EU’s partial integration and cross-border challenges

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What the euro crisis showed to the world was that deeper integration in one area of policy has spillover effects in others. The Member States that adopted the euro had agreed to give up their monetary sovereignty and transfer it to the supranational stratum, while keeping at the national level two competences that are otherwise key to a functioning monetary union: (1) fiscal policy, (2) bank supervision.

The euro countries were therefore bound up together by virtue of a uniform monetary policy, yet each could still pursue its own path on a range of issues that could have an impact on monetary affairs. When Greece was proven to be the weakest link in the chain, it was not just the Greeks that had to deal with the economic shock, but also the other euro countries. The euro crisis had systemic aspects, in that the frailties of one national economy could be transmitted to another by means of outright losses, negative market expectations, “financial contagion”, and the so-called “tail risks” of a euro exit and the possible domino effect it could initiate.

Policy-makers did eventually recognise the systemic nature of the crisis and decided on legislation that is meant to pave the way for completing the integration process in terms of establishing a functioning and viable monetary union. Fiscal policy and bank supervision are no longer the unassailable national competences they were only a few years ago.

From euro crisis to security

The moral of the story is that European integration cannot be à la carte without any downsides, at least not over the longer term. It is the very nature of the process to gradually encompass more areas of policy, while it also is a peculiarity of partial integration to expose individual countries to pressures that are beyond their own reach, to systemic shocks or negative cross-border externalities. The kind of shared responsibility that the euro architecture created is more or less true for everything that falls within the EU framework. This certainly includes the freedom-security binary and the necessary balance between the two.

Law enforcement and national security form the new policy front where we begin to realise that partial integration can be a problem in itself. Courtesy of the freedom of movement and establishment as well as the Schengen Agreement, internal borders are, in principle, dismantled. There is in this sense, a supranational harmonisation on the principle of European citizens being able to move freely within the area. What remains confined to the national level are a set of policies that would render internal borders secure or at least safer. The EU as such does not police its external borders, it does not have a federal law enforcement agency, while such entities as Europol are only able to work on the basis of what national authorities offer to them. In this context and just as with the euro crisis, if one country fails to meet its obligation to regulate its own affairs in an effective way, another country may as a result be exposed to a cross-border vulnerability.

On the website politico.eu features an article titled “Belgium is a failed state”. It focuses on Molenbeek, the Brussels region tied to the Paris terrorist attacks. Even if the titular message may be a bit harsh and misleading, it does convey a very specific point: Belgium’s authorities are not doing their job well in enforcing the law and regulating their own country.

This is the predicament that France finds itself in. The French cannot police Belgian territories and are, therefore, dependent on their Belgian colleagues, without there being an outright European solution. The border between the two countries is, in principle, only there on paper, so France is exposed to an inter-state weakness that it cannot address on its own. The state of emergency in France has, among others, brought back full border controls as a means of coping with the immense challenge of terrorism. As for the cross-border dimension of the problem, a start has been made by invoking the following provision of Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union:

  1. If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

France is at war, and so will be the rest of the Union’s Member States, either directly or not.

If the experience of the euro crisis has taught us anything about European integration it is that “more Europe” will be the solution to the inherent weaknesses of a partially integrated formation of states. To that end, what we should expect as a policy response going forward is (i) a series of emergency or ad hoc measures to deal with the existing shortcomings of the system, and (ii) the eventual codification in law of instruments for improving the robustness of the Union to shocks of such nature.

A crisis with far-reaching ramifications

While we may speculate about the most likely direction of renewed European integration, we cannot anticipate the content and character of future policies. Law enforcement and security have a direct impact on civil liberties and, given the external dimension of the matter, on migration from third countries to the EU as well as asylum.

Some have already voiced concerns about the viability of Europe’s commitment to digital privacy, suggesting that police authorities should be able to access anyone’s data directly or via some software “back door”. Others will want to reignite the discussion on Passenger Name Records (EU PNR) and on the crucial role of Europol in coordinating the efforts of national law enforcement authorities. And there may be those who will become even more suspicious of migrants and refugees crossing into EU borders out of fear that any of them could be a jihadist in disguise. While we may want to dismiss claims of this sort as confirmation of peoples’ biases, such cavalier attitude does nothing in terms of rebutting the arguments that will actually inform the public debate henceforth.

As someone who is closer to civil libertarianism than securitarianism, I would hope that the high standard for fundamental rights in the Union would not be lowered and that the balance between security and freedom would not tilt decisively in favour of repression. Still, it is clear that the Union has to deal with the inevitable shortcomings of gradualism and of the instances of partial integration it creates. Cross-border vulnerabilities point to the need for greater coordination between police authorities and national security agencies. EU Member States have a “shared responsibility” on those areas of policy in the same way the euro area countries have for fiscal and economic issues. It is therefore not an exaggeration to claim that without effective police coordination and control over the EU’s external borders, the Union will collapse (or be rendered obsolete) under the current pressures as every state will be returning to its own national borders in search of public order and safety.