The United States and Europe: each to their own

In Europe, discussions are under way on an ambitious recovery plan to deal with the consequences of the major economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic. Following the joint proposal by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, the EUR 750 billion of additional expenditure proposed by the Commission should be financed through the issuing of debt instruments on the financial markets.

There has never been any equivalent of European integration elsewhere. Let us stop constantly looking to the past and instead turn resolutely towards the future.


The plan is still being debated by the heads of state or government, but it has also sparked debate among experts as to whether or not this is a ‘Hamiltonian moment’ for Europe, in reference to the mutualisation of debt in the United States in 1790.

The plan currently under discussion undoubtedly marks a turning point for the European project. However, the situations are so different that such a comparison is of little value. The temptation to try to model European integration on the process followed by the United States of America is nothing new. More often than not it is unhelpful, however. Let us stop always looking to the past and instead chart our own course.

Alexander Hamilton and US debt

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) was one of the heroes of the American War of Independence. He was a federalist and thus opposed those such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who were in favour of autonomy for the federated states. The American states had taken on heavy debts during the war, but the southern states had done so to a lesser degree than those in the north, and so were against the idea of mutualising debt.

Alexander Hamilton became the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury. It was in this role that in 1790 he managed to secure an agreement on the mutualisation of the debts incurred during the war, as a result increasing the powers and means granted to the federal Treasury, particularly those of a fiscal nature. Hence the use of the term ‘Hamiltonian moment’ to refer to this turning point in US history. Thomas Jefferson subsequently wrote that ‘of all the errors of my political life, this has occasioned me the deepest regret’.

Next Generation EU: a key turning point for Europe

It is with reference to this period that some are arguing that the plan put forward by the Commission would constitute a ‘Hamiltonian moment’ for Europe. There is no doubt that the Next Generation EU proposal is a key turning point for the European Union. Faced with the challenge posed by the deep economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic, it is essential that we put in place unprecedented means, not only to limit the social impact, in solidarity with one another, but also, despite the current difficulties, to prepare for our common future amid the challenges posed by climate change and the digital revolution.

The joint issuing of debt instruments that is now envisaged would give the EU the capacity to act by allowing it to finance the necessary investment. Such a development might at first glance resemble the events in America in 1790. But as others have already pointed out (external link), there are major differences which make the comparison unjustified.

The Commission's plan is not ‘Hamiltonian’

Under this plan, there is no question of mutualising pre-existing debt. That accumulated debt is the result not of a war waged together against a common enemy, but of a variety of national policies. Mutualisation of that kind – ruled out a priori by the Treaties – is not envisaged by the EU Member States. Rather, it is a case of limiting the additional debt incurred by the Member States as a result of the crisis triggered by the coronavirus epidemic. To a certain extent, we can view the virus as an external enemy attacking the people of the European Union, but the analogy with 1790 remains limited and unsuited to describing the direction the EU is taking today.

More generally, the parallel that has for decades been drawn between the various stages in the formation of the United States of America and the milestones of European integration is, in fact, almost meaningless. The United States brought together former British colonies which were culturally fairly similar and had existed for only a few decades. European integration involves the coming together of countries – many of them centuries old – which, despite a common background, have diverse linguistic and cultural heritage, and which have spent a considerable proportion of their history at war with one another. Particularly, and especially brutally, in the last century.

Europe and the United States: times change and so do customs

Moreover, the United States were formed at a time when multinational companies, communication technologies and internationalised finance were still in their infancy and when there was, as yet, little interconnection of national markets. European integration, on the other hand, has on the whole taken place concurrently with the intense globalisation of economies that we have seen over the last decades. Today Europe also faces challenges of an entirely different nature from those faced by the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. These include the ecological crisis in particular, but the geopolitical context is also completely different, featuring in particular the emergence of China as a world power.

So let us stop constantly looking to an American past and instead turn resolutely towards the European future. As Jacques Delors used to point out, the European project is one of a kind, with no equivalent thus far. It is only by regarding it as such, and refraining from trying to impose on Europe this or that experience from the history of another continent, that we can really take it forward.

Let us therefore chart our own course. Clearly, given the serious crisis we are currently going through, together we must seek innovative and ambitious solutions such as those proposed by the Commission.

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