As the European Constitutional Convention assembles to debate the fine points of the European Union's future institutions, now is the moment to think the unthinkable about where Europe is heading. Or at least, to consider perhaps a quite different question: where would it be reasonable for the EU to move?
Communism's fall saw the appearance of several small states in Europe. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania reemerged from Soviet occupation. Czechoslovakia split into two separate states. Yugoslavia gave way to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia; it may perhaps shortly disgorge Kosovo and Montenegro as well. Although the Baltic republics merely reestablished their pre-World War II independence, and Yugoslavia's breakup was a bloody affair like so many other wars of independence, there is something tantalizing new in all this as well.
In the interwar years, the Baltic states were often viewed as impractical, artificial creations of the Great Powers. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into existence because their constituent parts were not seen as viable independent states. Why was this? Because 80 years ago, when Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George redrew the map of Europe, small states were dysfunctional in times of both war and peace. To be viable, a state needed to be large enough to defend itself and to constitute a relatively self-contained economic market. None of this holds true today. With the prospect of entry into the EU, national markets matter less. Both EU and NATO membership make war among European member states unthinkable, and an attack on even the smallest NATO member would bring a response from all NATO members. Lacking such external threats, the ties between, say, Czechs and Slovaks (to say nothing of Serbs and Croats!) are too weak to warrant a common national level of government.
Does this tell us something about the future of Europe as a whole? The difference between Czechoslovakia and Italy or Germany is mostly one of 50 years. After all, wasn't Italy, until the 1860s, a collection of kingdoms and principalities? Wasn't Germany's unification a matter of "blood and iron?"
France and Spain are older, but is the marriage of Basques, Catalans, and Corsicans with their national states that much happier than the former Czech/Slovak marriage? Is there really that much reason why the Scots and Welsh should be part of the same national state as the English?
Abstract for a second from the idea of French or German or Italian identity, patriotism, the collective memories of war and carnage that cemented the consciousness of today's linguistic communities and think of this: why do Europeans need an intermediate level of government, between the common European framework and their local institutions?
Why do Piemontese, Bavarians, or Scots need intermediate national bureaucracies to run their tax policies, welfare programs, securities laws, and the largely useless, duplicative armies? Wouldn't life be easier if a common market, currency, foreign policy, army, and a few other things were run on a Europe-wide basis, with the rest left to more meaningful local units?
It is fashionable to mock the bureaucratic minutia of European regulation. But European regulation is as nothing compared to the mountains of national laws and decrees, billions wasted in political patronage, and the colossal state machines that eat up 30 to 40 percent of the economic product of Europe's nation states. Could any common European state do worse?