The EU’s diplomats in Washington are fuming. It turns out that they have been quietly downgraded by the State Department. Until now, the EU was treated as if it were a country for protocol purposes. President Trump has decreed that its status should switch from “state” to “international organization.”
Since states take precedence over international organizations, this means that the EU’s head of mission now has to wait in line behind the ambassadors of El Salvador, Chad, Tonga and every other sovereign entity. “I can confirm that this has not been well received in Brussels,” an EU official complained.
I’ll bet it hasn’t. Eurocrats are notoriously prickly about their status. They get especially irked when they are reminded that the EU is not a state. After all, they have spent the past half-century pretending to be one — or at least acquiring all the gadgets and symbols that go with statehood. The EU now has a currency, a supreme court, a parliament, a president, a diplomatic service, legal personality, and representation on international bodies. It also has a flag, a national anthem (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — a terrible thing to do to that sublime piece of music), a national day, and a passport.
The one thing it lacks, to the enduring annoyance of its leaders, is any real sense of national identity. Hardly anyone, outside the EU institutions themselves, feels European in the same sense that someone might feel Portuguese or Japanese or Vietnamese. The EU has the structures of statehood; but lacking any unifying patriotism, shared loyalty or common public opinion, those structures lie cold and inanimate.
That knowledge is what will make President Trump’s decision sting so badly. It’s not just the implied insult. It’s not even the fact that, hilariously, the man who calls himself “Mr. Brexit” didn’t bother to inform the EU’s diplomats; they just noticed that their invitations to receptions suddenly dried up. No, what has really upset them is the sense that this is part of a wider battle between sovereignty and supranationalism — a battle that the Trumpsters are winning.
In the decades that followed World War II, Euro-enthusiasts took for granted that the future was with regional blocs and global technocracies. But that was not how things turned out. The world did not coalesce into vast blocks. On the contrary, it splintered into smaller and smaller units.
In the 1950s, when the EU was formed, there were 60 states in the world. Today, there are 200. And while there are secessionist movements on every continent, from Catalonia to Aceh, there are very few campaigns to merge countries together.
For a long time, the EU liked to think of itself as the future. But that conceit became hard to sustain after the end of the Cold War as blocs fragmented and national loyalties revived. Everywhere outside Europe, sovereign states are in the driving seat. China, Russia, India, and the United States show no interest in forming continental unions with single currencies and Juncker-like presidents.
It used to be thought that you had to be big to prosper — or at least that you had to have a large home market. When trade moved at the pace of a sailing ship and money was metallic rather than electronic, perhaps that was true. But that is not the world we live in now. Where do you find the highest GDP per head on the planet in the 21st century? In Liechtenstein, Qatar, Monaco, Macau, Brunei, and Singapore. These days, the real advantage is in being lithe and agile, in having the shortest possible distance between government and governed, and in allowing decisions to be implemented swiftly, without statutory consultation periods or bureaucratic delays.
The United States, obviously, is not a microstate. But in many ways, it governs itself like a confederation of smaller entities, devolving powers to its states and even counties that the EU likes to hoard in Brussels. Different U.S. states compete to set lower sales and business taxes. In the EU, competition is frowned on, and Brussels keeps extending its tax harmonization powers.
European leftists often see Donald Trump as the walking embodiment of all the things they dislike about Americans — crass, swaggering, boastful, uncultured. In one sense, at least, they are right. His impatience with regulatory bureaucracies and his reverence for national sovereignty are indeed authentically American.
So, come to that, is his readiness to push both ideas without too much regard for diplomatic niceties. And this time, at least, he is dead right.