On the pessimism of EU integration

A common theme in many broadly pro-European views is pessimism about the future prospects of the Union. The narrative usually follows this formula:

  • the European project is worth pursuing to guarantee peace across the continent and to provide for an EU-wide democratic polity as, inter alia, an answer to globalisation;
  • the political leaders of the EU’s constitutive nation states lack the vision, ambition, desire, or whatnot to put forward a Europeanist agenda, retreating instead to the relative safety of inter-state politics;
  • electorates have not been persuaded of the normative benefits of a fully fledged European polity and are instead willing to vote for those ‘populists’ who call for the repatriation of powers;
  • the EU is actually in a process of disintegration or of becoming irrelevant and practically obsolete, since its shortcomings, bureaucratic and top-down methods fail to realise the European project or prepare the conditions towards that end.

A variant of this story appears every so often, at least over the last few years since the beginning of the euro crisis.1 Echoing this feeling, albeit for different reasons, are seemingly statistically cogent predictions about the impending demise of the EU. There is no shortage of doom and gloom. Yet while we remain at the receiving end of this message, we cannot avoid noticing a different version of the reality of European politics.

Instead of disintegrating into oblivion, the euro architecture has been enhanced. The implementation of the Two-Pack, Six-Pack, Fiscal Compact; the creation of new institutions such as the European Stability Mechanism and all the agencies related to bank supervision and prudential policy at the European Central Bank; the introduction of more powers for the European Commission in the context of economic governance, as well as the greater involvement of the European Parliament in the process.

The list goes on. What it tells us is that in the face of a major crisis the EU gained more powers, despite the litanies to the contrary. What is at place may not represent any compelling paradigm of a modern monetary union. Still, it stands as a case against the aforementioned pessimist narrative of impeding calamity.

We might be able to make a similar argument for three current items on the agenda: migration, security, and Brexit. Given that these are early days, we will not delve into speculations.2 The only thing worth mentioning at this stage is that Europe seems to be coping with the challenges. It is not doing great. Actually it may be abysmal. But the same could be said for its handling of, say, the Greek debt crisis, or the reform of the euro in general.

Changing the criterion of the narrative

There is an apparent contradiction in all this. Amid widespread consensus among the commentariat that disintegration is well underway, the EU keeps getting involved in more areas of policy. Should we not shift our focus then? Rather than insist on echoing the doomsday prophecies, let us proceed with the task of understanding why the EU just keeps on going, “muddling through” as it were.

A reflection on method is due. Pessimism of the sort here considered is in large part underpinned by idealism. The EU falls short of the ideal European democracy. Against that benchmark, it is suboptimal. The crises of recent times, the phenomenality of political fission and institutional implosion, serve to confirm that predisposition. They underly the ex post facto rationalisation of the feelings of the average pro-European who is rather disappointed with the state and progress of European integration.

While they may be right to be alienated by the actuality of the Union, that kind of feeling does not help us get closer to the truth and to what that implies for our quotidian life. Consider if you will a different criterion than the ideal of a European republic. This is not a matter of approving it or not, but only of identifying a more methodologically sound approach to the subject at hand.

Take the integration process for what it actually is and has always been: inter-state politics with the support of supranational institutions and/or political processes. The European Union is the functional extension of the collective will of its nation states. We know that from its history and its very primary law. Thus, while we may criticise core features of European politics—such as intergovernmentalism and gradualism—we have to admit that these are neither new nor exogenous to the integration process. They are immanent. Part and parcel of what European politics is.

Heterogeneity and deliberation

The integration process was always impeded by the kind of political divisions we witness today. It took decades for the single market to start taking shape. And it often was the European Court of Justice—not politicians—that provided the solution to the deadlock.

Europe is heterogeneous. There is a multitude of languages, cultures, historical path dependencies. Even within nation states there are multiple elements that differ profoundly from each other. It is futile to expect, indeed demand, uniformity.

Against this backdrop, the task of European integration is to find that which is common in the multitude, the thing(s) that bring Europeans together. This is not a simple and straightforward venture, in large part due to the historical paradigm of legitimasing politics through the construct of the nation state.

National politics, the virtuous cycle of legitimacy and accountability they are based on, have no immediate substitute at the supranational level. That presupposes a higher degree of Europe-wide homogeneity than what is currently available. Societies evolve and adapt to the political architecture of their era, just as they did in the early days of the nation qua state during its transition from feudalism to modernity. But European society, the much-touted European demos, does not yet exist as a self-conscious whole. Hence the modalities of national democracy and inter-state relations, which result in EU-level intergovernmentalism.

Different nations have diverging views on policy. That what true in the 1950s or in the 1990s when the Economic and Monetary Union was entering the scene. It remains true today with virtually every area of policy.

The handling of third country migrants and refugees. Relations with Russia as pertains to Ukraine and the concomitant security issues. Police cooperation and intelligence sharing in the face of growing extremism and the ever intensifying terrorist threat. The future of the EMU, its possible reinforcement and the introduction of a social dimension to economic governance. These and many others keep engendering varying opinions on the direction of EU politics. The very reason supranational institutions are in place, including the outright intergovernmental ones, is to mediate these views and to flesh out the quintessence of this political process: consensus on how to proceed.

The EU is seemingly struggling to deliver definitive solutions to the problems it faces because it was not designed to work that way. It never was efficient in the sense of timeliness, as its decision-making methods involve several rounds of deliberation. Such is necessary to draw a common agenda from the plurality of national perspectives. To turn the Union into an effective and responsive policy-making system, we first need a common constitutional subject: the demos. Until that is a given we have to accept the presence of nation states and the kind of options for policy-making entailed therein.

Pessimism is not groundless

The present author counts among the pro-European pessimists in one important regard: the content of European politics will not change dramatically any time soon. This is to suggest that there are excellent reasons to remain sceptical about the capacity of the Union to deliver. Its potential to reinvent itself as something new, a European republic for instance, is practically non-existent. It also is pointless to expect the intergovernmental modus operandi to effectively annul itself through a series of far-reaching amendments to the Treaties. The most likely outcome is that of making yet more incremental changes to the system, all while preserving its essential qualities.

Where pessimism is arguably misplaced is on its assessment of the concatenation of events as these unfold—and on the ostensible self-evident nature of that disposition. It foresees the demise of the Union, sometimes in splendid determinist/fatalist fashion, only to be presented with an ever reinforced supranational entity.

The Eurogroup featured some of the most boring and formulaic of politics prior to the euro crisis. Events were such that it turned into the de facto epicentre of everything peculiar to the euro. The Commission is criticised for a host of issues, including its bureaucratic sceloris or inability to actually act as the “guardian of the Treaties”. It then comes out with the groundbreaking ruling against Apple, as if to remind us that (i) the European Treaties are flexbile enough to provide powers where there seem to be none, and (ii) it still has the ability to forward its own agenda, as it will clearly do henceforth with the renewed effort to introduce legislation on a common corporate tax base.

We can name all sorts of similar examples. Their overarching theme is that of ongoing integration; the kind of process that is often underestimated or altogether ignored by the media and opinion-shapers. The findings to be drawn from this state of affairs are as follows:

  • pessimism about content should not turn into pessimism about prospects, as the EU keeps defying predictions of its undoing;
  • binary realities seldom are a feature of politics, certainly of EU affairs, suggesting that while there may be problems, their alternative is not disaster but a whole range of paths that lead to yet more negotiations;
  • pessimism that turns into either an excuse for not getting involved with the actual EU or for not contemplating realisable policy initiatives, can only be to the ultimate detriment of the ideal of a common European polity;
  • the determinist/fatalist view of the integration process effectively leads to the kind of complacency and escapism that allows the establishment to perpetuate almost effortlessly the most alienating of its features.

All of the above can be summed up as a call for pragmatism, which in this case amounts to a couple of things:

  1. Methodology. The EU has to be approached in a scientific way. What it is, what it actually does, what is the context of its presence, and so on. The ideal or else the absolute is a guide for forming one’s opinion in a contingent (probabilistic) world. It cannot be allowed to be the enemy of the actual, simply because of everything paling in comparison to it.
  2. Ideology. The politics of pragmatism presuppose a willingness to recognise the state of affairs and to adopt a constructive stance towards it. Practicality over armchair philosophy. Things are not black or white. There can be positives even within an otherwise suboptimal framework. And there can be progress even against the backdrop of an otherwise disappointingly rigid system of legal-institutional arrangements.

Shall we blithely switch to some misguided or baseless optimism? No. Just stick with the facts and avoid sensationalising the otherwise mundane world of EU affairs.

  1. A case of pro-European pessimism is found in the latest newsletter of the Green European Journal, in particular this and this article. By the way, this journal is one of my favourite publications on European politics. Consider following it. ^

  2. As concerns Brexit and its impact on the EU, read my previous essay: European integration post-Brexit^