German Chancellor Angela Merkel is calling for a European "political union," but the continent may already be moving toward unification

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Left, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman signs a treaty that will integrate the coal and steel production of six European nations, in Paris on April 18, 1951. Right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at her party's conference today in Leipzig / AP and Reuters

On May 16, 1949, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman traveled to Strasburg, a canal-laced city along the West German border, and proposed that Europe could achieve peace through economic integration. His plan was simple but audacious: France and West Germany would integrate their steel and coal production, ceding national control over these two industries to a supra-national governing body and to the demands of a "common market." The plan would make mechanized war between the two nations nearly impossible. If one declared war on the other, the integrated French-German steel and coal industries would collapse, leaving two of the world's strongest militaries to throw rocks at one another once their initial armaments ran out.

Schuman called his plan "a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace." By the time it was ratified a year later in Paris, the European Coal and Steel Community had been joined by Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The European Coal and Steel Community evolved, along with other agreements, into the European Economic Community, which became part of the European Union, which today is in crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a speech at her party's annual gathering this week, declared that Germany -- and Europe -- must address the problems in the economic union by creating a political union. The European financial crisis is threatening to snowball from small, periphery states such as Greece and Ireland to the world's eighth largest economy, Italy, and possibly even the fifth largest, France. Even if Europe can save Italy, and even if France does not fall into similar crisis, the European Union's awful year has exposed some real flaws in the monetary union.

Some economists (the ones not calling the entire European experiment doomed) argue that what Europe needs is a fiscal union to make sure that the state economies behave responsibly and in some kind of sync. Integrating some of the world's largest economies under this kind of unified fiscal authority would be a big deal. But Merkel wants to go one very big step further. "It is now the task of our generation to complete the economic and currency union in Europe and create, step by step, a political union." She warned that Europe had entered "the most difficult hours since World War Two," drawing a pointed contrast to the event that led to the creation of the European Union in the fist place.

A politically unified Europe -- the most likely version of which could best be described as the Federation of Europe, something akin to the earliest union of American states -- is not as crazy as it might sound. The reason that Europe needs a fiscal union is to oversee its monetary union, which seems destined to fail without that fiscal oversight. But a fiscal union might have the same problem without a political union; how a nation decides to gather and spend its money is, after all, one of the chief functions of its political leadership. So Merkel is making a smart, if politically risky, call for political unity. But this is about more than just finding the most comprehensive solution to the sovereign debt crisis. Since the end of World War Two, Europe has been moving toward unification so consistently and inexorably that it sometimes seems as if world events were conspiring to create a united Europe.

Europe's continental integration first began, as with the Coal and Steel Community, as a response to the devastation of World War Two: the countries needed a way to recover, and to try to prevent future war. Meanwhile, the rise of the Soviet Union gave European governments even more incentive to integrate. In 1948, several European states signed a collective defense treaty to counter the Soviet threat. That treaty was soon expanded to include the U.S. and became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. It might have remained little more than a defensive treaty had it not been for the Korean War, the difficulties of which forced European militaries to integrate under NATO's command.

By 1950, the economies and militaries of Western Europe had already begun to unify. The end result was as clear then as it is now; in April of that year, the Norwegian foreign minister wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs comparing Europe at the moment to the early American colonies, which were in some ways even more disparate and divided than the European nations. The foreign minister didn't quote Benjamin Franklin's 1754 "Join, or Die" political cartoon, be he might as well have. In Europe today as in the American colonies 250 years ago, the movement for unification might have risen as a way to mobilize against a common threat -- the King of England, the Soviet Union, sovereign debt crises -- but those movements continue to flourish once the threat is gone for a much simpler reason: they're a good idea.

The benefits of American unification (which was a process more than an event -- it wasn't really completed until the Civil War a century later) have far outlasted the dangers posed by British aggression. In the U.S., economic integration was followed by political integration (which also took a long time to complete; states have been slowly ceding power since the revolutionary war) and the resulting United States has left all of the constituent states better off. Rhode Islanders ceded some of their power to the more dominant states, and Carolinians feared (correctly, it turns out) that they would have anti-slavery laws imposed on them from the outside. And we still haven't figured out federalism completely, but we're all better off for being part of the world's richest and third largest nation. Europe has been undergoing a similar process of slow unification for half a century, and is frequently better off for it: there is less conflict between European states than at almost any time in history, and their collective power makes Europe strong even now, in one of its weakest moments. Merkel, in her call for political union, only wants to accelerate something that's already happening.

Euro-skeptics see a number of problems with comparisons to the early U.S.; for example, the lack of a common European language makes labor transfers more difficult. But anybody who visited pre-bust Ireland would meet Poles and other non-English-speakers who moved to Irish cities for the work and, until that country collapsed (for mostly unrelated reasons), flourished despite the language barrier. The incredible numbers of Spanish-speakers immigrants to the U.S. are also flourishing -- and, in some cases, revitalizing otherwise failed American communities. When Italy unified in 1861, its member states did not share a common language -- only dialects that were variably understood across the new country -- yet its first century as a nation saw some of the fastest growth in Europe at that time. In any case, English is increasingly used as the common language of Europe; European Central Bank meetings are all held in English, though Ireland is the only English-speaking member.

It's not just in the post-war European Union, it seems, where the arc of history bends toward unification. The real question may not be whether political unification will work for Europe -- the beginnings of that unification are already in place -- but why it would only work for Europe and for the United States. The idea of federalism did begin with Anglo-American philosophers, but as historian Michael Burgess argues there's nothing necessarily Anglo-American about that system of governance. It may be that a confluence of democratization, rising wealth and trade, and technology now make it easier and more worthwhile for nations to join in federal unions. This is not a new idea. In December 1857, U.S. ambassador to Japan Townsend Harris gave an interview on the changing nature of the developed world, which Japan was joining. His words probably sounded as radical today as they did at the time, but they have become far closer to the reality than they are to prediction:

It is the custom of the United States, while frequently making treaties with other countries, not to annex any country merely by force of arms. Many changes have taken place in the West within the last 50 years. Since the invention of steamships distant countries have become like those that are near at hand Since the invention of the electric telegraph especially, rapid communications may be had between the most distant parts. By means of this instrument a reply may be had in an hour to a message send from Yedo to Washington. By means of steam one can go from California to Japan in 18 days. Commerce has become very extensive since the invention of steam, and the countries of the West have in consequence become rich. The nations of the West hope that by means of steam communication all the world will become as one family.