Debate: Beware, the European Union can dis-integrate

Signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Wikipedia

For a long time, scholars of European political integration were almost unanimous in their belief that this process could not be reversed. For decades, there was hardly any reason to think otherwise. More and more countries joined the EU. New treaties expanded the scope of the EU’s competences into numerous new issue-areas. Its agencies grew gradually more powerful compared to those of member states.

Some even argued that crises, when they occurred, prompted closer integration, according to the EU founder Jean Monnet’s adage that Europe would be “forged in crises” and be the sum of the solutions adopted to manage them.

However, the quadruple crisis (Eurozone, Ukraine, refugees, Brexit) that has tormented the EU during the last decade is deeper than any of its forerunners – by its duration, its multidimensionality, by the magnitude of the stakes involved and by the mass politicisation of European integration it has provoked.

Faced with this uniquely severe crisis, the EU has not proved as resilient as in the past. True, the Eurozone has emerged politically more integrated from its crisis, and the pre-existing level of integration in foreign and security policy also survived the Ukraine crisis. In the refugee crisis, however, the EU has suffered some – limited – political disintegration, with various member states defying EU decisions and ECJ rulings concerning refugee reallocation or Commission appeals that they should dismantle re-installed border controls.

Above all, for the first time an EU member state is on the verge of seceding, and not just any. The United Kingdom is the EU’s third most populous member, second-biggest economy, a net contributor to the budget and one of only two members with a significant military capacity, its own nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The (as yet provisional) outcome of the quadruple crisis thus shows us that the EU can indeed dis-integrate politically.

Driven by elites, not markets

The confidence of most scholars that European political integration cannot be reversed is rooted primarily in the conviction that this process is fuelled – in a fundamentally market-driven process – by growing levels of socio-economic interdependence between member states.

This belief is erroneous, however. European political integration is much less a response to market pressures than it is a project driven by political elites motivated mainly by long-term geopolitical considerations concerning European security and peace.

Two other factors explain why Europe has integrated politically far more closely than any other region or continent.

  • Post-World War II (Western) Europe has been dominated politically by internationalist, “pro-European” political forces of the moderate Right, the Centre and the moderate Left (Christian and Social Democrats and Liberals). The EU was built on this political bedrock.

  • Political integration and responses to crises have been forged largely by uniquely close and intensive Franco-German cooperation – for which there is no equivalent elsewhere. The Franco-German “tandem” served as the functional equivalent of a hegemonic power that the international political economist Charles Kindleberger once argued was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of a maintenance of a stable international system.

A hegemonic power in Kindleberger’s conception exercises a predominant influence over how systems respond to crises, assumes a disproportionate share of the cost of crisis policies and mobilizes support for them among other members.

Nationalism and the risk of deadlock

Neither of the two fundamentally political factors that buttressed European integration is present today to the same extent as in the past. The Eurozone and refugee crises gave an enormous boost to “anti-European” movements that have won political office in several member states and look likely to win an unprecedentedly large proportion of seats in the European Parliamentary elections next month.

In a political system that operates largely on the basis of consensus, growing national-populist representation in the EU’s decision-making organs portends a growing threat of political deadlock.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron (left) with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel during an European Summit aimed at discussing the Brexit deal, the long-term budget and the single market on December 13, 2018 in Brussels. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

Meanwhile, during the last decade the Franco-German alliance at the EU’s heart weakened. Since the EU’s inception, when France was “number one” among the member states, the balance of power between Paris and Bonn/Berlin has been reversed. Economic weakness and domestic political polarization over EU issues reduced French influence during the quadruple crisis, leaving Germany to play the role of a hegemon increasingly alone.

As argued in my new book, European Disintegration? The Politics of Crisis in the European Union (Red Globe Press, 2019), the extent to which the EU has dis-integrated during the quadruple crisis has been largely determined by the extent to which Germany played the role of a stabilizing hegemonic power.

As Germany goes…

In the Ukraine crisis, in which Germany played this role fully, no political disintegration occurred. In the refugee crisis, in which it played this role only to a limited extent, some political disintegration took place. In the Brexit crisis, in which it did not play this role at all, the most striking case of disintegration occurred.

The case of Eurozone is anomalous in as far as it survived its crisis despite the German government insisting on a highly asymmetrical distribution of crisis costs. But this is because there was a powerful supranational agency, the European Central Bank, which had the powers to substitute for a hegemonic member state and in 2012 played a decisive role in saving the Eurozone from collapse.

Germany’s uneven and mixed record in managing the EU’s quadruple crisis suggests that it is unable or unwilling to play the role of Europe’s hegemonic power, at least not sufficiently to preclude political dis-integration.

It is unable because it is not big enough relative to other member states to assume a big enough proportion of the costs to resolve crises durably. It is increasingly unwilling in the sense that, competing for voter support, political parties do not want Germany to assume these costs for fear of a domestic political backlash. This fear has of course been accentuated by the breakthrough of a Eurosceptic party, the AfD, in the 2017 federal elections.

If, as history and comparative analysis suggest, stabilizing hegemonic leadership is critical to keeping European political integration on the rails, it remains difficult to see how or by whom this can be provided other than by the usual – French and German – suspects.

The 2017 elections in both countries created a window of opportunity for a renaissance of the Franco-German tandem. France chose its most fervently pro-European president since the creation of the Fifth Republic, while in Berlin, of all feasible political constellations, the resurrection of the Grand Coalition probably represented the one most conducive to forging closer political integration.

Looking forward

Two years on, it looks doubtful whether this window will be exploited. The Berlin coalition’s reaction to President Macron’s proposals for closer European integration has been lukewarm at best. None of its constituent parties sees any domestic political benefits in championing this kind of agenda.

Red Globe Press, 2019

In France, with the explosive rise of the “gilet jaune” movement, Macron’s economic reform agenda and authority are highly contested, raising the question of whether he can revive France’s economic fortunes – which he must for France to regain a role comparable to Germany’s in the EU – or win the next presidential election in 2022.

Absent strong Franco-German leadership, new crises – which are bound to occur – will likely bring about more disintegration than the quadruple crisis during the last decade.

However, after Brexit, no other member state is likely to try to leave the EU in the way that the UK has done. Rather, as member states prove unable to agree how to manage future crises, they will pursue unilateral policies by default and comply less and less with EU rules and regulations when they have been agreed. In this scenario, the EU would not collapse dramatically in a “big bang”, but rather – slowly, even invisibly – wither and die by a thousand cuts.