The European Union Needs More States, Not More Territory

The recent uproar over the upcoming vote on the potential secession of Scotland from Great Britain illustrates well the European Union’s foreign policy weaknesses. The EU’s potential to increase the number of states within its borders without having to expand its geographic space is an overlooked avenue to reaching a bolder, more sophisticated foreign policy.

Regional aspirations for more political autonomy have been voiced since the time of the creation of Germany and Italy in the late 19th century, but wars, nationalism, economic concerns, and fear of wars (along with the presence of the American military, of course) have largely kept these aspirations on the fringe of domestic political debates in Europe.

Steven Erlanger’s 2012 piece in the New York Times explains well why this is changing and what is currently happening in the European Union:

The great paradox of the European Union, which is built on the concept of shared sovereignty, is that it lowers the stakes for regions to push for independence.

Erlanger also goes on to quote a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations:

‘The whole development of European integration has lowered the stakes for separation, because the entities that emerge know they don’t have to be fully autonomous and free-standing,’ said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. ‘They know they’ll have access to a market of 500 million people and some of the protections of the E.U.’

The European Union has essentially taken the place of the nation-state as the chief entity in charge of standardizing trading policies in Europe. This political setup is a great opportunity for regions that have been absorbed into larger nation-states to assert more fiscal and political independence because of these regions’ new interdependence with a larger part of the European economy. The confederation has provided an opportunity for smaller states to emerge while at the same time providing these small state polities with a range of options and allies that are often missing from small states’ repertoires. The best of both worlds has a chance to flower: local governance and total participation in world trade.

This is better understood with a quick historical sketch of 19th and 20th century Europe in mind.

In the last decades of the 19th century the large nation-states of central Europe – Germany and Italy – had just been formed after centuries of being composed of hundreds of small polities. These small polities were parochial, and many of these polities’ elite factions had erected protectionist barriers around their small territories. These newly established nation-states were flanked on their eastern borders by cosmopolitan-but-despotic empires operating from Vienna, Moscow and Istanbul, and to the south were small Muslim polities haphazardly connected to the Ottoman Empire and economically dependent on Mediterranean piracy and Saharan trade routes. To the north and west: oceans and the seafaring, imperial regimes of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

A map of Europe in 1800 AD. Look at how many polities are in what is now Germany and Italy. Thanks goes to

The formation of these larger nation-states were undertaken, generally speaking, in order to unify territories considered to be connected under various broad cultural domains into a cohesive political units and mercantile trading blocs.

After Germany and Italy achieved political unification, programs geared towards creating economic spheres of influence within the territory of the new nation-states began to be implemented. The creation of nation-states in central Europe had the contradictory result of opening up free trade zones within the territories of nation-states while simultaneously erecting new trading barriers that targeted individuals and factions not connected with the new nation-states. Free trade won in the domestic arena of these new states, but it also lost out internationally.

The political unification of these nation-states did not go down well with a myriad of factions. The reasons for resistance were varied, but suffice it to say that there was an intense backlash against the centralization of power and the nationalization of everyday life in the new nation-states of central Europe.

To counter regional resistance, proponents of political centralization argued that political union halted the wars that had wracked Europe for centuries (the economic benefits of freer trade were touted as well, but this argument did not have the same clout as it does today). However, this intellectual argument was framed in nationalistic terms, so when it trickled down into the public sphere of European life what emerged was a solid case against regional fracture that involved one part peace and one part national chauvinism.

The end result of this was the destruction of Europe through two large-scale, horrific wars.

The European Union has succeeded where the nation-states of Germany and Italy failed: by creating a massive free trade zone that eliminates protectionism (as the German and Italian nation-states did), and the necessity of cultural chauvinism (“nationalism”)  to maintain legitimacy (which the German and Italian nation-states could not do), the European Union has provided Europe with an incredible opportunity to build a lasting peace.

Adopting a requirement for member states  to incorporate a constitutional option that allows for referendums on secession would be a bold move that would not only bring a higher level of sophistication to EU foreign policy, but also fluster Moscow without edging closer to its borders (think about the example this would set in Russia’s own self-styled federation).

10 thoughts on “The European Union Needs More States, Not More Territory

  1. Some good historical analysis here, but I’m not so sure about the conclusion. I certainly support a right for regions to secede, but not all EU member states recognise such a right. Spain is the obvious example, since while it gives a high degree of autonomy to regions, including enhanced autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque country, it does not recognise any right to secede except through a law passed by the Cortes (parliament of Spain), which is extremely adverse to allowing any procedure for secession. Greece has been extremely adverse to secession by Kosovo from Serbia, and does not recognise Kosovo, on the basis that a majority vote within a region-aspirant nation is not enough to justify secession under international law, if opposed by the nation from which the secession is taking place. I suspect there are some other countries with similar barriers to secession. They’d do well to recognise that right, but the EU can’t force this kind of change on existing member states since unanimous consent would be required for the necessary treaty changes, and even without that barrier, the idea of the EU forcing countries to accept a right to secede and then define when and how that right to secede, which could create conflict with counties like the UK which do recognise the possibility of secession by referendum within the relevant region-aspirant nation, as in the current Scottish vote. The time might come in the future when all EU countries might recognise a right to secede and then recognising that right could be a requirement for membership. However, it is not Putin’s Russia that would be concerned. Recent events in Ukraine show Putin’s agents fomenting violent secessionism in Crimea etc and a rigged referendum in Crimea. Of course Putin’s meddling is not the same a secessionism exercised peacefully and through fair voting, but such differences are likely to be overlooked by many in light of the still unfinished Ukraine crisis.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response Dr Stocker. You are far more an expert than I in this area (see, for example, his work at the New APPS group blog), so I’m glad my post was able to elicit such a response. I have just two strands of thought to answer your critiques. The first is that I wholeheartedly agree that such an undertaking is politically impossible at the moment, and probably will be far into the future. In fact, I think the EU federalist project has hurt itself substantially with the implementation of the ECB. I’d like to think that my own thoughts on expanding the number of states in Europe is as far from the technocratic elitism of the current federalists as it is from Maoism.

      With that being said, mine is more of a conceptual point and I think it’s one that is not discussed enough in relevant circles (including libertarian ones). To extend my thoughts a bit further, I view the EU as more of a peaceful competitor than a coercive threat to the nation-states dotting Europe. Now that states are locked into the EU, however delicately, Brussels provides an important institutional bulwark against state power. Bringing secession into the picture would have to work both ways, too. Just as there could be some sort of option for regions in nation-states to secede and join the EU as member states, so too would there have to be an option allowing nation-states or regions to exit the EU.

      This arrangement would be undertaken in a massive free trade zone (preferably one without a central bank), so secession would benefit regions at the expense of the nation-state, but considerations would also be based on what the EU can or cannot offer the nation-state. So if the EU continues to make bad moves and march towards an overly-administered state then the appeal of joining or staying in the EU would diminish. This, in turn, I think would be beneficial for individual liberty because you have three levels of governmental power – regional, national, and international, peacefully competing for the hearts and pocketbooks of Europeans.

      If states such as Great Britain and Greece do not like these arrangements, the EU should bid them good riddance. If regions within states that no longer want to go along with the federalist project, the EU should gently court them. If anything such a courtship would prompt anti-federal states to pursue policies that will enhance individual liberty.

      Secondly, regarding Russia, my line of reasoning is based off of how I understand Russian politics to work. Moscow fancies itself as a federal republic. The Russian Federation’s official line is that it is composed of 85 federal units, including provinces, states, autonomous districts, territories, two federal cities, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (here is a relevant map). Of course, Moscow’s official line is very different from its actual policies. The federation is divided up into nine federal districts whose governors are directly appointed by Moscow, which essentially renders any locally-approved representatives of the various federation members moot. These federal districts are unconstitutional and exist solely for Moscow’s convenience in governing Russian citizens with an iron fist.

      The contradiction between the Russian state’s rhetoric of federation and the reality of Moscow’s authoritarianism would chafe at the prospects of a powerful neighbor that embraces decentralized government. The decentralized, secession-friendly EU would be wise not to pull any Crimea-esque stunts, but I think just setting a good example of what a legitimate federation looks like would keep Moscow on its toes.

      Again, I realize that my argument is not politically feasible at the moment but I am interested in informally teasing out this line of thought for the next little while.

  2. I cannot say that the subject is not interesting, but I cannot say either that Europe is ready to reshape borders, nor that it should open this Pandora’s box .

  3. I found one of the concluding statements a bit confusing, “bring a higher level of sophistication to EU foreign policy.” I may have missed it but I dont understand the connection that you are making between self determination within the EU and foreign policy. Can you please elaborate?

    • Thank you for such a great question, A. Herkenhoff. I understand federalism to be an association of states (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent entry on federalism if you’re interested; see also Dr Stocker’s work on the EU that I linked to in a comment above). So when states already intertwined with each other, as those in the EU are, begin to adopt rules that set into motion more peaceful (peace is not the lack of confrontation, but the ability to handle confrontation through peaceful means) competition they are by their very nature engaging in foreign policy. While it may seem like states that are already intertwined  engaging in further cooperation with each other is not actually foreign policy, it is. The experience that would be gained from interacting with each other on matters as abstruse as secessionism within federations would provide Brussels with important experience for engaging with the rest of the world (again, see my musings about Russia above). Does this make sense?

    • Yes, I see the point that you were making now. I find the issue of self determination within federalist systems to be fascinating. Most interesting is the question if a region such as Scotland secedes from the UK which is a member of the EU, would Scotland also secede from the EU or would they still be members of that federation? In the US most secessionist movements such as those in Colorado and California make that assumption that it is possible to break away from a state in the union and still remain in the union. Is that sentiment the same in Europe? Or will there be the expectation that Scotland will have to rejoin the EU? Very interesting indeed, I am looking forward to the results of the vote in Scotland.

      Also if you are interested in the issue of self determination you might be interested to know (or you may already know) that Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq, will be holding a referendum on independence. Thanks for a great article.

    • Thanks A.

      An independent Scotland would mean that Glasgow would have to apply for EU membership once it gained independence from London.

      This is potentially tricky because of the opposition to secessionist tendencies outlined above by Dr Stocker, and is precisely why a stronger federation is needed in Europe over the current confederation in place (and preferably a federation without a monetary union).

      You point out that “In the US most secessionist movements such as those in Colorado and California make that assumption that it is possible to break away from a state in the union and still remain in the union,” and this is because of the federal arrangement in the US (see here for the details on how secession works within the US federation/free trade zone).

      Thanks for the heads up on developments in Kurdistan, too (for readers unaware, here is a good BBC piece on the matter). I think that the recent decision by the EU to formally recognize any declaration of independence of Kurdistan from Iraq is a good omen for proponents of decentralization. This has political and economic ramifications that will extend deep into the heart of the EU project, as well as abroad.

  4. The reason they need more territory is due to the fact that the EU is an attempt to maintain an inflationary boom. The only way to do that is to inject new resources into the equation at lower prices than the artificially high prices brought about by the boom. Once those resources run out the boom ends and the economies crash.

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s