Underpinnings of Europe's crises

The European Union is beset by a series of troubles. The economy has yet to fully recover from the shock of the euro crisis. Jihad-inspired terrorism as well as the tensions with Russia are undermining Europe’s sense of security. The migrants and refugees coming to the EU are unwittingly exposing the shortcomings of the Schengen Area and its external border control arrangements, while also revealing the rather low degree of actual solidarity between national governments on the issue of relocating asylum seekers. Instead of a collective effort, temporary border checks are being introduced in one country after another, in an area that is supposed to be the crowning achievement of European integration in terms of the free movement of persons. As for the content and quality of political discourse, and apart from the recrudescence of far-right ethno-racism and xenophobia, we are also witnessing the gradual emergence of a new paradigm for hard right politics, first in Hungary, now in Poland: a majoritarianism that strikes at the heart of a modern republic, its system of checks and balances, the rule of law, freedom of speech and media pluralism.

To all of these challenges official Europe has been found wanting, inviting all sorts of criticism for the EU architecture. Indeed the Union needs to be further reformed if it is to remain viable. The present order lacks essential powers for addressing such crises in a rational and timely fashion. On the economic front, the EU still needs an economic government capable of initiating a system-wide fiscal policy to iron out internal macroeconomic asymmetries. Concerning external border checks, the Schengen Agreement envisages a counter-productive legal framework where national governments are meant to guard their own borders, even if those happen to overlap with the Union’s external borders, thus placing a disproportionate burden on entry countries such as Greece and Italy. Regarding asylum and migration, there still exists a certain fragmentation of views that tend to coagulate along national lines, due to the fact that the EU does not have exclusive competence on the matter. This means that intergovernmental compromises need to be reached, otherwise each national government may proceed with measures it deems appropriate regardless of their ramifications on neighbouring countries or the Union as such. As for fundamental rights and constitutional affairs, the Union does not have the most effective of mechanisms for guaranteeing continued compliance of national law with its core values, as enshrined in the Treaties, while the European Commission is often limited in its capacity to provide decent solutions by its exposure to political pressures.

These result in widespread negativity and pessimism, occasionally culminating in doomsday scenarios on the imminent collapse of the European Union or parts thereof.

[essential reading: The end of ‘The end of Europe’ by @ruitavares]

Context is needed

What is seldom discussed or indeed acknowledged in this public debate is a set of closely related qualities germane to the underlying international politics of the EU. In outline, these include:

  • gradualism: European integration is a process, a concerted effort at rule harmonisation that has always been pursued in a stepwise manner, suggesting that the broader edifice remains “under construction”;
  • confederalism: the European Union is a derivative political organisation on which Member States confer competences to achieve objectives they have in common (the EU can only act in line with the principles of conferral, subsidiarity, and proportionality);
  • intergovernmentalism: what falls under the purview of the supranational level is largely determined by collective decisions between national governments, including the policy agenda of the European Commission which is moulded by the European Council.

A common theme in all of the aforementioned crises is the incomplete setup of the Union coupled with the contradictions of intergovernmental bargaining between its Member States. As concerns the shortcomings of the EU as such, these have their source in the relatively limited boundaries for supranational acts delineated by the Treaties. The nation states that jointly drafted and then ratified those treaties considered it expedient and preferable to deprive the EU of essential or effective instruments for system-wide policy on a range of issues, from economic governance to defence, asylum, the rule of law and fundamental rights. They opted instead for a supranational stratum that would have a somewhat narrow scope of action and, most importantly, that would remain contingent on inter-state deliberations and decisions.

The incompleteness of the EU, or otherwise the inherent gradualism of the European integration process, is thus the by-product of an unflinching commitment to the practices of intergovernmentalism. The Member States have created the Union based on a set of international agreements, starting from the European Treaties. It is those very states that have decided on the Union’s constitutional specifics and, courtesy of the European Council’s role as an effective deciding executive, it is the EU Member States that provide the direction for future supranational programmes.

[also read: Is the European Union a republic?]

Given the nature of European integration as well as the actuality of its day-to-day politics, it is an analytical error to evaluate the EU without reference to the national interests at play. It also is pointless to expect supranational policymakers—”Brussels”—as such to fundamentally contradict the collective will of the Member States, due to the fact that these too form part of the EU’s institutional framework: the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the governing council of the European Central Bank, as well as a segment of Members of the European Parliament are almost inseparably attached to—or heavily influenced by—national politics.

Solutions require national governments

Given the specifics of the EU, any alteration to the status quo will come from—or together with—the concerted efforts of the Member States. Whether we are considering economic governance, police cooperation, defence, constitutional affairs, or external border management, we are dealing with topics that typically stand at the intersection of the national and supranational levels. If most national governments find it contrary to their interests to proceed with a given set of reforms then, quite simply, these will not happen.

For any narrative for change to gain momentum and eventually be realised under the prevailing circumstances, consensus needs to be built across European capitals. Initiatives of this sort have to be guided by the kind of constructive and cooperative spirit that is capable of finding solutions within the given constraints, while accounting for the valid concerns of the parties involved. The case of the Syriza-led Greek government during the first half of 2015 stands as a reminder that antagonistic and largely wishful stratagems from any one government are bound to fail. The EU can remain robust to such schemes, while the majority of national governments will tend to prefer the relative stability and predictability of the gradualist approach to European integration over any ill-defined impetus for radical reform.

The implication is that those governments that are most affected by the various crises or aspects thereof need to coordinate their efforts in drawing up realistic plans that could influence the European debate toward the direction of improving or expanding the scope of existing policy instruments, as well as complementing them with new ones, if necessary.

Take economic governance as a case in point: it is clear that the ideal of a “typical” federal model will not be approximated within the coming decade or so, since EU policy initiatives are already leading up to a much more complex legal-institutional arrangement that decisively blurs the dividing line between the Member State and EU levels. Against this backdrop, it is more likely that a European Finance Ministry or a Euro-area-specific Parliament of sorts will be instituted than, say, the establishment of an outright federal government with full powers over macroeconomic policy, including the issuance of common debt instruments (eurobonds) and the introduction of federal taxation.

On other issues such as controlling the external borders of the Union, those states that are directly involved will come to terms with the practical reason that sovereignty on this front needs to be pooled at—or at least shared to a higher degree with—the European stratum if an effective programme for the fair distribution of the burdens of adjustment is to be formulated.

The crises reveal future prospects

It is rather easy to get carried away by the zeitgeist of negativity and pessimism surrounding the European Union. While there are solid grounds for maintaining a sceptical stance toward the EU’s capacity to overcome the challenges it is confronted with, one also needs to factor in the potential losses resulting from the abolition of the European acquis. Notwithstanding the normative gains of a Europe-wide political organisation, a holistic cost-benefit calculation is more likely to alter one’s outlook in favour of a grounded expectation in the collective willingness of policymakers at the national and supranational levels to at least do the minimum necessary for guaranteeing the preservation of the Union.

Apart from one’s perspective, it is the case that the EU has a number of tools at its disposal for dealing with the crises. While these may well be insufficient, their very presence suggests that there already exists a default course of action: that of marginally modifying existing instruments to suit present needs, all while incrementally laying the foundations for the entry into force of new, and perhaps better, ones. Besides, this approach remains true to the legacy of European integration, more specifically to gradualism, and is consistent with the general sentiment on how to best pursue common European objectives, namely, through the inter-state alignment of interests.

If the crises are a kind of pressure on political leaders to reorder their priorities, then it may well be the case that supranational legislative acts over the short-to-medium term will focus on the areas of policy where these crises unfold. This has already been mostly true for the euro, where a thoroughgoing reform of the Economic and Monetary Union is underway. There is no good reason why the same or similar cannot apply to everything else, given the necessity and expected realisability of the logical steps forward, and especially once it becomes readily apparent that the margin for continued indecision verges dangerously on impending calamity.