Comment on the 60 years of European integration

There still is a long way towards political union

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March 25 marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome; the treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC). Its ambition was to create a single market among its member countries. Either by political initiative or the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, trade barriers were gradually dismantled, while a rich corpus of rights for individuals was developed. The former contributed to the ultimate telos of free trade, while the latter provided the foundation of the European citizenship.

In the 1990s the EEC gave way to its successor organisation: the European Union. What once started off as a technocratic exercise in trade policy evolved into an overarching vision for the eventual political unification of Europe. Spearheading the shift in scope was a plan for a monetary union epitomised by a single currency. The euro was conceived as—and continues to be—a catalyst for deeper and broader integration between its members. And therein lies both a potential strength and weakness to the renewed impetus to the integration process provided by the Treaty of Maastricht: differentiated integration.

The Treaty of Rome, guided by the pursuit of “ever closer union”, provided for a paradigm of compromise and consensus where all the Member States would proceed to jointly iterate on their plans. “Ever closer union” was about concerted action at the supranational level, underpinned by a firm commitment to the singleness of the Community. In contradistinction, the Treaty of Maastricht, and hence the EU ever since, ascribed less significance to efforts for uniformity in favour of a more flexible approach involving coalitions of the willing and the able.

A Europe of multiple tiers and speeds

The phrase “ever closer union” can still be found in the Treaties, though only one unaware of the actuality of European politics can take it at face value. That idea is but a relic of a yester age, which utterly fails to capture and properly describe the state of affairs in which the European integration process finds itself: a European Community that consists of multiple tiers of policy harmonisation—euro vs non-euro, Schengen vs non-Schengen, etc.—which themselves tend to exhibit inner differences with regard to the de facto hierarchy of their member countries.

Multi-speed Europe has drawn considerable attention in recent weeks. That is to be expected given the eventuality of deciding on the future of the integration process. Nonetheless, the modus operandi of an EU that does not operate as a single, unified whole is at least three decades old. It was decisively consolidated first in the 1990s with the Treaty of Maastrciht and, in more recent times, in the policy response to the euro crisis.

The Economic and Monetary Union and in particular its final stage, the euro area, creates political-economic realities that demand bespoke policies and institutional arrangements. A single currency area is an altogether different entity than a single market. Its parts, the national economies, become interlocked and, hence, mutually dependent. Asymmetric shocks can be experienced in times of cyclical economic fluctuations, with genuinely effective solutions only possible at the supranational level. Automatic stabilisers, i.e. fiscal transfers such as for unemployment benefits, are a practical necessity of a fully fledged, well-functioning, and indeed sustainable single currency area. That line of reasoning does not apply to countries that partake in a single market yet retain much of their fiscal and monetary sovereignty.

To this end, multi-speed Europe, is less of a world view than a pragmatic approach to current issues. The euro could not have been established under the principle of universal consensus. Consequently, the drive towards political union would have been arrested at the very outset. Once a process of differentiation is underway, it is nearly impossible to reverse it. Disparities between the different groups of states are created, rendering any ex post facto “one size fits all” policy largely inappropriate.

Love Europe but not the EU?

The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome is a time for celebration and contemplation. What has been achieved hitherto is unprecedented in the history of this continent. And yet, hardly anyone can feel satisfied with how things stand. The euro area is in desperate need of thoroughgoing reform so that (i) its capacities on the fiscal front are commensurate with the coherence of its monetary function, and (ii) economic policy is underpinned by a democratic framework of governance with all decision-makers being held fully accountable. Similarly, Europe’s inconsistencies in the areas of migration and asylum, as well as police cooperation and security, demand a regime of measures that will refashion each architecture into a more rational whole, where competences are clearly delineated and properly distributed between the national and supranational levels.

In the face of the Union’s inner contradictions or shortcomings in general, some otherwise well-meaning individuals suggest that they remain committed to the ideal of a united Europe though not to the EU as such. Indeed in the realm of the thinkable one can draw a clear distinction between the two magnitudes of a united Europe and the European Union. Yet there is no practical means by which one can transition from the latter to the former, not least because of the vagueness of a “united Europe” in the absence of this integration process.

Ideals are crucial in guiding political action. They provide a direction, a benchmark for judging existing policies and improving upon them. But ideals ought not function as drivers for nihilism. No given state of affairs is perfect in an absolute sense. No instantiation of an idea can ever be the object of thought itself. There always is something to be refined even further. In practice, loving Europe must entail a willingness to engage with its actuality—the European Union—and to propound cogent, informed arguments for its further reform.

The only viable alternative is a better EU

The alarming rise of nationalism and xenophobia remind us that the most compelling alternative to the mode of integration inherent to the EU, is but a throwback to the early 20th century. Some permutation of inter-state agreement between otherwise squabbling nation states. Such backwardness is utlimately to the detriment of Europe. However, the response to the recrudescence of ethnicism is not the lazy, largely meaningless arguments for “more Europe”. What matters is the content of policy and the ends it seeks.

The distribution of competences between the various levels of government is complementary to—and effectively a function of—the substance of political programmes. Not vice versa. And yet, many a pro-European blithely call for further power transfers to the supranational level, without accounting for the specifics of policy and the potential side-effects. Granting more powers to this EU would, for instance, mean that economic governance would become even more intrusive in the national lifeworld, without partaking of the same normative values of republican constitutional order as expected of a national government.

The discussion on what Europe we want is intimately linked to matters of the democratic institution of society. The EU could have more powers provided it forgoes the most persistent feature of the bargaining tactics of the European Economic Community: inter-governmentalism. Only once the EU is put on a path towards becoming a proper republic can we confidently speak of “more Europe”, because such a demand will be inseparably attached to a call for democratic will-formation that encompasses and synthesises the national and the supranational levels.

Political union is a long term project

Sixty years is but a short time in the grand scheme of things. Political union cannot happen overnight, especially when there are such deeply rooted cultural dispositions that need to be brought up to date. We still witness the stereotypes of tacit mistrust among Europeans, with such inopportune sexist/racist statements as Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s “alcohol and women”.

Attitudes and cultures can only change over the span of generations. With the European integration process, there is one thing we can take for granted in this particular regard. Unlike their past experiences, Europeans are for the most part on a common path dependency. They are exposed and influenced by each other, operate within the same overarching framework, and understand the importance of cooperation. Perhaps that is the best way to engender a greater awareness in this elusive ‘Europeanness’, which is necessary for forming a common body politic.

Recent crises have challenged all sorts of presumptions about Europe, while they have exposed the underlying fragility of the overall venture. At the same time though, they have demonstrated how a seemingly inert EU apparatus can muster the creativity and willingness to work within the constraints and to adapt, albeit sometimes ungracefully, to evolving states of affairs. The flip side of the rise of ultra-conservatism and europhobia is a bold new generation of Europeans, who are willing to stand together for what we have and, most importantly, for the potential it offers.

Many have and will march in Rome and across the continent in support of Europe. There is hope that despite its evident flaws, this grand project of the European integration process can still deliver something truly special. Whether it actually does is contingent on us citizens. To be active in our communities, be they in physical or digital space, and to engage in the debate with the willingness to enrich it.

On March 25 we celebrate the Treaty of Rome, though we do not long for a European Community modelled after the EEC. Sixty years later, we have a better understanding of what works and what drives things forward. Arguably the most obvious among them is the somewhat controversial practice of differentiated integration ushered in by the Treaty of Maastricht. The point now is to further improve upon that knowledge, while avoiding the mistakes of the last generation of policy-makers. The Europe of the near future can see beyond a mere monetary union or policy harmonisation on the margins of a single market. It can establish what the founders of the European Communities could only ever imagine: a political union.