For most students of European politics the EU is a symbol of integration; to them its demise implies disintegration. However, the EU performs poorly at present and it has lost the support of most of Europe’s citizens. The EU also seems unable to reform itself. Does the EU still act as an engine of European integration? Or does it generate conflicts and divergence?
European integration was supposed to get rid of power politics. Large and rich states were no longer permitted to bully small and impoverished ones. Above all, Europe was not to be ruled by Germany. Today a few “triple A” countries run Europe with Germany in the driving seat. Gone is equality among member states. New treaties are written with only some states in mind, external (arbitrary) interference in domestic affairs abounds, policies are chiefly about punishment rather than help and incentive.
European integration was also supposed to create the most competitive economy in the world. It was also supposed to make the “Stockholm consensus” prevail over the “Washington consensus,” not just in the North, but also in the East and South of Europe. The common currency and the single market were the key means for achieving these ambitious economic aims. Today the common currency is in trouble and it undermines the achievements of the single market. Even the strongest European economies fail to generate growth and Europe’s welfare systems are collapsing. The Euro was meant to help integrate Europe, but it achieved the opposite: it exacerbated the gaps and conflicts between the surplus and deficit countries, the importers and exporters, and the North and South.
European integration was more about efficiency than citizens’ participation, yet it never questioned the principles of democracy. Today some key decisions are being made by the ECB, the IMF and the German Constitutional Court with only symbolic in-put from the European Council representing democratically elected leaders. Citizens in individual states are free to elect their governments, but these governments are not free to change the course of their policies. The powers of the European Parliament have been progressively augmented, but fewer and fewer people bother to vote in European elections, and an ever-larger percentage of elected European MPs are Euro-sceptic. The strength of the EP as an institution has been achieved at the expense of its representative role.
The EU used to be an influential international actor despite its largely civilian nature. Its policy of enlargement has generated security and prosperity in post-communist Eastern Europe. EU regulatory regimes imposed extra-territorial scrutiny on numerous trading partners across the world. Today the EU no longer generates security. Russia was able to annex Crimea despite the EU’s outrage, and the EU is not prepared to offer tormented Ukraine a prospect of joining it. Europeans clash in the UN Security Council, and the European External Action Service cannot get off the ground. The EU fails to steer global trade or environmental negotiations leaving its citizens exposed to global turbulence.
Pro-European politicians talk about fundamental reforms of the EU, but can they deliver? The proposed reforms are often in conflict, and none of them seem to address the roots of the current problems. Does anybody really believe that electing the President of the European Commission will make people trust the EU? It is time to think about European integration with less or no EU. In my forthcoming book with Polity Press – “Is the EU Doomed?” – I offer such a prospect and spell out practical steps for integrating Europe in a new manner.
Jan Zielonka University of Oxford and St Antony’s College