Political Tsunami Hits Hard

30 june 2013

The European Union and Functional Disintegration

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: The experiment to federalize Europe, which many discussed in full seriousness in the 1990s, will be declared unsuccessful, and the European states will gradually shift over to other means of enhancing their viability in the restless and troubled world of the 21st century.

United Europe, which until recently was seen as a synonym for success and a standard for the whole of humanity to aspire to, has been trying hard to get out of protracted confusion. Over the past four years not a single large-scale initiative for overcoming the crisis of integration, none of the resolutions by EU summits that followed in quick succession have been implemented to the full. Instead, we are witnessing a stratification of Europe into rich and poor countries and a steady decline of the political weight of Brussels, which since the 1950s has been looked at as an eternal engine of unification. The “European integration project” itself is becoming of increasingly smaller interest to the leading states. This compels Europe’s neighbors to confront a question that looked inconceivable just several years ago: What are most likely scenarios for the EU – a collapse or gradual quality degradation?

It would be very wrong to blame the end of the EU’s “golden age” exclusively on the Europeans themselves. Europe was the largest beneficiary of the Cold War. Had the Soviet-U.S. confrontation hypothetically entered the hot phase, most of the Old World countries would have surely been wiped off the face of the Earth. However, the world order which was centered around that confrontation turned out to be rather comfortable for the Europeans and allowed for translating into reality political and economic projects inconceivable by historical standards. The collapse of that world order, commonly referred to by political scientists as a “bipolar system of international relations,” was a tragedy for the Europeans, although at the beginning it looked like a chance of regaining a prominent niche in the international scene. Europe’s rise after 1991, just as its slide into the political and conceptual crisis of ten years later cannot be analyzed beyond the scope of general world processes.


Vladimir Putin hit the nail on the head when he said the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. There is hardly a better way to describe the international political effects of what happened in 1989-1991. The tectonic shift put an end to the existence of a large military and strategic “continent,” which for 40 years had been one of the two poles of international order. That order allowed the leading powers to run world affairs somehow. After 1991 that ability began to degrade rapidly at the global and regional levels. A world political crisis followed, and each of its subsequent waves is more devastating than the previous one. The political environment began to grow increasingly complex and, as it has turned out, no one proved prepared for that new condition. Europe is not an exception.

The Cold War era’s world was as simple as the list of commedia dell’ arte stock characters. Never before had the leading actors been in a much easier environment for devising and implementing their foreign policies. The challenges and tasks of both analytical and practical nature facing the elites were fewer than ever before or since. This is very true of the founding fathers of united Europe and of the heavyweights of European integration, who made tremendous contributions to its emergence, like Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand or Jacques Delors. Some European project grandees, Giulio Andreotti for one, found no problem in taking a share in drafting and adopting truly historic documents, for instance, the Single European Act, while spending most of the time on intra-party intrigues and shady economic deals.

Support from the United States (keen to preserve a situation in which the Europeans would always have something significant to lose) and the threat of a takeover coming from the East were another factor for the success of the European project. That factor forced the West European leaders to take a more creative attitude to running their respective nations and to appreciate the achievements of integration irrespective of the price each of the countries would have to pay for those achievements. This is most well-seen in Germany, which throughout the second half of the 20th century acted as the financial pillar of the integration project, which earned Berlin the political recognition of the neighboring countries as a safe neighbor and reliable partner. In the context of the World War II legacy such recognition was crucial.

These unique international and political circumstances inside the “little European corner of the world” and beyond gave the Old World a no less unique chance of creating within the EU an unparalleled mechanism of settling inter-state contradictions at the level of supra-national institutions and international cooperation. It enabled a large group of advanced states to abandon the “zero sum game” principle (one’s gain is somebody else’s loss). It is necessary to point out that the ideological component of the international project always remained insignificant and was invariably used mostly for “external consumption.” It is not accidental that “Europe’s mission” and “European values” and other related topics were made catchwords in the early 1990s and began to be employed first and foremost as a foreign policy tool.

When in the mid-1980s the “Eurosclerosis” was overcome and it became possible to contemplate creation of a common market and a common currency, Europe found itself in a fundamentally different geostrategic situation. The drowning of the continent called The USSR and Russia’s immersion in the turmoil of internal transformations brought about a situation in which Europe’s peripheries – from the Balkans to the Afghan border were left at the mercy of fate.

The emergence in Central and Eastern Europe of a group of relatively small and politically and economically homogenous and West-leaning states was a great international political challenge to the European Union. One cannot say that united Europe was utterly unprepared to face this new strategic reality. Firstly, by 1991 the European integration project had accumulated the legal basis to be easily turned into an instrument for transforming the aspirant countries and for consistent work for their social and political rapprochement with Old Europe’s countries. Secondly, there was created a top quality institutional and bureaucratic infrastructure capable of translating the necessary political decisions into reality.

Lastly, the soaring global ambitions of the integration group, which on February 7, 1992 began to be called the European Union, proved a major resource. Those ambitions rested upon the prosperity of West European economies and the wish to create a “soft” counterbalance to the U.S. might, which had grown immeasurably with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also, there was a very widely spread point of view that Russia was not in the position to resist the EU’s eastward expansion for various – mostly subjective – reasons.

With that potential of optimism and self-confidence the European Union in the early 1990s got down to handling the technical world order problems that followed the demise of the bipolar system. It developed, adopted and successfully implemented the Copenhagen criteria with the aim to calibrate the aspirant states to the maximum extent before admission. The European Union supported NATO’s eastward expansion and the incorporation of the USSR’s former satellites in the sole military alliance of modern times. From the technical standpoint, the EU did an impressive job (one cannot but admit that) to eliminate the immediate effects of the end of the Cold War. However, the price the integration project participants had to eventually pay for that tactical success has turned out to be too high.


As is known, a sudden and strong ebb-tide is one of the most frequent signs of a coming tsunami. It follows an earthquake under the ocean bed and usually precedes a devastating strike by an irresistible force. Nature seems to be trying to lure humans in and at the same time to warn them. Regrettably, in most cases people on the beach fail to react to the warning adequately to carelessly venture out in search of “treasures” glittering on the bare ocean bottom. The expansion of the European Union eastwards (over a period of thirteen years from 1994 to 2007 fifteen states joined it) made the list of member-states more than twice as long. The complexity of the decision-making mechanism and the interests that have to be taken into account multiplied.

The political costs of the expansion piled up. As a result of the ten years’ long practice of “schooling” the candidates, the culture of mutual respect was undermined. Simultaneously the leading donor states involved in the integration process developed the habit of looking down at their economically less successful and less advanced partners. In 1985 the head of the Italian government, whose connections with organized crime were a theme of front-page news, could take the liberty of showing Margaret Thatcher “her place.” And the Iron Lady had no option left other than making a compromise with other partners in united Europe. These days the European Union is openly grouping countries into categories. What is still worse, it is putting on airs and positions itself as a “club for the select few.”

“Friend-or-foe” and “first rate country - second rate country” speculations, when applied to the broad international context, inevitably result in the extrapolation of such logic to the immediate environment. Particularly so, when the economic situation is getting ever harsher, the costs of involvement in the integration process are soaring and politicians in Paris or the Hague eagerly blame their own blunders on the flaws of European bureaucracy or “dependents” in Central and Eastern Europe.

It is not accidental, therefore, that for the European Union the most important effects of the world storm following the collapse of the USSR were political ones. They ruined the internal political unity of Europe, undermined its unique culture of peaceful settlement of conflicts and forced it to think in categories of competition for power and influence and to cultivate the philosophy of exclusiveness and superiority over others.

The failure of the European Constitution project was the first alarm bell that signaled the unpreparedness to confront external challenges. This document, which had taken several years to draft and been generally regarded as a major symbolic step towards a future European federation, was torpedoed by the referendums in the Netherlands and France in May-June 2005. The referendums were called because the elites in both countries were reluctant to bear responsibility for such major decisions, and the Constitution’s failure was a consequence of the electorate’s disillusionment with what Europe became fourteen years after the end of the Cold War.

Throughout the 2000s, the European Union was holding tough-going talks over the institutional and political reform. By 2009 the participating countries delivered an abridged version of the Constitution – the Lisbon Treaty, devoid of any traits of federalist symbols and restricting the powers of supra-national bodies. The geostrategic tsunami hit nearly twenty years after the end of the bipolar system, when Europe was politically and economically fragmented and exhausted in endless internal talks – and overburdened by new member-states, foreign policy initiatives, the common currency (the euro), the common foreign and defense policy, Europol and other “seashells” and “starfishes” that had been greedily and carelessly grabbed at a moment that looked so favorable.


The financial crisis in the United States, which in 2008 went global, and the continuing efforts by countries around the world to fight its effects have highlighted four most important tendencies in international affairs.

First, pretty obvious is the conflict between the growing economic unity of the world and its worsening political fragmentation. The rise of sovereign ambitions and attempts to address all problems at the national level has come into conflict with financial and economic globalization and exacerbates crisis trends.

Second, democratization in international politics and greater independence of individual states play an ever greater role. This “in-depth unfreezing” for the first time manifested itself in China’s soaring global ambitions and in the national interests and requests of other Asian countries. Turkey, a stable ally of the West in NATO and a EU aspirant waiting patiently in the antechamber, is trying on the guise of a regional power ever more often. In the meantime, the need for taking into account the ever larger range of opinions quickly erodes the international institutions that emerged in the Cold War era. This is seen not just in the sphere of security: the United Nations efficiency has largely fallen victim to the first phase of the global geopolitical catastrophe of the 1990s.

Third, the growing international weight of the new countries and attempts by the old-timers, who won the Cold War, to preserve the hard-won status quo bring back the conservative interpretations of such terms as “sovereignty” and “sovereign rights.” Not only the leaders of new-comers to world politics, or the United States, traditionally concerned about its sovereignty, but quite respectable heads of European states, too, start talking about the protection of national interests.

Finally, military power is ever more frequently employed by major powers as a tool to address foreign policy issues. EU countries and the United States used force and threats to use force back at the time when they were getting their hands on the assets of the former USSR. However, they were faced with a very limited set of tasks then. It never occurred to anyone in the West to say in 1999 that the purpose of NATO’s operation against Yugoslavia was to force Slobodan Milosevic to resign or, still worse, to put him to death by some untraditional way of hanging. The need for using military force with or without reason merely confirms that the international community has no other means to prevent the emergence or escalation of conflicts.

Europe these days is faced with a systemic crisis of governance – a tsunami caused by the 1991 earthquake. Similar processes are underway not only along the real or virtual borders of the Old World. The crisis of international governance is underway inside the European Union. One can see its manifestations in the decisions made for the sake of saving the integration project over the past 18-24 months. While the eurozone countries have agreed to the supervision of their budget planning, the real political weight of Brussels has obviously dwindled and the weight of individual states grown. The division along geographic lines into the poor South and the wealthy North, and along functional lines – into euro project member countries and outsiders – is a hard fact.

For Russia, the European Union is the largest foreign trade partner (51%) and consumer of the most important export products. As the potential of European integration institutions in Brussels is shrinking, and the role of individual member-states and political “porosity” of the European Union are increasing, new opportunities are opening up before Russia’s foreign and foreign economic policy. Moscow should take seriously the possibility that the integration project may degrade and crumble down over the next few years. It is of fundamental importance how this may affect the role of EU institutions (the European Commission), which Russia has to deal with at negotiations.


There is no reason to expect that the European Union may fall apart the way the Soviet Union did in its day. At least because European integration has not yet achieved the degree of federalization and centralization of state governance that existed in the Soviet Union. The nature of the European Union is basically different and there are no grounds for the member-states to rise in revolt against the center. The EU has no unified economic policy to follow, and the rights and powers of supra-national institutions are rather supervisory than legislative or law-enforcing. This factor, among other things, makes European integration politically stable. In order not to provoke political differences, Brussels may just turn a blind eye to the growing number of violations of anti-monopoly and other laws of united Europe by the member-states. More important is the fact that in the conditions of the crisis large-scale violations devalue whole segments of integration regulation.

Given the current developments and the potential ability of united Europe’s edifice to resist external and internal challenges (which are, incidentally, of similar nature), one can foresee two basic scenarios the development the European Union may follow in 2013-2023. Both will be implemented within the framework of the philosophy of functional disintegration, very similar to the principle of functional integration one observed in the early days of united Europe. In those days a gradual drift of powers from the national to the supra-national level was the mainstream process. Now the reverse movement is about to begin. Real rights and powers will be gradually transferred from Brussels to the individual member-countries or cooperation institutions these may create in certain fields.

Possibly, these institutions will be more effective. However, they will be unable to accumulate powers above the sovereign rights of states. Low-intensity functional disintegration looks most probable in the years to come. It is politically conditioned by the impossibility of another revision of the European Union’s fundamental treaty, which could – hypothetically and given the maximum democratization of the process – breathe new life into integration. EU member-states are, by and large, quite satisfied with the Lisbon Treaty, and they will keep building up sectoral cooperation at different speeds. By the middle of the next decade, they may form a symbolically united community, functionally divided into groups: vertical (by spheres of cooperation) and horizontal (by regions). The most important indicator would be the EU countries’ ability or inability to improve the legal base in a way that would prevent decisions made by different groups from contradicting each other.

The other scenario is that of high-intensity functional disintegration, accompanied by an actual walkout of some countries from the eurozone or from the European Union as such. The walkout may be provoked by a new tide of the world economic crisis and, as a response to the inability to find a common solution, more active measures to overcome the negative effects at the national level. In that case the real capability of the EU institutions and the effectiveness of European law will dwindle so rapidly that by the end of this decade Brussels will be nothing but an “empty seashell” from the standpoint of its internal capability. Real powers will be handed over to inter-governmental agencies, including expert groups and commissions.

Once they have lost powers inside united Europe, the EU institutions (the European Commission in particular) will turn into a battering ram which EU member-states will use in negotiations with foreign partners, and also into the initiator of legislation discriminatory against Russia, China, India and other countries. A bright example of this methodology is seen in the notorious third energy package, adopted exclusively in the interests of the EU countries and enabling them to considerably enhance government control of the energy sphere. It is the European Commission that is involved in conflicts with the main energy suppliers, above all Russia, while relations between Moscow and national capitals remain practically cloudless, with Berlin, Rome or Vienna retaining the ability to play on two chessboards simultaneously.

Under both scenarios no announcements about the European Union’s disbandment will be made, or the EU’s twelve-star azure flag lowered in a special ceremony in Robert Schuman Square. In both cases the EU will become part of a Free Trade Area between Europe and the United States as one of the two instruments (NATO is the other) for consolidating the West in the face of challenges from the rest of the world. The European Union will be preserved as a discussion floor to coordinate points of view and interests of politically, economically and culturally close countries. The experiment to federalize Europe, which many discussed in earnest in the 1990s, will be declared unsuccessful, and the European states will look for other ways to enhance their viability in the restless world of the 21st century.

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