Europe Without the European Union — Is It Conceivable?

15. 3. 2017

More than 500 million Europeans are sitting today on the EU “powder keg,” which could explode after the elections to the European Parliament in late spring

1. Is This the End?

It all started to go wrong after the end of the European Convention (2002–2003), which prepared the Draft Treaty establishing the Constitution for Europe. Governments of the member states first wrangled over the content of the new treaty (for example, Poland and Spain blocked its adoption campaigning under the slogan “Nice or death”), only to reject its ratification after the lost referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. The following years were by no means more promising. The Lisbon Treaty was seriously threatened. It was saved by a new referendum in Ireland and the verdict of the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany, not to mention the great political battle around its ratification in Poland. The same period saw the beginning of the financial crisis, brought about by perturbations in the structurally deficient Economic and Monetary Union. These perturbations resulted from excessive public debt of the member states, primarily the eurozone, and from irresponsibility of private and public financial institutions.

All these dysfunctions and crises reinforced each other, precipitating further problems. As a result, more than 500 million Europeans are sitting today on the EU “powder keg,” which could explode after the elections to the European Parliament in late spring of this year. It is quite possible that this election will be fought in an atmosphere of Euroskepticism and populism putting into question many elements of the integration project. This scenario seems increasingly likely after what we have heard in recent weeks in the UK, Netherlands, Greece, Finland and France, and even Germany (not just in Bavaria), where no pomp and circumstance greets the Romanians and Bulgarians who have been waiting for access to the EU labor market for seven years. Consequently, the European Parliament may become politically fragmented and significantly weakened, the entire European Union following in its trail.

The atmosphere of selfishness, particularism and protectionism, and consequently uncertainty and chaos, can lead to the delegitimization of the European integration system, caused by variously motivated, partial or complete withdrawal of support of member states and their societies for the EU and its institutions. Should such a situation occur, it may soon turn out that the Union is not coping with satisfying the needs of societies and solving problems and conflicts arising in the practice of integration. Increasingly common is the belief that what Europe does is incompatible with the fundamental expectations of citizens. We all remember that the EU is over-regulated and overloaded, and thus ineffective. Many will notice the lack of a real European political leadership and persons of authority, whom the Europeans could trust. Many will burst out in a cry of protest and indignation resulting from the difficult economic situation of the member states, especially in the labor market for young people. The guilty party on all counts will be the European Union, not the states, nations and societies, which still find scapegoating Brussels very useful.

This means the end of the neo-functional utopia based on the principle of “permissive consensus,” assuming a constant tolerance and approval of citizens of member states for actions and consequences arising from the European integration. This will be supplemented by a “strategic deficit” of the political debate exploring the methods for combating the crisis and legitimizing impulses, so much needed by the European Union—a deficit which is part of the phenomenon called the “crisis of methods of overcoming the crisis.”

The first effect of the collapse of EU integration may be a process of major re-nationalization of governance and powers hitherto ceded by member states to the Union and its institutions. This process may start with a weakening or even breakdown of the internal market and dismantling the Schengen system of free movement, now based on the principle of equal treatment of all EU citizens irrespective of their place of residence. Other potential areas of re-nationalization are the Common Agricultural Policy, the rules of competition, cohesion policy and the methods of acquisition and distribution of the resources in the Multiannual Financial Framework. Union-wide protectionism will be replaced by classic national protectionism. States and national economies will focus their activities on the logic of “escaping to your own turf,” trying to find specific solutions for each economy separately. A prelude to this is the current situation observed during meetings of COREPER and the Council of Europe, as well as of working groups and committees, where delegations of member states are fighting, without any inhibitions and more ruthlessly than ever, to protect their national interests.

Another effect of the integration crises and the permanent weakening of the European Union will be a new positioning of member states, growing importance of the classic intergovernmental method, dominance of informal, secret and confidential decision-making, and hence curtailing the powers of the existing official EU bodies. A symbol of this approach will be a gradual departure from the method of J. Monnet, leading to a fundamental change in the existing “decision axiology” of European integration, and that in turn will lead to a dismantling of the European Union system.

The European Union will be increasingly dependent on member states and their intergovernmental bargaining and interests, more and more eagerly applying for unilateral exemptions from the application of EU law in selected areas (derogations). The EU will turn into a flexible body dominated by changing geometry, concentric circles, variable speeds, a body based on the model of “many unions within the union” and the division into the center and the peripheries of integration.

Although the current situation is not so bad, it seems that achieving the critical mass by the European Union is not so distant and impossible. If the next elections to the European Parliament and the new team in the EU institutions will not produce change and infuse a new spirit in the weary Europe, the situation may become very complicated. Internal fragmentation, no potential for agreement and cooperation between the participants of integration and inefficient technocratic structures may not only stop but also reverse the process of European integration. The European Union may become an impotent, regional “UN”, subject to a process of destabilization. A disguised, creeping disintegration will rule the day, and the EU will fall into a rut and lose importance as a major economic and political organization, both domestically and internationally. Should this come about, in a Europe without a strong European Union supranational institutions (Commission, Parliament, Tribunal) will not be able—and the German- French tandem will no longer be willing—to play a role of a direct regulator and intervener in solving the many problems of integration. Germany is getting used to its reluctant hegemony in Europe. Net contributors will shut their bank vaults for checks issued by the European Union and the net beneficiaries (including Poland). Permanent violation of integration standards, contained in both acquis communautaire and acquis politique, will become common. The situation will be made even worse by the impact of the international environment, especially the newly imperializing Russia and difficult relations with the U.S. after the phone-tapping scandals. China and India will be watching all this with interest.

Solidarity and equality will lose against the monopoly and domination of the stronger. New (“post-EU”) geopolitical constellations, links and alliances will emerge, giving European countries an opportunity to improve their position in the new system of European integration relations. One example could be the already constructed alliance headed by Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. France wants to bring together a Mediterranean coalition. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, together with Bulgaria and Romania, will recall their friendship with Russia, which in the case of Hungary and its nuclear power program has just happened (the atomic agreement between Putin and Orbán from 14 January 2014). In an atmosphere of mutual distrust and isolation, especially in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, the Polish eastern border may become a new Iron Curtain…

In view of the systemic crisis and challenges probably nobody will remain indifferent, just as nobody was indifferent in the period from 2007 to 2013. Once again new forums, conventicles, debates, meetings and conferences will be convened. Once again someone will shout that we need the Union as a federation, a political Union and a Union without states. Someone else will appeal for dissolving and chasing away the European Union, reminding us about independence and sovereignty of nation states. But who will want to listen to these over-familiar tunes? The seventy percent of EU citizens who will not vote in the elections to the European Parliament? It does not sound good, but this worst-case scenario should be taken into account not in order to scare people, but to make them aware what awaits us if we allow it to happen. We, not politicians or officials, whether on the national or EU level, but we, the citizens of the European Union!

2. What to Do to Avoid the Black Scenario? How to Restore the People’s Trust in the European Union?

The answer to what can happen is by no means a slogan such as “more Europe” or “less Europe,” and especially “no Europe.” We should rather embark on a search for “another Europe.” In this different Europe member states and the European Union with its institutions could decide to make a full inventory of its assets (including the ones which are “used up”), and then launch a comprehensive internal clean-up, ordering, consolidation, remastering and improving its operation. The process of accounting, control and change, as well as prevention (prophylaxis) through “integration of integration,” would be based on a minimization and a few steps back, rather than thrusting forward and maximization of institutions, mechanisms and instruments implemented. All in accordance with the rule that consolidation and synthesis is not the same as centralizing and hasty unification.

Maintaining the current status quo is no longer possible. Too much has happened, too large public, private, national and European interests have been shaken or even overturned for “business as usual” to prevail. Therefore we should not exclude a strategy of“another Europe” based on stopping or even withdrawing from the current plans and intentions of the member states. A necessary condition of that would be a thorough internal and external audit (based on the criterion of quality, not quantity) of all institutions, bodies, mechanisms and regulations in the EU. You can do this without having to change the treaties.

Today the European Union is an imbalanced Union, a Union of excess, expansion, extension, exaggeration and hyper-complexity. Therefore it is high time to adopt a strategy of change based on the word “enough.” So the call for “another Europe” can only mean more work and activity, as well as team spirit (smooth cooperation between people understanding each other well) in cleaning the Union up.

Marcel Proust was right when he said that a true journey of discovery does not consist in seeking ever new landscapes but in taking a fresh look at the old ones. It is the same today with European integration. The main actors of integration, above all the states and EU institutions, should recognize that the overriding principle still is an evolutionary working together of two parallel processes: unification and harmonization, supplemented with the introduction of a new conjunctive strategy of connecting people and connecting policy mix into the EU system; a strategy founded on inclusiveness and combining policies and spheres of integration based on successful achievement of goals.

It is not true that the European Union cannot be wisely arranged and human mistrust combated. There is no need for a new revolution, self-dissolution or starting from scratch. The foundations are good will, working together and patience. The position outlined above offers an optimistic forecasting model, based on such principles as:

  • simplification of the legal, institutional and decision-making system;
  • qualitative rather than quantitative efficiency;
  • new forms of European leadership (for example, giving the floor to the generation born after 1980);
  • greater personalization of integration measures, meaning personal responsibility of specific people for the actions of the EU; strengthening the system of seeking compromise, based on common preferences and interests; a new political, economic and territorial cohesion;
  • focus on the establishment of strong European media;
  • openness to unconventional initiatives and activities.

In view of the above we should assume that as a consequence of the current—entirely unnecessary— intense anti-crisis institutionalization, mechanization and instrumentalization of integration and of the European Union (based on the method of trial and error) all the old and new changes (reforms) will have to be gathered together (summed up) and verified. Critical evaluation will be aimed at eliminating misguided or ineffective solutions. Only when this becomes possible, we may consider an attempt to develop a new treaty (for example in the form of a “pact for renewal”).

Pluralism, that is a multi-space (multi-level) character of European integration, must remain the foundation for a new “European Pact/social contract,” no longer combining only supranational, international and intergovernmental elements, but also national ones (for example through full incorporation of national parliaments). A permanent merging of these elements must have a synergistic rather than fragmenting nature and must be based on interweaving of methods, rules, mechanisms and institutions.

The Future Union (“the same, but different one”) should be equipped with real mechanisms of short-term and long-term interventions, aimed at avoiding such major significant political, social and macro-economic imbalances between member states, as well as at increasing the trust of EU citizens by restoring a sense that all Europeans have a say in matters affecting them and that European integration is both successful and cost-effective.

3. A Brief Summary

A new or renewed European integration doctrine must be based on a simple message regarding the benefits of integration, but also the possible effects of inaction. The European Union is under obligation to continuously and endlessly remind people that integration is a process that benefits all parties. It must be politically advantageous for each country and EU institution to be involved in building ever-closer ties between the countries and peoples of Europe.

The European Union must remind itself that it was established in order to serve peace, to work for bridging the development/civilization gap between European countries, to modernize Europe economically and socially, and to meet the challenges posed by the world it is competing with.

When shaping a new agenda for the European Union, we must constantly underline the fact that the huge effort of integration made by all its participants cannot be wasted as a result of crises. We know perfectly well that incorporation of the Union in the international (global) system of management and distribution of goods, services and capital was not and is not an easy process. It required and still requires all parties to overcome many conflicting and seemingly conflicting interests.

The above proposal for change, should it find public support, demands calm and determination. Today, in the complex situation of the election campaign for the European Parliament, when everyone sheds responsibility for European and national problems on others rather than seeking their origins in their own backyard, not a lot can be fixed. So all the indications are that a tough time of tensions and conflicts awaits us.

But an analyst and researcher cannot rule out the possibility that the composition of the European Parliament elected this year, controlled by those “thinking differently,” will surprise everyone and bring the model of “another Europe” much closer to reality than the previous Euroenthusiastic one, with permanent factions and incapable of moving things forward. Maybe the new Parliament, ridden by internal divisions, and consequently the European Commission elected by it, seeing that it is cornered and does not have much to lose, will snap into radical action that will allow European princess to wake up from her slumber and see that it is no longer so beautiful around her.

Infallibility of the existing “powers-that-be” in the EU—European politicians, economists (mainly bankers and financiers) and EU officials—will then cease to be a dogma. Many times, also in Poland, we have seen that they always know more and better than we do. Perhaps it will mean the end of discussions about straightening bananas, classifying carrots as fruit, the power of light bulbs, energy efficiency of buildings, smoked meats, cigarettes, medication, seed material, protection of birdies and butterflies, the respective merits of close coupled and pipe-connected toilet cisterns, the amount of CO2 in the air, VAT on e-books and finally improving the gender ratio among non-executive directors of listed companies. And let us remind everyone that the European Communities and the European Union were created mainly to enhance the mobility of people, capital, services and goods, and not in order to arrange the life of people in a new way—the European way.

Zbigniew Czachór

Associate Professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, lecturer at the National School of Public Administration, permanent advisor to the European Union Affairs Committee of the Sejm

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.