Views on the future of the European integration process

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As argued in my recent post about European integration following the third Greek bailout, no one is satisfied with the current state of European affairs, including those congregating as the European Council. There is growing consensus that the present order is in desperate need of reform, though not all agree on what that entails.

Put broadly, there are four theories about the way forward:

  • gradualism: the typical approach to integration, which proceeds with incremental changes to an ever-expanding nexus of rules and institutions founded on inter-state treaties that establish a supra-national political sphere; gradualism is the cornerstone of inter-governmentalism and is what characterises the European integration process from the 1950s hitherto;
  • abolitionism: the view that the European Union, or the Economic and Monetary Union (the euro) must be dismantled, for no meaningful reform can be enacted within the present constraints;
  • republicanism: the assertion that the current order deviates from democratic norms, and that the only viable path for a common European future is through the establishment of a constitutional order that founds a European Democracy operating as a federation;
  • supranationalism: the perception that the given state of European integration is basically good, with whatever improvements being limited to further transfers of sovereignty to the European level; this is common among those who put form before substance, in approving of any type of “federation”, such as former European Commission President Barroso, who called for a “federation of nation states” (which implies a con-federation).

The following four sections are dedicated to the examination of each of these views.

Gradualism

Europe is a continent with many nations that used to wage war against one another. Given that national pride is still superior to any sentiment of “europeanness”, whatever effort to unite the Europeans needs to be based on evolving needs for collaboration that do not violate the basic sense of national belonging.

In practice, this means that nation states must proceed with modes of close cooperation that do not annul their presence. The supra-national sphere then becomes the theatre of inter-governmental relations, which are formalised and standardised in inter-state treaties.

These treaties, which serve as a de facto “constitution” of the European communities, substantiate a policy-forming-policy-making layer that is above yet decisively with the governments of Member States. It is a quasi-confederal set-up, where everything effectively starts from, passes through, or is dependent on Member States.

Note: I use “policy-forming” (the more abstract) and “policy-making” (the more concrete) to name two distinct phenomena specific to the EU’s sui generis political order: (1) forming: the creation of programmatic policy guidelines by the European Council, and (2) making: the realisation of these guidelines in the Union’s law-making process.

Essential to gradualism are the following:

  • functional necessity: integration must always satisfy a basic need, namely to correct whatever flaws or shortcomings present in existing Treaties; flaws or shortcomings that may have been recognised long in advance and dismissed regardless, as in the design and introduction of the euro;
  • top-down politics: policy formation is initially contingent on the decisions of heads of state or government, be it in the occasion of a Treaty amendment, or in the formulation of a new set of policy priorities at the European Council which are then executed by the European Commission (the European Council, not a European body politic, mandates the Commission);
  • inter-governmentalism: though supra-national institutions are in place, their role is to extend and to materialise the common will of the Member States’ governments; it is a matter of pragmatism, since national governments usually find it expedient to have the option of playing on both sides, enjoying the benefits of the Union while also attributing whatever weakness of theirs to the EU’s structural deficiencies (that would be labelled “cynicism”, though as someone who bears deep respect for the Cynics of antiquity, I avoid using such an inaccurate term).

I personally find gradualism to be a liability. As best seen in the formation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), the unwillingness to establish a political union from the start, the delusion that there are no modal differences between a looser form of cooperation (EU) and a system of shared responsibility (EMU), has led to this sub-optimal state of affairs where crises and asymmetries are engendered, deepened, and lengthened by the single currency, all while the overall framework drifts further away from democratic norms.

The only scenario in which I would support gradualism, is where a new Treaty would push things in the direction of a European Democracy; a Treaty that would be outright approved by plebiscite.

Nevertheless, the concatenation of events leading up to the July 12 Euro Summit and the third Greek bailout, provide compelling evidence for questioning the very capacity of gradualism to guarantee consensus and achieve the minimum of viable policy outcomes for all sides involved.

Abolitionism

In its more moderate form, the abolitionist argument is usually inferred from a rhetorical question of ostensible realism: “is there really any realistic chance that Germany and Greece will ever have a single government?”. The assumption is that differences among states are irreconcilable and, hence, divergence had better be acknowledged and embraced for what it is. “More Europe” for the sake of it is a false objective.

Depending on the brand of abolitionism, it is argued that either the EU or the EMU are unsustainable. For the project of European unification to be salvaged, these decadent entities need to be dismantled. The time gained together with the accumulated experience from decades of integration, will enable us to think about the modal features of new and better forms of common European politics.

Even nationalists, who want to erect borders and impose restrictions wherever possible, who laud the nation state as the most complete and preferable form of polity, tend to agree on the need for a “Europe of the Nations”. That would probably end up being some enhanced form of fortress Europe, a type of cooperation limited to certain aspects of security policy.

Not all abolitionists are nationalists though. Many on the left find it appealing to abandon the EU. Theirs is not a principled argument for going back to the nation state, but for opposing the neoliberal juggernaut that is the EU. Once that is destroyed, the narrative goes, Europeans will be free to proceed with new types of inter-national cooperation.

Though I have already elaborated on my concerns regarding the left’s euroscepticism, I do think there is a very specific case to be made in favour of abolitionism. It concerns the EMU specifically and is in no way aimed against future EU integration. The idea would be to dismantle the euro because it is a failed experiment at a stateless currency (see The euro’s mindset in context). Once emancipated from the euro’s ill design, we may proceed with what ought to be the original mode of integration: form a political union that has full fiscal powers and that will underpin whatever future monetary union.

Still and as explained before (see Euro integration cannot proceed along its current path and In search of Europe’s common politics), I would consider that to be the least preferable choice, especially when it seems relatively easier and more straightforward to thoroughly reform the present order, make the euro socially sustainable and turn the EMU into a constitution-based democracy.

As for nationalism, positively understood, I think it is an atavistic world-view, a throwback to an older epoch, when technology could not perform the empowering function it does today of bringing people closer, while exposing them to each other’s peculiarities.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, there were overlaps between nationalist and democratic movements, geared towards overthrowing the ancien régime. For practical purposes, democracy had to be understood and realised as national democracy; it had to be fastened upon the romanticised perception of the transcendent, impersonal agency of the “nation”.

The 21st century, brings with it new realities, which require societies to adapt to global challenges and to carefully consider kinds of political, social, and economic organisation beyond or outside what used to apply in a profoundly different historical context.

Cosmopolitanism, although at least as old as Diogenis of Sinope, is in many ways a contemporary and future-oriented view of the human experience, representing an outlook that treats the space of political inter-action as fluid and circumstantial, as not defined by—and confined to—cultural [meta-]narratives with the false determinism and “primordial” antagonisms they calcify or propound.

As for the negatives of nationalism, especially in its supremacist, jingoistic and imperialistic forms, I think two World Wars should be more than sufficient evidence against the recrudescence of such views.

To conclude this long digression, I would argue that abolitionism, the counter-intuitive view of pivoting backward in order to go forward, can best be considered a backup plan. It is less risky to capture and reform existing structures, than labour to demolish all there is, without being in a position to guarantee that the end result will be a state of affairs that is indeed preferable to the current one (also read On the inevitability of austerity).

Assuming the abolition of the status quo, any future inter-national cooperation would still require governments willing to pursue internationalist ends. But if eager governments of that sort will exist, there is no reason to think they would not be capable of reforming the EU/EMU instead.

Republicanism

Regular readers know that I stand for republicanism, a set of ideas I have already presented on this website over a series of posts (start with Normative aspects of the future European Democracy and The emergent contradiction of Europe’s inter-governmentalism).

To summarise what republicanism is about, it is the theory by which the European Union must be modelled as a modern republic, which will be federal in design solely for practical purposes. This shall be a constitutional order, founded on a given corpus of primary law, a codified constitution that will supersede and incorporate the best parts of the inter-state-treaty-based community acquis.

As I have suggested, the EU’s fundamental problem is a sovereignty mismatch between its authority over the entire compass of the Union and the absence of a body politic and a republic underpinning that capacity for governance. What is standard practice, what is indeed expected from any modern democracy, is that a sovereign people legitimises the state functions to pursue policies within their mandate while always remaining accountable to the people.

This virtuous feedback loop of self-rule is the cornerstone of a democracy. At the European level we do not have any of that. If we were to imagine that the European Council is the EU’s government, we would behold the following antinomies, ceteris paribus:

  • partial and indirect legitimacy: a government that is severally legitimised, with legitimation applying to each head of state or government of the Member State but never to the body as a whole;
  • partitioned accountability: a government that acts for the whole Union yet whose members are accountable only to their own country (e.g. Ms. Merkel is not accountable to the Greeks);
  • democratic incompatibility: in light of the above two, a government that does not have a democratic mandate, due to the lack of a constituted European Demos—the constitutional subject.

The problems on that list are amplified when we consider the most evident shortcomings in the broader EU edifice:

  • constitutional reform can only be conducted through Treaty amendments that need to be ratified by all Member States, whereas the procedure ought to be parliamentary, without having to depend on inter-governmental processes whatsoever;
  • the Commission performs most of the functions peculiar to an executive, yet its real mandate comes from above (European Council) rather than below (European citizens);
  • the Council of the European Union (legislative institution) is not designed as a senate that is made up of elected members;
  • the European Parliament’s democratic mandate is decisively constrained, as it cannot initiate legislation, nor does it have any real power over certain areas of policy (such as taxation, foreign affairs, education).

These are all germane to the EU’s current design. A European Democracy would operate as a typical republic, resolving any and all of the emergent contradictions of Europe’s existing quasi-confederal technocracy.

Supranationalism

The present order imposes a number of limitations on what EU institutions can actually do. Only a further transfer of powers to the supra-national level could help ameliorate, accommodate, and resolve whatever tensions may currently exist.

This is the typical “More Europe” motto adopted by a number of pro-Europeans who prefer not to commit to any specific vision. Power is good, so long as it is exercised at the European level. While paying lip service to the principle of subsidiarity, supranationalists see a case for “more Europe” in just about every area of policy.

These are usually framed in economistic—that look and sound economic without actually being so—terms of achieving economies of scale, harnessing the potential of markets, creating level-playing fields for [oligopolistic] competition etc. Any random document from the Commission usually satisfies that description, such as this communication (pdf) on cultural and creative sectors (let alone the fact that “culture” is mis-depicted as a mere catalyst for economic growth).

In all cases, the European Commission or, more generally, the initiatives launched from the European level are perceived as necessary vectors of social-economic reform.

“More Europe” in the creation of a European army, so as to pool resources and reduce costs, without having first created a European Democracy that may control such a mammoth war machine. “More Europe” in justice and home affairs, so that Europol can become more efficient, PNR and similar programmes mine everyone’s data, and security forces become more effective at tackling crime, without however establishing the necessary legal guarantees and without there being a common corpus of criminal law. “More Europe” in fiscal issues, so that national budgets are vetoed and rewritten by a euro area minister, an effective European economic tsar. “More Europe” so that the Commission can negotiate trade agreements without considering the material implications on the lives of citizens and local producers.

It does not mean that these and related issues are not worth considering, nor that the EU should have no competence over them. The point is that legitimacy and accountability tend to be given secondary importance in this seemingly inexorable drive for power transfers to the European level.

Supranationalism is the world-view of the well-meaning though ultimately misinformed liberal, who thinks that the system is “mostly okay” and who adopts a narrow functionalist view of policy. I would consider the former president of the European Commission, President José Manuel Barroso to be a supranationalist par excellence. Almost all of the Commission reports from his last term were of the “more Europe” sort. Also and under his presidency, the Commission published a blueprint for a deep and genuine economic and monetary union (pdf) in which the following dubious remarks are presented:

The Lisbon Treaty has perfected the EU’s unique model of supranational democracy, and in principle set an appropriate level of democratic legitimacy in regard of today’s EU competences. Hence, as long as EMU can be further developed on this Treaty basis, it would be inaccurate to suggest that insurmountable accountability problems exist. (p.35)

I suppose such euphemisms, this deliberate obfuscation of reality, is an indication of how supranationalists perceive of democracy, though there are other instances in that document where the egregious technocratic ideology is brought to the fore.

Out of all the views discussed herein, I think supranationalism is the least desirable. It purports to be federalist, though in practice it seeks to invigorate an ever-expanding technocratic establishment. Contrary to gradualism, where technocracy emerges inadvertently, supranationalism’s very objective, albeit a tacit one, is the substantiation of a technocracy that does not even have to conform with the inter-governmental layer of politics.

The expected outcome

I anticipate no thoroughgoing reform of the status quo. Gradualism seems to be the most dominant tendency, especially in the current constellation of forces. Perhaps the rise of more progressive and ambitious parties in countries that hold elections in the coming months, such as Spain and Portugal, can provide a renewed impetus for a qualitative shift in integration.

Even if gradualism is to proceed, a more conciliatory version of it may go a step further than what the current majority of conservative governments is willing to.

As noted above, I stand for republicanism, though I do see a certain appeal in abolitionism, at least as concerns the EMU, assuming no democratisation of the euro architecture is feasible.

Whatever the case, I am of the opinion that these perspectives on the future of European integration deserve examination and discussion. While there is a growing consensus on the need for EU/EMU reform there appears to be little agreement on what that entails. Ultimately though and irrespective of where one stands, there is an intrinsic value in deliberating on our future rather than having it be imposed on us unscrupulously and exogenously.

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