Why the Confederation can’t solve the Union’s problems Benjamin Zeeb is the CEO of the Project for Democratic Union, and Julia Berghofer is an author at the PDU Europe finds itself in the middle of its deepest crisis since the end of the Second World War. We hear this sentence (or similar) quite often in these days. Amongst eurosceptics this causes enthusiasm: the European building finally begins to tremble. They regard the collapse of the EU as the desirable and inevitable end of a misguided European project. On the other side, within the pro-European educated elite the concerns are swept aside as alarmism, as part of another crisis discourse the European integration process has already passed through many in the past 50 years. The problem is, however, that the sentence is true. The current crisis is different from others. It is not a result of political rhetoric nor primary a discursive phenomenon. The tanks are rolling in Ukraine regardless of whether we talk about them or not; the despair of the unemployed youth in Spain and Greece is real and not only a statistical fact, not just an argument used in the academic debate about the smooth functioning of monetary unions. What is even more serious is the fact that we are not talking about one single crisis but about multiple crises. This is what makes the current situation particularly critical and dangerous. The crises manifest themselves on a number of fronts. A Greek debt haircut has been postponed until 2018, leaving Greece to suffer for another two years, while no real solution to the eurozone’s economic and structural woes is in sight. Vladimir Putin recently ended up his winter military campaign in Syria and is now going on with provocative aerial manoeuvers over the Baltic Sea. A second wave of immigration from failing states like Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria has just begun to unfold since weather is getting warmer again, and it already claimed many victims in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, there is the British referendum over a possible Brexit that will bother us in the next few months. The already little amount of political leadership in Europe exercised by Angela Merkel is slowly vanishing in the light of the first substantial government crisis she has to deal with during her term. The relapse into national ways of thinking and acting has already become apparent. For instance, the Netherlands overtook the EU Council Presidency for the fourth time at the beginning of the year. The prior presidencies have usually been regarded as a political success for the Dutch. They have proven their skills in 1991, 1997 and 2004. In 1991 and 1997 the Netherlands was in charge of crucial treaty negotiations, resulting in the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam. In 2004, the Dutch succeeded in opening negotiations with Turkey. This time, only few people in the Netherlands know that their country has overtaken this rather delicate task by January 2016 because national topics prevail. Thus, the April referendum in which the Dutch rejected the trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, was the priority on the agenda, not a pan-European strategy to deal with the refugee influx. At the same time, Poland established a right-wing and anti-European government, which may represent some kind of punishment of former prime minister and EU council president Donald Tusk’s rather Europe-friendly politics within the prior legislative period. The same Donald Tusk recently stated that “one European nation, this was an illusion”. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) recently won the first round of the presidential elections, with the establishment candidate only barely carrying the final vote. In 1999, the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria when the same FPÖ entered the government. Today, no one in Brussels considers freezing bilateral relations with Hungary because of Victor Orbán or with Poland because of Beata Szydło. Although the 1999 sanctions have unleashed violent arguments among supporters and opponents, the EU was still able and willing to react to the Austrian far-right wing takeover. Now member states have to deal with the right wing problem on their own. And despite of the EU-Turkey deal, some nations are unilaterally destroying the Schengen area by building up fences to protect themselves from uncontrolled refugee influx. Member states are letting each other down and the relapse into national thinking patterns is evident. Nevertheless, the pro-European part of the debate is rather willing to simply wait until the storm is over than to accept that the dominance of national perspectives puts the whole integration process at risk. The European problems cannot be solved by a confederation of states where there is no consensus about to what extent Brussels or Berlin should influence national politics. This has become obvious at latest with the unsteady maneuvering between border openings and closings. In that sense, there are clear signs that Europe could fall back into old patterns, that is the state of nationalism, within a short period of time, and hence maintain a mere selective cooperation with fellow European states in a loose confederation. While eurosceptics would be happy with this scenario, the advocates of an ‘ever closer union’ do not take it seriously. Yet, the erosion of the European integration project and the new rise of the nation-state is a possible alternative that looms very large now. But still the pro-Europeans treat the current crises as if it was just a setback for an otherwise intact integration process and not as an urgent problem that calls for substantial solution – a solution which presupposes a strong European government. In accordance to this logic that falls short of reality, the refugee crisis is mainly a problem because it undermines the Schengen principle and the social deficits in Southern Europe are critical because they challenge the functionality of the euro. European experts draw absurd comparisons by equating the French and Dutch “non!” in the referendums on a European constitution in 2005 with the euro and the refugee crises. It is then nothing but another stumbling block on the way to a political union that will eventually come about. However, will the political union ‘happen’ automatically? By no means. Pro-EU voices prefer to maintain the approach of slow integration although this no longer works. On the other hand, experts regularly emphasize that there is ‘no majority at the moment’ for implementing substantial reforms that would be necessary for Europe to get back to its former scope of action and to deal with its various problems. It sounds like Brussels and Berlin are only waiting for the tide to turn. They believe that once the storm is over and the fat years are back, they could discreetly return to the mode of slow integration. But the path of a slow and continuous process leading to an ‘ever closer union’, the European integration followed for decades has come to its logical end, especially in those two sectors that affect the core of national sovereignty at most: fiscal and foreign policy. Regarding the former, the European member states gave up their national sovereignty to take autonomous decisions once they have joined the common currency. Yet, they did not delegate this decision-making power to a higher institution. It has simply diffused, somewhere between the capitals and the European bureaucracy with the latter not having any legitimacy nor resources to intervene effectively. Hence any political action degenerates into a symbolic act and has to celebrate every unproductive compromise as success as long as it only delays the bitter end of the story. The remaining two institutions that are still working halfway effectively, the ECB and Wolfgang Schäuble’s Eurogroup, obviously lack legitimation. Thus, to produce a minimum consensus they have to operate behind closed doors. Transparency becomes impossible and detrimental in terms of reliable negotiation results. Europe faces a binary decision: zero or one. A full democratic union or the return to the nation-state, without Schengen and without the euro, eventually also without Brussels. There is no doubt about the fact that Europe in its present shape cannot deal with the crises. There are far too many national formulas for mitigating pan-European problems to produce effective outcomes. It is also an illusion that these problems simply disappear in the medium-term or will be solved somehow or other in the near future. State unions do not evolve through an evolutionary process; instead they are the result of a ‘big bang’. They are triggered by events not processes. Even in Germany the 1933/34 tariff union did not automatically cumulate in national unification within the subsequent six decades, but it was the result of a series of relentless wars Bismarck fought against neighbouring countries. The current strategy for political integration in Europe on the other hand is a long-term engagement that does not finally lead to marriage; instead it will all end in tears. Yet this insight has found few supporters and even though many experts know that the EU’s most obvious construction faults prevent us from solving our problems they do not give up the ancient narrative of slow progress. We have been worrying about the EU’s democratic deficit throughout many years but little has been done to overcome these weaknesses. Originally used for describing the lack of parliamentary representation, this term has broadened to a range of issues related with the inner shape of the EU. After the failed referendums in the Netherlands and French over a European constitution, European politics was waiting for an opportune moment to move on with a constructive integration process that will help to overcome Europe’s architectural deficits. Today, even politicians like Joschka Fischer who usually look at the European crisis with the necessary foresight are becoming more cautious. During a panel discussion in Berlin, Fischer spoke about “seemingly safe points of retreat”. He believes that there are some minimum positions the pro-Europeans have to defend against the threatening waves of new nationalisms: Schengen, freedom of movement, the euro. But there will not be a minimum consensus for Europe nor an ‘opportune moment’. The European Union needs substantial reforms to turn its struggling façade into a stable building. The way to implement these institutional changes requires a pan-European solution and legitimation. Either we establish a government of the eurozone endowed with full scope of action and legitimised by European elections, or we watch how it gets rid of itself. Until we find the political will to starts reforms, each and every national election will be a potential catastrophe. Disintegrative powers may prevail only once to destroy everything we built up during decades. In this situation, (national) democracy could be a systemic risk; and waiting will only worsen the situation. We must now launch an offensive and take advantage of the crisis. One substantial requirement is to take the return to the nation-state as an alternative to a malfunctioning EU seriously. Europe already existed in this shape in the past and it is absolutely possible that it returns to a similar arrangement in the future. The example of the Holy Roman Empire proves that there is no automatism, no invisible force that keeps the continent united in the end. We need to avoid the ‘national solution’ although it is at least more conceivable than the continued existence of the EU in its present form. Even relatively large members of the union would dwarf on the international level. The increase in sovereignty will only be formal and it will not contribute to a broader political participation of the European citizens, because it will be difficult to enforce their national interests against powerful rivals like Russia, China, but also against the Atlantic partners in times when the EU is about to break apart. So, if the status quo is untenable and the sole alternative is undesirable, the decision is easy: we as Europeans have to build up a political union that is able to defend our common interests by means of democratically legitimised institutions.
Europeans have to build up a political union that is able to defend our common interests by means of democratically legitimised institutions