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Geopolitics

Why The European Union Has Changed Forever

The European Union has reached a historic accord, de facto unifying as one state by agreeing on a common debt. The EU now is a new form of society, in which sovereignty is shared reciprocally.

'The European Union is now a state...' A pro-EU rally last year in Prague
"The European Union is now a state..." A pro-EU rally last year in Prague
Sylvain Kahn

-Analysis-

PARIS — Is the longest European summit in history also historic? The answer is yes.

Indeed, the European Union is now a state. Not a so-called superstate replacing the 27 member states that make it up, but a state that includes them. We could say that the EU is now 28 states: the 27 separately plus the 27 together as one. Finally, the European state represents Alexandre Dumas' famous saying from The Three Musketeers: "One for all, all for one." The novelty that allows us to recognize Europe as a state comes from the fact that the EU will issue treasury bonds to finance a brand new part of its budget, which it calls the "recovery plan," amounting to 750 billion euros.

This historic development of issuing European debt corresponds to a social demand with weak signals that have existed for several years. Even though European power and its leaders are the subject of mistrust — as national powers and leaders have also been for the past 15 years — Eurobarometer surveys indicate that Europeans want a European solution to the economic and geopolitical challenges that threaten us. And while the euro is the subject of permanent and legitimate debate, Europeans are now particularly attached to their common currency: In just 20 years, the euro has won the confidence of citizens and investors large and small and has established itself as the world's second reserve currency. In fact, the national recovery plans adopted in response to COVID-19, the colossal sum of which amounts to 2.3 trillion euros, are only possible because of the guarantee of the European Central Bank and its worldwide credibility.

The advent of the European state is part of the evolution of the state in Europe. This history is often reduced to the rise of European nation-states following the French Revolution. However, this story spans more than 10 centuries. It includes many forms of statehood, and a plurality of states, each with its own singularity, as specific and different as, for example, the Holy Roman Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, Portugal or the United Provinces.

During the EU summit in Brussels — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

The still-young EU could be described as a "baroque state." Baroque, the great European artistic movement, is set in opposition to classicism through its circumvention of rules and subverting of forms, mixing genres and resorting to the exception. This is the case of the EU, which escapes the traditional classification of political systems as territorial state entities and is distinguished by its novel singularity. Based on state cultures inherited from a long history and a fragmented political geography, contemporary Europeans are inventing the "mutuality" of sovereignty.

Europeans can now shelve the ideological debate on whether the existence of the EU is relevant.

Negotiations on the terms and conditions of the plan are thus not limited to discussions between heads of government at the European Council. The agreement will then have to be voted on by the 27 national parliaments, themselves networked with the European Parliament and the parliaments of local states, such as the Belgian or Spanish communities and the German Länder. This "mutualization," or exchange of reciprocity of sovereignty, is democratic: It is deliberate, voluntary and negotiated, in contrast to the empires and conquests by kings and then nations of the past two millennia. Europeans do not form a nation but a society. For the past few decades they have been building a state that corresponds to this one: pluralist, unprecedented and forward-looking.

By this metric, the four-day, four-night series of debates are the manifestation of national governments becoming tremendously civilized in building this European state. They have become, together with the European Parliament, which is the direct expression of European society, actors of a deliberative democracy with its majority, its opposition (the so-called "frugal" countries) and its compromises. From now on, Europeans can shelve the ideological debate on whether the existence of the EU is relevant, and focus on the citizen's debate that confronts the real issue: Are we satisfied with the political choices and public policies made by the European "government?"

*Sylvain Kahn is a historian, geographer and professor at Sciences Po. He is the author of Histoire de la construction de l'Europe depuis 1945 (PUF, 2018), winner of the Mieux comprendre l'Europe book prize.
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