Saturday

10th Dec 2016

Opinion

For the United Statelets of Europe

Alfred Heineken did more than just brew beer. He also thought about things, like the future of Europe and how best to proceed.

"I propose a United Europe of 75 states," he wrote in a pamphlet published in the summer of 1992, "each with a population of five to 10 million inhabitants."

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  • Heineken called it "Eurotopia' - a contraction of Europe and utopia (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Heineken, a creative old man with a lot of time and money on his hands, was famous for having wacky ideas. And the one about Europe was quickly forgotten.

Alas. Because 20 years later, it is more relevant than ever.

Too big and too small

It has been said before, but never was it truer than today: European states are too small for international affairs and too big for everyday life.

The time is long gone when Germany or France was able to fend for itself on the global stage, let alone Luxembourg or the Netherlands. That is why today, there is Nato, the EU, and - for the time being - a single currency.

Take a look at the list of the biggest countries in the world in physical terms.

The EU's highest ranking member state, France, is number 43. Russia, the undisputed number one, is more than 26 times as big. Both China and the US are 15 times as big.

Now look at the list of countries by population size. Germany, the EU's most populous, is number 16. China, the world's most populous, has more than 16 times as many inhabitants. India has close to 15 times as many.

If the EU was considered a country, it would be seventh on the list of biggest countries and third on the list by population size. And, as officials in Brussels never tire of repeating, first on the list of biggest economies.

The time is also gone when people were ignorant and obedient. The time when they did not annoy their leaders with demands of transparency, efficiency, democracy and accountability.

Technological progress has always led to political turbulence, often at the expense of those in power. The Internet, just like the printing press before, gives people access to information and the power to create and distribute, undermining establishments everywhere - not only in the Arab world.

That is why states are doing what they need to accomodate an ever more demanding and emancipated people: decentralise. The UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy: all have passed down powers over the last couple of decades.

The closer the power, the more transparent, efficient, democratic and accountable it is.

Size matters

Everything which has a function, one could argue, has an optimal size. A pen can be bigger or smaller, you still need to be able to use it.

The European welfare state has multiple functions. It needs to protect its territory from outside, uphold the rule of law, provide healthcare, education, take care of the roads and the forests and - to a more or lesser degree - distribute wealth.

The problem is that each of those functions has its own optimal size and that, as the world continues to change, they continue to diverge.

The result is not that the state does not work anymore - it just does not work very well. Like a pen as big as a broom or as small as a splinter - you might still be able to use it, but it is not very practical.

It is a trend that will continue as long as technology continues to progress. China and other rising giants will continue to rise; the ruled will continue to undermine their rulers.

And then there will come a day - or has it come already? - that the European states of today do more harm than good, unnecessary obstacles between Brussels and Barcelona.

Heineken the prophet?

Of course, it is absurd. We have grown so accustomed to today's division of the continent that any suggestion to do otherwise gets a sympathetic smirk - at best.

But is it really so crazy? Take a step backwards and try to see the whole picture. It is not such a bad idea, a United Statelets of Europe.

We’d have a small, directly elected, federal government, and any number of local, similarly-sized state governments - not unlike in the US.

We would be able to make a stand on the global stage and at the same time decide on a local level whether to allow bull-fighting or smoking marijuana.

Much of our current problems would disappear: of finding a balance between big states and smaller states, of the north having to rescue the south.

Heineken called it "Eurotopia" - a contraction of Europe and utopia. He was well aware of the scepsis the idea would garner.

But radical times call for radical measures. And the way things are going, I prefer utopia over dystopia.

Philip Ebels is a Dutch freelance journalist working in Brussels. He is a frequent contributor to EUobserver

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