Hobbes’s critique of the European Union

This Thursday, Shimer College hosted a lecture by Bob Keohane, a Princeton professor of international relations (and an alumnus and member of the Board of Trustees). The lecture started from Hobbes (which Shimer’s Social Science 2 students were reading just before the lecture) and discussed ways that liberal realists have attempted to develop international organizations to turn the international sphere into something other than a “war of all against all” even in the absence of any realistic prospect of a global sovereign. It was an engaging and interesting lecture, and the juxtaposition of Hobbes and contemporary international relations got my mind churning on a weird question: What would Hobbes think of the European Union?

It occurred to me that we do have one point of reference for Hobbes’s view of “international organizations,” given his extensive discussion of the one truly international institution of his time: the Roman Catholic Church. It seems to me that Hobbes’s critique of the RCC is essentially that it undermines the sovereignty of individual nations without having the strength to form a larger over-arching sovereignty of its own (the latter part being more implicit in his argument) — so in essence, it simply sows the seeds of discord and division by muddying the waters of whether Catholics should be loyal to their local sovereign or the pope. I wonder if Hobbes might view the European Union, and particularly the Monetary Union, in a similar light. To become part of the EU and especially the Eurozone, nations must give up sovereignty over their currency, which is one of the most important tools for managing a modern economy, and they are also significantly constrained in their fiscal policy. Even worse, the measures dictated are often very unpopular with local populations, prompting protest and perhaps eventually revolt.

Yet the EU itself has even less popular legitimacy than local governments, and its own ability to project power is very limited. The only arguable site of sovereignty is the European Central Bank, which until very recently was dominated by an overly limited view of its own powers that kept it from responding as decisively as, for example, the Federal Reserve has done to the economic crisis. (Even its more aggressive stance lately has been a matter of big words more than actions — after the declaration that the ECB would take “any means necessary” to preserve the Euro, markets reacted so positively that the Bank didn’t buy a single bond from the distressed Euro nations.)

Now the official position is that EU nations preserve their sovereignty, but the EU project has always been a bait and switch process — i.e., to incrementally introduce further levels of unity that will eventually cause problems requiring greater unity. The financial crisis sorely tested this model, but we are beginning to see a return to the familiar path in the form of the proposed banking union among Eurozone countries. The endgame is obviously some kind of federal European state, even if it takes many generations to achieve. Over time, that federal state may even evolve into a cohesive nation-state where, as in the US, the existence of member states as “sovereign” units is more or less vestigial.

Nevertheless, we are far from that result. In the meantime, the structure of the monetary union constrained the member nations from responding aggressively to the economic crisis, without offering much in the way of compensation for the lost sovereignty. It introduced a division between core and peripheral nations that often seemed set to break out into open conflict, though perhaps not literal war. And the “resolution” to the crisis has carried exhorbitant costs — essentially a “lost generation” in many of the peripheral countries, a category which now seems to include even Italy — that will surely undermine the legitimacy of the European project for a long time to come. The Greeks made the “correct” choice to elect mediocre technocrats to implement austerity when the other option seemed to be a neo-fascist government — but how long will it be until Greece or some other nation says “screw it”? Even if it never happens, the possibility will be ever-present as long as the peripheral economies are in the doldrums, a condition that the EU-imposed policies exacerbate and extend.

Hence it seems to me that Hobbes’s hypothetical diagnosis has a lot of truth to it.

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7 Responses to “Hobbes’s critique of the European Union”

  1. Will Says:

    I thought Hobbes might like the EU…. giving up sovereignty to secure peace on the back of cradling two world wars. The de facto execution of it he would probably find issue with.

  2. Lukáš Makovický (@SchizoPolis22) Says:

    My gut, when considering some of the work by people like Skinner is that (even despite his incredible influence on modern political thought) one has to be fairly careful about the concept of sovereignty as used in Hobbes. Probably one of the most interesting clues about the very difficulty of the concept and a kind of informal side to it is a discussion in De Cive going about like this – How do you make people obey? An army, you say… but how do you force the army?

  3. ambzone Says:

    Where is Syriza in your technocrat vs fascist scenario?

    Also, at which point does the current criminalization/militarization of labor conflicts transforms a “technocratic” government into a “fascist” one?

  4. Guido Nius Says:

    The only country that might say ‘screw it’ is the UK & the only reason for saying it is because the EU is too socialist. We can only hope that the end game, however long it takes to get there, is like the US but without civil war and that the end game is attained without sacrificing the social model common to most member states.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The neoliberal austerity model imposed on EU member states is a huge threat to the “socialist” welfare state. If Europeans are so concerned to preserve the latter as their unique heritage, then they shouldn’t have adopted an economic model that restrains budget deficits to arbitrary levels, shuns inflation above all, etc.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In my scenario, Syriza is a left-wing party that talks big when it’s out of power, but like essentially all left-wing parties in recent decades, would’ve ultimately implemented neoliberal reforms once they were in power.

  7. ambzone Says:

    You’re probably right sadly. I’m thinking of Argentina’s debt crisis and how every last “left” alternative turned out to be powerlessly compliant (or compliantly powerless).


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