out in September in a number of different language editions across the Continent, has generated some interest, especially in Brussels, the home to the EU’s central institutions and a city where at least some part of the population knows very well its former Prime Minister Verhofstadt and follows his political démarches.

The Belgian daily Le Soir underwrote a public discussion at the Bozar auditorium on 4 December with business leader, former Vice President of the EU Commission Count Etienne Davignon presenting the speakers to the public.  The audience numbered 1,700 of whom 200 had been specially invited by the sponsors.

At the same time, my tried and true stand-in for the vox populi, the reader reviews on and European websites of Amazon turn up just a handful of comments, mostly tepid. The most serious review of the book which I have seen thus far,  by Dessislava Yougova, on the website of the Library of the European Parliament,  concludes that the authors’ project is presently ‘utopian,’ hardly a vote of confidence from a favorably disposed reader.

In the brief essay below, I propose to examine what I believe are both logical inconsistencies in their reasoning and tactical failures of the authors which must be corrected as they move forward with their cause if it is to have any chance of success.

* * * *

The authors’ arguments in favor of this proposed reform are multiple, and I will turn in a moment to several others of them. But the single argument which is most attention-grabbing and immediate is related to the ongoing crisis over the euro.

The simple logic which drives large institutions anywhere is: ‘if the watch tells time, don’t fix it.’ Thus, earlier in the new millennium Verhofstadt realized that it was not opportune to promote European federalism, since the European economy was doing just fine and it seemed to most folks that a slightly modified Maastricht formula of make-believe economic coordination across Europe and cheap credit was working wonders in bringing leading and lagging countries together.

It is precisely because the mainspring of the European economy came unsprung in the worldwide financial panic of 2008 and has not since recovered that the authors decided to seize the moment and bring to the attention of their readers a long held vision of where the European experiment must necessarily be taken next.

 The authors tell us what we are living through is not an economic crisis but rather a political crisis arising from the failure of European leaders to take hard decisions back in the 1990s on creation of a genuine European state when they launched the project for the common currency. Now, according to Messrs Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit that state must be built post haste in order to go beyond the half-measures, always too little, too late that have characterized the past three years of the crisis. The markets will believe in the viability of the euro only when there is political consolidation of all Member States into a new federal State which gives concrete expression to solidarity, mutuality of obligations and taxation authority at the heart of the Union.

Failure to do this will lead to unraveling of the euro zone, and necessarily to the unraveling of the whole European experiment, resulting in a serious blow to the prosperity and security of the European peoples.

The problem with this argument is the time line for realizing the revolution being proposed. Per the Manifesto, the federal Union will come only after several years. First there will be the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. Then, assuming the revolution has been well prepared in advance, the newly elected parliamentarians will declare themselves a Constituent Assembly. This ‘Convention’ of the peoples’ elected representatives will draft the Constitution of the federal Union which will then have to be passed by a referendum in each Member State.

To be sure, the kind of blockage of reform in the passage through unanimous referendums which arose the last time the EU tried to pass a draft Constitution  (rejection by French and Dutch voters was fatal to the process in 2005) would be averted now. Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit propose that this time any country which does not pass the referendum will simply drop out and those countries which do adopt the Constitution will automatically constitute the new federal Union. In the 4 December discussions at Bozar, Verhofstadt cheekily suggested that countries like the U.K. which may be expected to opt out may be offered a privileged relationship with the Union, similar to what is now available to Turkey.

However, the fact that the reform being proposed is a radical change, reaching for federalism at one go, and that it will be achieved, if at all, only three or more years from now in the scenario of Messrs. Verhofstadt and Bendit-Cohn means that the federal Union cannot save the euro, whose fate will be sealed in the next  year or two. 

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see that this past weekend none other than Jacques Delors, who perhaps has done more than any living European leader to carry what had been merely a free trade area into a close political association bordering on a proto-state, and who always has held federalist convictions, publicly called for a new European treaty in which the EU Member States would abandon sovereignty in those areas necessary to save the euro.  Delors always watches his Ps and Qs, and the word ‘federalism’ does not appear in his remarks. Instead we hear of ‘harmonization of tax regimes, an effort at cohesion inside the euro zone.’   His carefully chosen sop to nationalists: that ‘the social systems under economic control must depend on the decisions of national policies.’ And instead of declaring war on Frau Merkel, as Verhostadt and Bendit-Cohn openly do (see below), Delors uses the readiness of the German Chancellor to consider passage of a new Treaty as a lever to persuade President Hollande of France to drop his opposition. If indeed Europe’s co-directors spoke with one voice on the desirability of a new Treaty, the cause of political consolidation would be greatly boosted.

While Delors’ final objective will be clear to all political actors, there is no grandstanding in his approach, only the search for face-saving language to bring euro-skeptics on board the train and to do so here and now. Instead of giving the U.K. the finger, Delors speaks of finding some kind of accommodation with the U.K. (presumably outside the revitalized Union).  Moreover, when the reform measures are focused on support for the euro, we may assume that the markets will take notice and reduce their pressure on the sovereign debt of the periphery countries without awaiting ratification of the new treaty.  I rather doubt that the markets are very much interested in democratization of EU institutions and whether the role of the European Parliament is enhanced per se.

In general, the authors of Debout l’Europe adduce too many different arguments for their proposed radical reform. Having four different reasons in one Manifesto does not make it four times stronger. On the contrary, the weakness of any one argument makes the entire project that much easier to reject.

I have in mind particularly the argument advanced in the Manifesto that links a federal Union with the cause of the Greens’ political agenda.  It is argued that the fate of Europe’s competitive advantage in the world and health of its economy depend on moving to green industry, meaning the development of equipment and solutions for alternative energy.  The level of R&D required to do that is beyond the nation-states and will come only when there is a shared industrial policy and federal budget raised directly from the taxpayers.

I understand that this is the logic which Daniel Cohn-Bendit may use to sell the idea of a federal Union to his followers in the Green parties.  However, the inclusion of partisan policy points in a Manifesto intended to demonstrate bipartisanship is a tactical failure by the authors.  One can easily be pro-federalist and believe that the Green agenda destroys assets rather than creates them by its reliance on heavily subsidized industrial pursuits which work against current and possibly even future market forces.

It would be smart if now that the pebble has been thrown into the pond and the ripples are spreading, the Liberals and the Greens reached out immediately to other blocs, or, still better, began organizing a faction of pro-federalists that cuts across all party lines among Euro-parliamentarians.

Two other closely interrelated arguments presented in Debout l’Europe for a shift to a federal Union appear to me to be very persuasive, indeed sufficient to carry the whole project forward on their own. The first is that Europe must bulk up to deal with globalization, in particular globalized financial markets which regularly flatten nation-states and have had the still disunited Europe chasing its tail these past three years. A new super-state like federal Europe with a solid reserve currency would share the stage with the USA, Japan, China, India and hold its own against the markets. This argument finds protection for Europe while not disputing the validity of the globalized world, the response so far by some backward looking and protectionist heads of state in Europe in these times of crisis.

The second other argument on ‘bulking up’ Europe by its becoming a State, is that this is the only way the Old Continent can retain a place for itself at the world’s board of directors, the G-8.  The GDP of every one of Europe’s nation-states will be bypassed by one or another emerging nation in coming decades. And without a place at the table, Europe will be an irrelevancy, will be unable to advance its values on the world stage and to protect itself from the agendas of those who do sit at the table.

I believe this is a very strong point, though the identification of the G-8 as the world forum is disputable.  Ever since relations with Russia became strained early in the new millennium, the United States, which calls the shots in such matters, has tilted heavily towards a forum where the Russian presence would appear to be diluted, a forum where there is simply more room to bring into world governance the fast growing emerging nations, namely the G-20, which the States assumed would follow its lead.  As things have turned out, Russia has found itself more comfortable in the G-20, where it ‘bulks up’ with fellow BRICS countries, so the given forum is likely to remain the board of directors for the world preferred by all sides as we move forward.  And in the G-20 there will be room for the most powerful individual nation-states of Europe for a  longer time than the G-8.  Nonetheless, the overall weight of Europe will be incomparably smaller if just one or two European states have a seat than if all 500 million of its citizens were represented at the board.

In closing, I wish to congratulate the authors of the book for breaking with Political Correctness and saying what many professional observers of the European political landscape see and discuss privately, but never in the public space: that Europe’s current travails are due not merely to the buck-passing of past leaders who did not take the politically difficult decisions on national sovereignty when they launched the euro zone project in the 1990s, but to the lack of vision and cowardice of today’s heads of state and government across the Continent. By cowardice is meant specifically the failure to lead, to move ahead of public opinion towards a personal vision of the future. Instead of statesmen, we have politicians who are led by their own pollsters and follow public opinion.  Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit are very right in taking issue with Nicolas Sarkozy, with Angela Merkel and with others who have made the wrong decisions by choosing to do nothing, or too little. In the case of the French, there has been the search for illusory protection within their own state boundaries. With respect to Germany, the authors have rightly pilloried Chancellor Merkel for her primitive insistence on austerity budgets as the way back to fiscal health without any stimulus to restart Europe’s failing economies. Under German tutelage, the economic experience accumulated over the last 80 years of world and European pump-priming has been forgotten.

But now that these words of negativity are out and about, it is time to move on, to open bridges to the retreating adversaries and to lead a pro-federalism movement with the positive message that is clearly ready to hand.

It is also time to take the federalist message out beyond the political elites who are both the problem of our day and the audience for Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit’s book.  The authors must find a way to bring on board the mass movements across Europe which are protesting against the misguided austerity measures which their national presidents and prime ministers have imposed on them while those presidents and prime ministers avoid taking the only step that can successfully end the crisis: giving up some of their powers to a federal Union. 

Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit mention their hopes for the 2014 elections to the European Parliament.  But in the time scale of electoral politics, those elections are looming. Organization of a pro-federal party or coalition to run candidates for 2014 is an urgent matter of today. Securing funding for the educational campaign ahead should be done today. These issues require immediate attention, not book signing ceremonies or panel discussions in Bozar if their cause is to succeed.

Verhofstadt is fond of citing practices from American history. In similar situations of decisive contests, in the United States it is common for parliamentarians to give up their seats so as to be free to campaign full time for the issues they hope to master at the next elections.

In any case, in parallel with the pro-federalist campaign for the 2014 elections, it would make a great deal of sense for the authors to make common cause with Jacques Delors and to help on the ground in Brussels to prepare the much less controversial limited transfer of sovereignty to Brussels needed to save the euro.

It will be interesting to see what follow-up there may be to Debout l’Europe.


Post Script, 29 December:


On the subject of tactics, I draw the reader’s attention to the peculiar pricing structure for sale of Debout l’Europe in the various European countries.  In Belgium the list price is 11.90 euros; in Germany, it is 8 euros; in Italy it is 10.00 euros; and in Greece….it is being distributed for free.  Aside from the fact that free copies by definition have no value to their acquirers, this marketing decision suggests that cross-subsidies are already built into Mr. Verhofstadt’s concept of a federal Europe, all of which gives a bad signal to the markets and to his prospective supporters.

And with respect to the road show, whereas the choice of Etienne Davignon, Belgium’s most connected businessman-statesman, as presenter in Brussels was brilliant, I note than in Italy, for example, Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit shared the podium with an odd couple. Indeed, none could be stranger and possibly more injurious to his cause than the controversial mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, whose name is associated with the far right parties and who has attracted the support of skinheads. This does not sit well with the multiculturalism that otherwise Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit have woven into the fabric of their Manifesto.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.