Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Future of a United Europe

by Levi Crews

To say that the European Union is a fragile construct is an understatement. Calls for dissolution have become more prevalent as Great Britain looks to exit, an austere Germany scoffs at compromise, and the Mediterranean countries need billions to fend off bankruptcy. But it may be too soon to dissemble an infant union that is the first of its kind. The political philosophy of old, while incongruent with the EU project on the surface, may be able to provide clarity. Although Machiavelli and Rousseau, as representatives of that political philosophy, would think the European Union’s future as a stable construct is improbable, the extension of their logic—viz. viewing each nation as an individual in the state of nature with others—can be used to justify the EU and its further consolidation.

The economic asymmetry of the Eurozone is a base for Machiavelli and Rousseau’s skepticism. The inequality between nations should preclude the republican form of the EU, for differences in wealth often require differences in policy. Consider the differences between Germany and Greece. The former is an austere nation with the sixth largest GDP in the world; the latter, a prodigal debtor with a negative GDP growth rate (CIA World Factbook). How these two can be equal partners in a republican body would befuddle Machiavelli, who would claim the necessity of a principality to overpower such differences (B. I, D. 55). This sentiment would be echoed by Rousseau, who claims that economic asymmetry requires different governments (B. III, Ch. 8). But different policies are not the only obstacle: the increase in vigor necessary for such an overarching body as the EU to be functional requires a corollary increase in payments from member nations (B. III, Ch. 8). With the Machiavellidistribution of wealth awry, these payments will be disproportional among countries. We can only assume that disproportional payments will lead to calls for a similar distribution of power—such asymmetry cannot exist in a system that binds a nation to the wills of other members.

The dilemma of inequality extends to the union as a whole, i.e. differences in customs and norms should not be subject to a common authority. The heterogeneity of the EU, then, which is defined by contrasting and deeply-rooted cultures, poses a central problem for legislation in the Eurozone. No community ties or homogeneity can be used as a base for laws. Then, to Machiavelli’s disappointment, laws cannot be normative, for norms require a common concept of moral action. Neither can they be natural, as Rousseau desires, because there are but weak natural relations between such disparate cultures and economies (B. II, Ch. 11). The only solution for such shaky laws is a strong prince (B. I, D. 55). The European Union, however, lacks any cohesive authority, instead having a mix of councils and commissions that have yet to systematically consolidate.

The most adamant objection to the European project, however, is the impossibility of surrendering Sovereignty. According to Rousseau, “the Sovereign, drawing its being wholly from the sanctity of the contract, can never bind itself, even to an outsider, to do anything derogatory to the original act” (B. I, Ch. 7). If it does so, it self-destructs. Now, one must recognize that the EU is an economic union at present, and thus does not require the complete annihilation of national sovereignties. But Rousseau continues on to state that a Sovereign cannot “alienate any part of itself” without losing its identity, for the Sovereign is an indivisible and inalienable construct (B. II, Ch. 1-2). This is where our interest lies: each member of the EU that accepts the euro as its currency is forfeiting its monetary powers. By Rousseau’s logic, this is an impossible action. Each member has surrendered a part of its sovereignty, viz. that which controls its economic policy, and as such should no longer exist independently.

If economic policy is proved to be separate from the Sovereign, however, then each EU nation is still whole, and, as Rousseau concedes, “in relation to what is external to [the state], it becomes a simple being, an individual” (B. I, Ch. 7). Let us here focus on the dependence of politics upon economics. Economic freedom is a means toward political freedom (Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom). If economic freedom is a means, then it is by nature a predecessor, and that which is a predecessor cannot be part of the product. The production of economic freedom, then, is not part of the Sovereign, a political construct, despite their close connection. Economic freedom simply supplies the model for free and equal transaction within the state. With economics now isolated from the political Sovereign, each state can be viewed as an individual actor.

But is the government capable of acting as an individual without the expressed and overwhelming consent of the people? That is, is EU membership legitimate? If it can and is, the EU is then a union of European states and not necessarily that of European peoples. Here we point to Rousseau’s statement: “between things disparate in nature there can be no real relation” (B. I, Ch. 4). When engaging with State Y, State X acts as an individual. The people of State X have no relation to State Y itself, for they are of disparate natures. The EU, by extension, is a union only of states, not of peoples, and thus is a legitimate construct.

With the collective individuality of states now proved, states can be seen in a state of nature among each other. By state of nature, I mean only a state in which there is no authority capable of enforcing cooperation (Miller, Managerial Dilemmas). There is no world government, only the empty sanctions of the UN and disdain of human rights activists, to impose order between nations. Each state is originally free to change policies—in this case, economic policies—at their own discretion.

Nevertheless, trading the state of nature for union is not necessarily a natural development. Each member nation must have assessed the utility of the union before joining. What was the overwhelming incentive to surrendering original freedom and equality? The answer is twofold: (1) access to the largest unified market for goods and labor, and (2) a roadblock to the ubiquitous European fear of a third continental war. The appeal of the former is obvious, so it needs no explanation. The latter, however, is peculiar to Europe, and thus requires specificity. The two World Wars of the early twentieth century and the Cold War of the latter half instilled in Europeans an aversion to intracontinental warfare. The euro, then, was meant to be a sort of forced alliance among members. No two member states could attack each other, in theory, for the EU Headquarterseconomic pain of the loser would be the economic pain of the winner, too. The money supply could not be changed, financing could not be easily attained, and economies could not be mobilized without cooperation between the warring nations.

The concept of reciprocity rises to a head here. When a member state joins the union—or when any individual joins a state—the liberties it forfeits it then supplements with those of all other members (Rousseau, B. I, Ch. 6). In other words, the economic authority each member surrendered to the EU is offset by a share in the same authority over all other members. Thus, when Spain’s economy is ailing, the French can help create measures to combat the recession. As time progresses, the roles can  reverse, and Spain, via the EU, can then aid the French. Such symbiosis can keep the Eurozone perpetually stable.

With the EU so depicted, why would any nation refuse to opt in? More bafflingly, why would any nation want to opt out? The  only possibility is that the union is not symbiotic by nature. That is, not every nation experiences benefits simply by joining. The common currency, however, has created an artificial symbiosis: if the euro were to dissolve now, every nation in and affiliated with the Eurozone would experience drastic drops in GDP. Thus, a nation must accept the euro as its currency on top of joining the EU for it to be beneficial. An inconsistency with Rousseau’s ideas presents itself here, too. Opting out should be an impossible act in his state. In the EU, however, this need not be so. Rousseau’s conception of being bound to the social body relies upon the extent to which those bounds are mutual. Since not all EU members experience mutual benefits, not all EU members are bound to the union.

This is where the argument needs to be parsed delicately. As states, member nations have maintained their sovereignty in the strict sense that they can exist without the union. That is, when they are in a state of nature among each other, they are not necessarily in a predicament. As individuals, however, seventeen of twenty-seven members (recall, the acceptance of the euro is not a requirement for EU countries) have surrendered to the union monetary powers, making their economies codependent. Nevertheless, they maintain all political sovereignty and all potentiality for economic sovereignty. The other ten members, we can conclude, are nominal only, maintaining all former powers.

With regards to a solution for the Eurocrisis, then, the transition from state of nature to union must be complete. A central authority that can enforce cooperation is necessary to back the euro, for it is a fiat currency and is thus only exchangeable if it is stable. The European Central Bank needs the puissance to regulate banking, debt, and budgets. Execution of these fiscal policies must be consolidated under the European Commission. The European Council may need to be given more power over transportation and foreign affairs to facilitate intra- and inter-market transactions. This is all quite obvious with quasi-Rousseau logic, for a union as large as Europe entire must have a highly centralized authority (B. III, Ch. 1). Any further cession of sovereignty to the union would, however, raise further questions of the independence of member nations.

This is not to say that the EU was always a good idea, nor that Machiavelli and Rousseau would have simple support or protest for the union, only that further consolidation is justified based on the current monetary interdependence of the nations. Nor does this argument preclude the possibility of democratic nations electing representatives on a platform of EU dissolution. The people always have the power to change their government, but their government alone has the power to change, or conjoin, their economy.