The gradualist tradition

Though the ultimate end of the European Union is the political unification of Europe, the European integration process did not start with such a lofty ambition. While there were voices following the end of World War II calling for a “United States of Europe”, mostly notably Winston Churchill, as well as attempts at creating a European Political Community, the first European Communities were much narrower in scope. They were trade agreements between six countries: France, Italy, [West] Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

Officially, European integration starts with the European Coal and Steel Community, established in the early 1950s. It was an inter-state agreement meant to dismantle barriers to trade in perhaps the predominant industries of the time, those of coal and steel. The idea of free trade between countries was broadened with the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 and ratified a year later, which established the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU’s predecessor. The objective of the EEC was the creation of a customs union that would eventually encompass the four core freedoms of the common market, namely the free movement of goods, persons, services, and capital. We may consider the creation of the single market as the first stage of European integration.

Change was slow and often had to depend on landmark rulings from the European Court of Justice, such as the Van Gend en Loos case which asserted the Direct Effect of European Law, or the case commonly referred to as “Casis de Dijon” (after a French liquor) which made a breakthrough in the prohibition of indirect impediments to cross-border trade.

In 1992 with the end of the Cold War and with the European common market having matured over the decades, European leaders proceeded with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht. It was a turning point, ushering in the second stage of integration that would see the common market become but one of the pillars of a new, much more ambitious entity, the European Union. In line with broadening the scope of the integration process, there was to be an Economic and Monetary Union, with the euro envisaged as the official currency of the EU (the opt-outs of the United Kingdom and Denmark are exceptions to the rule). Each Member State committed to a set of convergence criteria—the Maastricht criteria—for eventually adopting the single currency, such as provisions on the level of the budget deficit, public debt, inflation, and long-term interest rates.

The Treaty of Lisbon, the last in a series, has improved and streamlined the Maastricht architecture, with the most notable change from a parliamentary perspective being the expansion of the European Parliament’s power and influence, by virtue of the ordinary legislative procedure becoming the standard method for producing European legislation.

As of today, the European Union is founded on two Treaties, the Treaty on European Union (TEU), and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Both have the same legal value. Meanwhile, the Member States of the EU have grown from the original six to twenty eight.

What this historical overview tells us is that the overarching theme of European integration is that of gradual changes to an ever expanding corpus of law, also known as the acquis communautaire or the Community acquis. We may name the method by which European integration is pursued step-by-step as gradualism. This is not really a political ideology, but a way of achieving progress through multilateral negotiations in awareness of Europe’s history as a largely heterogeneous collection of nation states.

The implicit and arguably valid assumption of gradualism is that any sentiment of “Europeanness” is secondary to feelings of national belonging and, hence, any attempt to unite the Europeans has to be made in relation to some practical need for collaboration rather than a more idealist narrative for togetherness. National sensitivities must be respected, otherwise it will be Europe that will fall out of favour in cases where a conflict of identities is perceived as taking place. In effect, this means that nation states must commit to modes of policy coordination that do not undermine their very presence. The European level is, from a national government’s perspective, the theatre of intergovernmental relations, which are formalised in the inter-state treaties that found the European Union and which are framed by the supranational secondary legislation stemming therefrom. These treaties, which serve as the de facto constitution of the European Union, substantiate a rule-forming-rule-making stratum that is above yet decisively with the governments of the Member States.

Essential to gradualism are three items: (1) the functional necessity for broadening and deepening integration, (2) the pursuit of top-down politics, understood as high-level intergovernmental relations being the driving force of integration, and (3) the spirit of intergovernmentalism as the pragmatic way of reaching consensus between nation states within the framework of European law.

Understanding gradualism is important for anticipating future integration. While it may be argued that a quantum leap is needed for decisively addressing some of the EU’s shortcomings, it is highly unlikely, based on the prevailing conditions, that a radical reform of the system will occur over the next decade or so. We now are in the phase of backstage negotiations on a future Treaty amendment. One can only speculate what its content may be. It may push European integration to its third stage, that of eventually becoming a political union of sorts, it might roll back parts of the acquis, or even create some new state of affairs.

What is more concrete at this stage is an action plan titled “Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union”, which was published on June 22, 2015. This is also known as the Five Presidents’ Report, courtesy of its five signatories: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem, President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, and the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. The ambition of this document is to do as much as the current Treaties allow for in enhancing economic governance and completing the banking union. Eventually though, it intends to introduce reforms that would require a new Treaty, such as providing the supranational level with a fiscal capacity (to raise taxes, issue debt, engage in autonomous spending) commensurate with political legitimation and accountability.

True to tradition, the five presidents are as gradualist in their stated ambition as one would come to expect. While the European Union will be reformed, it is safe to assume no major change will happen overnight.