By definition, political or commercial unions that transcend borders are constructed from different components requiring both agreement and attention to sustain the federation or confederation. There exists no model or formula.
Following the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the collection of countries called Europe struggled for centuries to create a pax Europa, which was continentally shattered in the twentieth century by German aggression in World Wars I and II. Previous treaties among nations failed to bridge economic and political differences. Historically, some commercial cross-nation enterprises with modest success had existed, such as the Hanseatic League in the 12th century. Following the post-World War periods of reconstruction, the European Economic Community was formed in 1957.
In 1993, the European Union (EU) came into existence, with France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg as founders. Today, EU membership is 27 nations, notably with a common currency and no travel restrictions among member states. The vision of a united Europe had been a desire for more than a century. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) in a speech at the 1849 International Paris Peace Conference prophesied the organization:
A day will come when all nations on our continent will form a European brotherhood…. A day will come when we shall see … the United States of America and the United States of Europe face to face, reaching out for each other across the seas.
Stable democracy requires commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights. Recently, however, the rule of law and respect for human rights, particularly regarding immigration, have been challenged.
Membership requires demonstration of a stable democracy and adherence to a common system of laws within a single market, ensuring the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital within the union. Stable democracy requires commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights. Recently, however, the rule of law and respect for human rights, particularly regarding immigration, have been challenged.
The United Kingdom withdrew from the EU (Brexit), formally notifying members in 2017 before final departure in December 2020. Some observers attribute Brexit to a nationalist sentiment among the British, amplified by xenophobia. Immigration fears and respect for human rights have roiled internal political dynamics as well as cross-border relationships among a number of EU members, resulting in the emergence of nationalist political forces that conflict with the union’s founding principles.
In the United States, the stability and viability of its union was tested in the Civil War by way of secession. Unlike libraries or art collections, political unions do not carry within their founding a policy or procedure for deaccession, i.e., official expulsion of a member. There is no mechanism in the EU for expulsion but the representation and voting rights of a member that repeatedly engages in violation can be suspended resulting in an effective ejection. The financial implications and pressures would be substantial, as the UK is now experiencing in its trade markets.
Over several years, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, has risen to gain extensive political control propelled by a nativist and nationalist fervor championed by the leading political party Fidesz, headed by Orban since 1993. Among EU members, political matters are the mainstay of the European People’s Party (EPP). But, as in the UK, waves of immigration unsettled governance in Poland and the Czech Republic, creating a backlash conflicting with human rights. In 2011, Orban and Fidesz orchestrated the introduction of a new constitution criticized by human rights groups as curtailing freedoms and ideologically imprinted with the beliefs of its creators. Press freedom was curtailed and an overhaul of the nation’s judiciary was implemented with the removal of the head of the Supreme Court. Election law reforms favored Fidesz.
Coupled with complacency, Orban’s Hungary has survived criticism, bolstered by support from German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who left office in December 2021 after 16 years, as well as in Poland and the Czech Republic. In 2019, Fidesz was ultimately suspended by a vote of 193-3 from the EPP, which cited concerns about democracy and the rule of law. In 2017, the European Parliament initiated a suspension measure of Poland for similar conduct and against Hungary in 2018. Under existing treaties governing the EU, member voting rights and participation in financing can be proscribed.
The final authority to implement such measures rests with the European Court of Justice, which is expected to rule within weeks on the Poland and Hungary cases. Observers expect the Court to uphold the Parliament’s actions. Few are offering guesses about the outcome should the two recalcitrant nations refuse to comply with the decision.
While Brexit may be an example of orderly secession unlike that of the US Confederacy, deaccession may not be as effective as a war to compel cooperative participation in a political union. Military defiance to ensure noncompliance with expulsion is not likely in Europe as it was in the United States in the 1860s. Noncompliance with democratic principles in the US is, at least for now, limited to whether one political party will participate in a fair and equitable election process, including acceptance of its outcomes. That decision rests in the will of the party officials, both elected and unelected.
The parallel between the EU and US, although separated by an ocean and a universe of cultures, offers the opportunity to evaluate the extent to which social and political communion may be tested.