In mid-September 2016, EU leaders gathered in Bratislava, Slovakia, for a summit. The outcome was modest, as expected. The only meaningful achievement was adopting a decision that urged the remaining 27 member-countries to start drafting plans for their common future next spring. Symbolically, this will coincide with both the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and the beginning of UK exit talks. British representatives have officially withdrawn from the European Council, a fact that, among other things, points to the irreversibility of Brexit and invites a discussion on the fate of European integration and the future of Europe.
European integration is the highest achievement of a culture that favors political compromise over military force in dealing with the most complex problems. This culture has made it possible for a large group of states to cede part of their sovereignty, something unprecedented in human history. The original political objective of the integration effort was to place Germany and France in a format of relations and commitments that would make war between them impossible. The resultant solution was to unite the coal and steel markets, the main “war industries” of the time.
It would be wrong, therefore, to say that European integration was originally about the economy. This argument, incidentally, is often used by critics of the Eurasian Economic Union, who allege that unlike the EU it is a political project. There are politics and geopolitical agendas in both cases. Member-countries invest in security and peace in their region. But that objective is addressed through economic rather than military means, such as opening up markets, phasing-out non-tariff barriers and creating a uniform business environment. Higher living standards in this context are not an end in themselves but are important as a means of stabilizing political systems. The integration should lead to the even and fair redistribution of benefits and duties.
The main aims of European integration were mostly achieved by the start of the new century. Ten years ago, when the 50th anniversary of the project was celebrated, EU summits were meetings of winners. By 2007, the Common Market was created, the euro was introduced as a common currency, and the Schengen agreements all but erased internal borders. At the same time, an unprecedented 12 East European and Mediterranean countries joined the EU, putting on the agenda the development of a truly common economic policy as the next step.
But European integration is in far from great shape as it approaches its 60th anniversary. In recent years, the European Union was an increasingly difficult partner – capricious, constrained, and inward-looking. The EU seemed to sense that something was wrong but was afraid to admit it. Now the situation is changing. Problems that have accumulated over the years are suddenly taking on a new quality. The political processes under way inside the EU arouse fears that the entire integration project may not last.
This is not surprising, as modern Europe is clearly facing a political, economic and intellectual crisis. Its first signs became apparent in 2005, when the Constitution for Europe, the only attempt to achieve a federalist future, was rejected. The document was drafted by the Convention on the Future of Europe, an unprecedentedly democratic ad hoc legislative body whose members represented not only governments, but also parliaments, individual regions and public movements. As a result, certain governments’ interests were not sufficiently accommodated and President Jacques Chirac of France called a referendum to ratify the Constitution for Europe in which it was voted down.
This outcome was completely expected. European integration was always an elite project and whenever the elite resorted to a plebiscite the reply was invariably a firm “no.” Painful intergovernmental talks behind closed doors ensued between 2005 and 2008, resulting in an entirely new product, the Treaty of Lisbon, which introduced amendments to the Treaty on the European Union. But the constitutional fiasco made it clear that a federalist future for Europe was a non-starter.
The new treaty’s entry into force triggered an avalanche of problems for the EU. Certain member-countries experienced painful economic upheavals and slowing growth. This was followed by the Eurozone crisis. Living standards continue to fall in many EU states. The expected consequences of the so-called Arab Spring that the EU leaders shortsightedly welcomed in 2011came home to roost in 2015, when masses of refugees and migrants starting pouring into Europe. The ongoing solidarity crisis began with a group of member-countries pointedly refusing to shoulder any share of EU problems. Most of what the EU leaders managed to achieve at their latest summit was to expedite the creation of a common border and coast guard.
The Brexit referendum and its outcome was another blow. It was unprecedented in EU history, and no one could have imagined that this was possible. On the contrary, united Europe’s entire political philosophy revolves around the conviction that you can only seek to get into the EU. And this philosophy was constantly reaffirmed by a line of aspirants, with which Brussels led leisurely and strict negotiations.
Currently the situation threatens to change dramatically and we cannot be sure that others will not follow Britain’s lead. But, of course, the UK was always a unique case. Fed by EU subsidies, European trouble-makers like Poland or Hungary are unlikely to sacrifice money for political gain. However, this does not remove the problem itself, which is about whether EU membership is beneficial on balance. At the moment, European integration is being cemented by Germany, the strongest European economy and the main beneficiary of the common market. But things are not so obvious for France, Italy or Spain.
There are fears that the EU’s collapse would not prevent more advanced and deeper forms of economic integration from emerging in the wider North Atlantic area – namely that the European economy would gradually be “sucked into” the US economy. Currently this process is being obstructed in every way possible by the United States, which itself seems to have lost its grip on reality. But there is every reason to believe that the TTIP talks will resume once the Democratic candidate takes up residence in the White House.
In principle, closer ties between Europe and the US do not pose a mortal danger to European integration. The problem lies elsewhere. European integration, as we’ve come to know it, focused on independent intermediary institutions, to which the member-states ceded part of their sovereignty. Apart from coordinating cooperation between them, these institutions played a special political role. The integration model built into the “trans-partnerships” concept doesn’t require an active institutional role. The primary reason is that the leading power, the United States, cannot imagine, even theoretically, delegating its sovereignty to anyone. While Europe lives in a postmodern world, its most important economic and security partner is firmly planted in the modern era.
The fate of the main driver of integration dynamics, the notorious and much derided European bureaucracy, might also become uncertain. No doubt, it is the Brussels bureaucrats who were and still are the most consistent supporters of the Transatlantic Partnership. But if it becomes a reality, many of their functions will become superfluous. The new rules of the game will require efficient and independent courts rather than thousands of officials. This will erode the elite with the greatest stake in deeper integration.
The fact that certain likely areas of cooperation have become the butt of jokes is of no help either. Talk of the need for a European army has recurred in the EU over the last 25 years as regularly as fashionable art exhibitions in Moscow or New York, producing the same effect of diverting public opinion and the media from real problems. The latest round of debates on EU armed forces is particularly exciting against the backdrop of Brexit, as the UK is the best-armed Old World country.
The European project may start to disintegrate despite the enormous internal inertia that has built up over a period of several decades. Why? Because the results achieved by the start of this century required that integration enter a new stage. The same was necessary in order to respond to the challenge of the Eurozone crisis at the turn of this decade. In a sense, this meant concentrating economic governance in one place. Rather effective regulators have been created by German diktat. Those EU members that were unprepared to live up to their commitments were forced to choose between obedience and expulsion. The common currency was stabilized and saved, albeit by harsh methods.
An attempt to use the same technique was made as the EU grappled with the refugee problem in 2015-2016. The suggestion was that the EU members share the burden more or less equally and in accordance with their objectively measured capacity. To put it differently, in both cases the EU was functioning as a unified state, in which material benefits were handed down from on-high. But the level of commitments that the constituents were supposed to meet had increased several times over.
The European elites and their representatives in institutions of power may have invested too much in the EU project as such, which they see – boringly enough – as a bureaucratic steamroller that should slowly but surely flatten out national differences. Institutions are a necessity, but they must not replace living, breathing politics. Europe should radically democratize its decision-making, while weeding out political elites and bringing in fresh blood. New leaders will not suffer from the complacency or helplessness characteristic of the current generation.
No one would be served by cutting short the unique European experiment. It should develop and be an example for other regions to emulate. All of us need more Europe as a source of new ideas and eternal values. But this does not mean that citizens of European countries and friends of Europe need more of the European Union as we’ve come to know it over the last two decades. Life, dynamism and openness to the outside world should come roaring back in Europe. And then we will support its fight for a fitting place in this new age.