Fragmentation and lack of common goals and processes threaten the future of the European Union
Jean-Claude Juncker’s first State of the Union address in the European Parliament will go down in history as a missed opportunity. The speaker touched on the crucial problem of European integration, but current politics and the fear of losing approval among member states prevented him from reflecting in greater detail on what it means for the EU when there’s “not enough Europe in this Union” and “not enough Union in this Union”.
What Juncker failed to mention in his address is that the slow poison of intergovernmentalism may kill the EU. Not because intergovernmentalism is bad as such, but rather because it has incrementally changed the mode of interaction and the climate of negotiations at the table in Brussels. The political culture of European integration has changed because its communitarian roots have been neglected. Today’s EU appears to be a quasi-federation governed by confederate spirits.
The political culture of European integration has changed because its communitarian roots have been neglected. Today’s EU appears to be a quasi-federation governed by confederate spirits.
Europe’s media outlets have sensed the change too, as they attempt to translate the EU’s complex dealings into comprehensible terms. They watch political actors struggle with major challenges to the union such as the sovereign debt crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis (each of them clear cases for a common response), and conclude that Europe is failing. The EU’s underperformance stems from three trends, which seem to reinforce each other: a hybrid deepening, a utilitarian widening, and a fragmentation of the political centre.
Regarding the first trend, the EU deepened its level of integration significantly in the 1990s, following a decade of stagnation after the early 1970s. However, as a result of this deepening, the intergovernmental layers of integration policy were also strengthened. Intergovernmental pillars were created, the European Council became the dominant institution, and integration à la carte gained much room while avant-garde projects of deeper integration (such as reinforced cooperation in the language of the treaties) became a rare exception. Though justice, home affairs and foreign and security policy now show some features of community organisation (through the EEAS or the role of the high representative as permanent chair of the Foreign Affairs Council) policymaking remains essentially intergovernmental. There are no common goals beyond the shared member state positions and preferences, there is no common process beyond the procedural routines of the Council, and there are but few political instruments on the level of the EU. Deepening has not lead to a decision over what Europe should be. As Charles Grant observed back in 2011: while the EU may appear to possess a lot more Monnet, in reality it has much more of de Gaulle’s L’Europe des patries.
The EU has come to be dominated by a form of utilitarian politics.
The second trend of utilitarian widening grew in parallel with the first. Where the Maastricht negotiations had tried to tilt the balance toward a federal Europe, successive reform negotiations receded to deepen the hybrid nature of the EU. Alongside the post-Maastricht controversies, member state approaches to European integration became more instrumental. EU membership had to deliver benefits over costs. Southern enlargement brought along member states seeking a political position on the margins of the EU that bargained for concessions in return for consensus. Northern enlargement added to that cleavage a group of affluent states with a mostly instrumental approach, and eastern enlargement further deepened the distributional divide and strengthened strategies and negotiation tactics to optimise benefits arising from EU membership. Consequently, the EU has come to be dominated by a form of utilitarian politics. Short-term gains or preferences of member states outweigh longer-term common goals. Obviously, utilitarianism is politically contagious – it has long made its way from the periphery of the Union to the political centre. Practiced consistently, the manifest pursuit of self-interest by some members will trigger self-interest strategies in others. The EU has come full circle on this, and in practice all member states now pursue their own national interests first and foremost.
The erosion of the traditional political centre is the logical consequence of both hybrid deepening and utilitarian widening, causing the web of interstate relationships to deteriorate. With over 20 members, the EU became heterogeneous and far more politically diverse. Coalitions spanning EU policy issues disappeared, and the number of members using their vetoes grew. Thinkers such as Wolfgang Schäuble detected this third trend early on, and have not hesitated to speak of “regressive nationalism”. Schäuble’s counter-strategy, called “Kerneuropa”, sought to deliberately deepen integration among a core group of member-states as a centripetal counterweight to the centrifugal dynamics of a post-Cold War Europe. Schäuble’s vision, however, did not come to fruition. Rather, the two-speed approach to the EU appeared offensively divisive to key policy-makers. Instead, the EU’s former leadership structure began to disappear.
Nowadays, the major issues facing the EU always end up in the European Council and in intergovernmental bargaining because the prevalence of diverging national interests does not allow for a community approach.
At the turn of the century, fragmentation had won. When the Nice summit negotiated a reform of the weighted votes for qualified majority voting (QMV), the original idea of strengthening the options for majority building had lost to a fixation on status and veto options. With the rise of the European Council as the central decision-making body, QMV itself has lost in significance. Nowadays, the major issues facing the EU always end up in the European Council and in intergovernmental bargaining because the prevalence of diverging national interests does not allow for a community approach. Power politics and ad-hocery, unilateral moves and the semantic sabre-rattling that characterises crisis management have taken the place of intensive coordination among politically robust and more permanent coalitions.
With no defined common goal and process, EU policy making has become a collective muddling, in which member states large and small fiddle with issues, creating externalities for other member states and prompting responses from them, which then create the need for policy coordination. In such contexts, the Commission’s proposals are just that, proposals which may or may not become a reference point in the skirmishes among governments. No institution and no one or two member states could successfully frame the debate or prepare a strong outcome. The prospect of forming a strong core within the EU has ceased to be a driver of consensus over “more Europe” – it has lost all credibility. Not even Paris or Berlin demonstrate the will for a strong avant-garde.
Germany swings its weight around with too little effect, because Berlin has not prepared the ground for more leverage.
The handling of the refugee crisis painfully illustrates the current state of the union. Member state overload does not trigger a common policy but leads to slow and ineffective solutions. Member state unilateral action forces action upon others, be it sending migrants on, be it building a fence on the border with Serbia, or be it to signal a no-return-approach from Berlin. If Merkel had wanted to use the massive flow of refugees into Germany to foster member state agreement on a binding relocation scheme and a more common policy of asylum, the strategy was ill-prepared. Germany swings its weight around with too little effect, because Berlin has not prepared the ground for more leverage, does not act with the support of a standing consensus group, and does not have an incentive scheme prepared to win additional allies. None of these gaps in consensus could be closed over the short term, so additional leverage is sought by threatening cuts in structural funds. This approach seems about as constructive as the British threat to pull out unless the other member states agree to a weaker EU. The other option, an “intergovernmentalism with teeth” and tested in Eurozone crisis management has also failed to be thoroughly successful, not least because it reversed the old logic of integration to diffuse the asymmetry of power among member states. Power gaps in the EU’s political centre have never been felt more profoundly than with Eurozone super-intergovernmentalism.
Jean-Claude Juncker was right. The levels of “Europe” and “Union” in the EU are running dangerously low. So low that Europe might not emerge from the refugee crisis stronger.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.