In 1992, “a new stage in the process of European integration” was marked by the Maastricht Treaty. Signed by 12 nations of Europe, each hoping to find greater strength and prosperity in an “ever closer union,” it created the EU as we know it today. Yet, even at the time, it was a divisive project: of the three states where a referendum was required to ratify the treaty, Denmark failed to do so on the first try, and France only succeeded with 50.8% of voters’ support. Three decades later, Euroscepticism is on the rise again: in 2020, according to a research project called the PopuList, 35% of voters chose Eurosceptic parties.
The EU responds that we need more Europe, not less. More funding, more laws, more cohesion—more Brussels at the expense of member states’ sovereignty. Unionists are convinced that European nations should be tamed, and their ambitions “curbed by a need to cooperate in order to succeed,” as a CIVITAS Institute brochure puts it. They also argue in favour of the single market and unity in the international arena.
Both may be useful but have their drawbacks if achieved through surrendering agency; an alliance is only a good thing as long as allies agree on their goals and methods. Pro-Europeanist arguments leave a lot of these drawbacks unaddressed. “Services, including financial services, can also be offered without restriction across the continent,” wrote The Week, presenting a Remainer position; this is technically true, but only if one does not take into account the suffocating regulations imposed on the financial sector. Funds Europe reports that the estimated cost of financial crime compliance for 2021 amounts to $213.9 billion, with 82.7% of that paid in Western countries. Corporate regulations are constantly updated as well, allowing individual states less control over their tax policies.
As for the international influence, smaller states can indeed have more than they would on their own—provided they fall in line and agree with their betters. Hungary, for one, often draws the ire of Brussels: the President of the European Commission recently threatened to suspend its funding over the grave sin of banning LGBT materials in children’s media.
This situation is an inevitable result of the “ever closer union.” Substantial reforms are required to resolve it. However, given the EU’s current course, such reforms are unlikely to be introduced. The alternative is a different Europe, one that existed for centuries before the Maastricht Treaty: a Europe made up of unique and independent nations, each with its own views, values, and policies. Their citizens could still enjoy free trade and easy travel after their countries agreed on the terms. Every economy could be regulated according to its own needs and be responsible for its success. Every government could be free to remain true to its principles. This is not to say that there would be no international pressure, but the system would not be so rigid, bureaucratic, and contemptuous of tradition.
But European history is one of war, point out the EU supporters. Surely the countries notorious for their ready use of violence need to be reined in by a supranational body. Otherwise, who can guarantee that a dispute about fishing rights does not end in carpet bombing?
They are not wrong. There are no guarantees. Instead, there is freedom, mutual respect, and common sense. It is entirely possible that our ambitions will one day lead to another war but replacing them with an unnatural and toothless European identity is not an answer. However, there is another way. Our ancestors were warriors―but they were also statesmen, diplomats, and thinkers. They have left us a vast legacy, including the concept known as the balance of power.
The balance of power was an approach adopted after the Napoleonic Wars. It was based on the natural competition between the great powers, wherein the growth and influence of one were always checked by those of its actual or potential rivals. This might seem like a conflict waiting to happen, but, in fact, it was a very stable system that relied upon each country looking after its interests. Stronger players balanced each other out, and the continent enjoyed an equilibrium that was both flexible and self-regulating. After Napoleon’s defeat, Britain and Austria chose to adhere to this doctrine: France was not humiliated and bled dry by the victors but allowed to re-join the Concert of Europe as a counterbalance to Prussia and Russia. This prevented another war of a similar scale for almost a century. Unfortunately, the lesson was not learned well. Germany was ravaged after World War I, and the balance was disturbed; World War II began just twenty years later.
With the rise of the global superpowers—the U.S. and the Soviet Union—the balance of power shifted accordingly. But the concept can still be used today to determine European states’ international—and sometimes domestic—policies. It is done through a natural process of accumulating power and forming alliances. At the same time, questions of trade, movement, joint projects, and security can be discussed and resolved at international conferences, which has long been an established practice.
Indeed, European nations are arguably more experienced in such proceedings than anyone else. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna was mainly aimed at rearranging European borders and dynasties, but it dealt with many other matters as well. The freedom of navigation for major rivers was guaranteed, the slave trade was condemned, and diplomatic law was codified for the first time. The Congresses of Laibach and Troppau raised the questions of countering revolutionary movements. In 1822, the Congress of Verona addressed the Greek Revolution and the possible overthrow of the Spanish regime. In 1885, the Berlin Conference decided the matter of Africa’s colonisation—with a deliberate motive being to avoid conflict between the European powers. Congresses settled conflicts and several more were dedicated to monetary policies. The system proved effective. Despite several relatively minor wars, limited and contained, the 19th century was a period of success. Economies grew, science advanced, and European influence increased worldwide.
Competition has always been a driving force behind the development of states. One may even go as far as to suggest that competition is among the primary reasons for their existence. Continuous universal cooperation is as unrealistic and unachievable as a communist utopia—and the EU’s internal disputes are proof of this. To put it at an extreme level: should the members decide to wage war against one another, Brussels would be unable to stop them on its own.
But even in their competitiveness, countries are never truly isolated or stop cooperating. International forums are held, treaties are signed. There are no reasons why Europeans cannot enjoy the same comfort level but based on agreements between individual states or via a multilateral convention, rather than the Union and its massive legal and regulatory baggage.
The EU puts little faith in the people of Europe; it prefers to oversee national policies—all for the common good, it argues—and to preach progressive values. It is a self-absorbed and overbearing organisation, drowning in red tape, one that costs billions to taxpayers across the continent. Most importantly, it does little that the member states could not do themselves, alone or in coalitions, but without a supranational government to meddle in their affairs.
Jean Monnet, French diplomat and a famous proponent of integration, had once said that “there is no future for the people of Europe other than in union.” But, in reality, there is no need for anything but a natural balance, supported by a pragmatic vision of international relations. History shows that Europeans can unite when necessary and address any problems without surrendering their sovereignty. As an alliance of independent members, they may be strong enough and flexible enough to face any challenges of the new era. But as parts of a federation, they will slowly succumb to the doctrine of uniformity and placability, eventually sharing the fate of every tired civilisation before them.
Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.